19th Century

The Historian and His Cat | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.

In many ways, cats are perfect animal to be kept by any aspiring historian. As independent animals, it means that they will only bother you when they need feeding, and an occasional smattering of attention (usually the preamble to them wanting feeding). This means that the historian can get on with his or her work in relative peace.

My own cat, Robin, named after Robin Hood

Of course, sometimes cats can also be a great bother to a scholar as well. Many people will likely have seen the memes circulating about one cat whose paw prints can be seen on the pages of a fifteenth-century manuscript, and there is another circulating showing a cat who urinated on a page in a medieval book.

Note the sleeping black cat in Oldbuck’s library.

One of my favourite novels is Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), which is a story about life in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century (and here is where I boast, in a very geeky manner, that I own a first edition of this novel!)

It is my favourite because I think I share an affinity with its main character, Sir Jonathan Oldbuck. He is a crotchety middle-aged man, is a historian, and generally thinks he’s right when it comes to most historical and philological matters. He has a like-minded friend, Sir Arthur Wardour, with whom he is ever quarrelling about the meaning of a word or phrase in an ancient text. And when the pair of them get into debates about historical subjects, usually at the dinner table after some alcohol has been drunk, the exchanges become quite heated as each of them invokes the name of some contemporary historian in support of their points:

“I say the Pikar, Pihar, Piochtar, Piaghter, or Peughtar,” vociferated Oldbuck; “they spoke a Gothic dialect”—

“Genuine Celtic,” again asseverated the knight.

“Gothic! Gothic! I’ll go to death upon it!” counter-asseverated the squire.

“Why, gentlemen,” said Lovel, “I conceive that is a dispute which may be easily settled by philologists, if there are any remains of the language.”

“There is but one word,” said the Baronet, “but, in spite of Mr. Oldbuck’s pertinacity, it is decisive of the question.”

“Yes, in my favour,” said Oldbuck: “Mr. Lovel, you shall be judge—I have the learned Pinkerton on my side.”

“I, on mine, the indefatigable and erudite Chalmers.”

“Gordon comes into my opinion.”

“Sir Robert Sibbald holds mine.”

“Innes is with me!” vociferated Oldbuck.

“Riston has no doubt!” shouted the Baronet.

Academics are fond of arguing with each other on Twitter — Imagine if Oldbuck and the Baron had Twitter.

Title page to a later edition of Scott’s Antiquary

But as a collector of old books (my oldest is a Bible from 1639), when I first read The Antiquary the following passage stuck out to me; it is the scene when Mr. Lovel, the hero of the novel, first enters Oldbuck’s study:

The rest of the room was panelled, or wainscotted, with black oak, against which hung two or three portraits in armour, being characters in Scottish history, favourites of Mr. Oldbuck, and as many in tie-wigs and laced coats, staring representatives of his own ancestors. A large old-fashioned oaken table was covered with a profusion of papers, parchments, books, and nondescript trinkets and gewgaws, which seemed to have little to recommend them, besides rust and the antiquity which it indicates. In the midst of this wreck of ancient books and utensils, with a gravity equal to Marius among the ruins of Carthage, sat a large black cat, which, to a superstitious eye, might have presented the genius loci, the tutelar demon of the apartment. The floor, as well as the table and chairs, was overflowed by the same mare magnum of miscellaneous trumpery, where it would have been as impossible to find any individual article wanted, as to put it to any use when discovered (my italics).

Oldbuck’s black cat accompanies him to breakfast and even has his own chair

And Oldbuck loves his cat, and when his nephew, Captain Hector M’Intyre, arrives in town to stay, he brings his dog which greatly annoys our antiquary:

… and what good is a dog and a gun to do here, but the one to destroy all my furniture, steal from my larder, and perhaps worry the cat, and the other to shoot somebody through the head. He has had gunning and pistolling enough to serve him one while, I should think … I detest dogs.

There is of course a class dimension to this: Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre tells us that cats in the early modern period were perceived as middle-class pets. The middle classes, or bourgeoisie, in contrast, were more likely to live in towns which perhaps made the keeping of cats a necessity given the problem with rats.

Although Darnton’s study was focused upon French towns, one or two animal historians have reached similar conclusions about Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although it should be noted that many middle-class families did indeed own dogs, and that this was more about perceptions.

Dogs on the other hand were perceived of as the pets of the plebeian classes and the aristocracy. The latter group were known to hunt with dogs on their lands during the eighteenth century and it is a practice that is still practiced today by some of them. We are not told if the baronet, Sir Arthur, owns a dog but Oldbuck’s nephew, M’Intyre, certainly aspires to the life of an aristocrat, and it is evident that Oldbuck does not approve of his nephew’s somewhat loose “aristocratic” lifestyle. This is likely a result of the fact that, while in the earlier part of the eighteenth century, the middle classes were content to emulate the manners and social customs of the nobility, by the late eighteenth century a bourgeois class consciousness was being forged and the latter group were differentiating themselves from the upper classes. The former viewed themselves as more moral, more refined, more respectable than the upper classes, and according to themselves, they were the nation’s most important class in economic terms.

So were there any real life cat-owning antiquaries in the late eighteenth century who were just as argumentative as Jonathan Oldbuck? Many scholars assume that Oldbuck was based upon Scott himself, which is the interpretation that was put forward by Scott’s son-in-law, J. G. Lockhart (1794–1854). There seems to be no reason to doubt this assertion, yet when I read The Antiquary, I can’t help but feeling that there’s maybe a little bit of Joseph Ritson (1752–1803) in Oldbuck as well.

Hay, David Ramsay; Sir Walter Scott’s Cat ‘Hinse of Hinsefeldt’ in the Armoury; Abbotsford, The Home of Sir Walter Scott; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-walter-scotts-cat-hinse-of-hinsefeldt-in-the-armoury-208605

Ritson was good friends with Scott, but he could be vicious towards his rival historians in the press, and Ritson maintained what amounted to a twenty year vendetta against his fellow antiquary, Thomas Percy (1729–1811), for carrying out shoddy historical scholarship. Thus, Ritson always ensured that his works outdid Percy’s in terms of quality and accuracy, and his attitude to other historians was summed up in a little poem by Walter Scott:

As bitter as gall and as sharp as a razor,

And feeding on herbs like a Nebuchadnezzar,

His diet too acid, his temper too sour,

Little Ritson came out with his two volumes more.

Ritson’s “feeding on herbs” refers to the fact that he was a vegetarian, having been converted to such a manner of living after having read Barnard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714). He detested animal cruelty and, in addition to attacking other historians, also denounced butchers for what he saw as their barbaric killing of animals. And just like Oldbuck, Ritson also owned a cat, although because he was a bit nuts, he tried to teach him not to go after mice but to no avail.

Scott, himself a historian as well as a novelist, loved animals and owned both a cat and a dog, who, as you can see in the picture below, often accompanied him in his study. No doubt such a scene is repeated in our own day, for cats make the perfect study companions.

Walter Scott’s cat often accompanied him in his study.

2 replies »

  1. “Pangur Ban” is one of my favorite poems: “I and Pangur Bán, each of us two at his special art:
    his mind at hunting (mice), my own mind is in my special craft.
    I love to rest—better than any fame—at my booklet with diligent science:
    not envious of me is Pangur Bán: he himself loves his childish art.”

    And Robin is gorgeous. I have two handsome ink spots myself. 🙂

    • Ah I’ll pass on your good compliments to Robin 😊

      And I’ll look up Pangur Ban — didn’t know that one.

      Southey wrote a cat poem, I believe – must write about that at some point!