Old Ways

Whiskers and Wheat: The History of Cats in Rural Britain

Despite their global status as cherished pets, cats are known for their strong-willed and independent nature, retaining many traits of the wildcats from which they descend.

How, then, did these once-ferocious wild animals become an integral part of domestic life? And what part did the farm play in this evolutionary journey?



The history of cats extends far into the prehistoric era, reaching back to their initial domestication in the Near East approximately 9,000 years ago. However, it was not until the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD that domestic cats were introduced in significant numbers.

Archaeological findings from various Roman sites scattered across Britain have consistently highlighted the presence of these animals, primarily utilised for their prowess in controlling rodents. This capability was especially valued in both Roman and native settlements where grain stores represented a vital asset.

A roman mosaic of a cat catching a duck

Rodents posed a significant threat to these crucial supplies, and the introduction of cats offered a natural and effective means to safeguard them.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Romans departed but many of their cats stayed behind, establishing a lasting feline presence in Britain.

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There is some historical evidence that the Danes, during their raids on Britain, may have taken cats left behind by the Romans from Britain and other parts of Europe back to Scandinavia.

Carving of cats from Viking ship
A carving of a cat on the cart found on the Oseberg ship.

Cats were valued by the Danes primarily for their practical use in controlling rodents on ships and in their settlements, which would make it plausible that they transported these animals during their travels and raids.

Medieval Cats

In medieval times, cats held various roles within British society. Their primary function was that of pest control, a critical task in an era when the preservation of food and grain stores could mean the difference between abundance and famine.

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Cats were esteemed for their natural ability to hunt and eliminate rodents, thereby safeguarding precious agricultural and household resources from pests that could cause significant damage.

Medieval cats
A medieval marginal illustration of a cat and mouse.

Beyond their practical utility, cats in medieval Britain were also steeped in folklore and superstition. They were often seen as guardians against evil spirits or as omens of good or ill fortune. This dual perception infused them with a special kind of reverence and fear, making them regular subjects in the stories and myths that circulated during the period.


Despite their revered status, cats could also be viewed with suspicion and ambivalence. Their nocturnal habits and elusive nature led to associations with witchcraft and the supernatural.

In some communities, cats were thought to be familiars of witches, believed to aid in their supposed dark arts or even serve as their spies and companions. This link to witchcraft sometimes placed cats in peril, especially during the height of witch trials and persecutions.

English witches and their familiars.

However, in everyday life, the presence of cats was largely beneficial, and they were commonly found in homes, monasteries, and particularly on farms, where their skills were invaluable.

Their role in controlling the mouse and rat populations not only protected the food supply but also helped in preventing the spread of disease, which was not yet understood but was devastating when outbreaks occurred.

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Cats’ abilities made them indispensable to medieval life, and despite the superstitions, they were often cared for and valued by those who benefited from their presence.

Their depiction in art and literature of the time frequently shows a fondness and respect for these creatures, indicating a recognition of their importance and a sentimental attachment not unlike what many feel for cats today.

Cats of The Monasteries

Medieval monasteries, often large and self-contained, required diligent management of resources, including the protection of their stores from pests.

Cats, therefore, were invaluable in these religious houses for their natural ability to control the population of mice and rats, which could otherwise wreak havoc on the monastery’s food supplies and valuable manuscripts.

Medieval cats
Another medieval marginal illustration of a cat and mouse.

The importance of cats in monasteries was twofold. Firstly, their presence ensured the preservation of the monastic libraries.

Medieval manuscripts were valuable not only spiritually and culturally but also materially, as the vellum on which they were written was particularly prone to damage by rodents. Cats served as the primary defense against such threats, helping to safeguard the intellectual and spiritual investments of the community.

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Secondly, cats contributed to the health of the monastery. By controlling rodents, they helped prevent the spread of disease, which was a constant threat given the limited medical understanding and treatments available at the time. The reduction of the rodent population indirectly reduced the risk of diseases, which rodents could carry and transmit to the human population.

Medieval cats
A cat politely removing a rodent

Presence of Cats

Moreover, the presence of cats in monasteries is well documented in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, where monks would often draw playful and affectionate depictions of cats. These drawings not only highlight the monks’ fondness for their feline companions but also suggest a recognition of their importance to monastic life.

Some manuscripts even include humorous complaints penned by monks about inkpots tipped over by cats’ tails or pages scratched by their claws, revealing a day-to-day interaction that was at times endearing and at other times frustrating.

St John’s College Library, MS. 61 (England (York), 13th century)

In addition to their practical roles, cats in monasteries often featured in religious symbolism and teachings.

They were sometimes used by monks as metaphors for various human conditions and behaviours in sermons and texts. The independence and watchfulness of cats, for instance, could be paralleled with spiritual vigilance or the need for solitude in one’s pursuit of faith.

The Black Death

During the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the mid-14th century, cats played a complex and somewhat paradoxical role. The pandemic, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was transmitted primarily by fleas that were hosted by rats.

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Cats, as natural predators of rodents, could have been instrumental in reducing the rat populations and consequently the spread of the disease. However, the situation surrounding cats during this period was influenced by broader social and cultural factors that ultimately affected their impact on the course of the pandemic.

Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

In medieval Europe, particularly in the years leading up to and during the Black Death, there was a widespread belief in the supernatural, and cats were often associated with witchcraft and dark omens.

As mentioned above, this connection was especially prevalent because of their mysterious nature and nocturnal habits. As a result, cats, and particularly black cats, were frequently stigmatised as evil beings or familiars of witches. This superstition sometimes led to the persecution and killing of cats.


The reduction in the cat population came at a dire cost. With fewer cats to keep the rat numbers in check, the rat populations could thrive.

Since rats were the primary carriers of the fleas that spread the plague, this allowed for more rapid and widespread transmission of the disease. Thus, ironically, the killing of cats, driven by superstition, likely exacerbated the Black Death’s impact.

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Historical records suggest that areas which maintained higher populations of cats might have experienced somewhat less severe outbreaks, although the evidence is largely circumstantial.

The correlation between fewer instances of plague and areas where cats were more tolerated suggests that their role in controlling rat populations could have had some mitigating effect on the spread of the disease.

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It wasn’t until later, in the aftermath of the plague, that the attitudes towards cats began to change, particularly as their benefit in controlling vermin became more apparent. This shift was slow and gradual, but over the centuries, the perception of cats moved away from superstition and towards a more positive and utilitarian view, recognising their essential role in pest control and, indirectly, in disease prevention.

The Tudor Period

During the Tudor period (1485-1603), the value of cats as essential workers in rural settings was well-established and increasingly codified within the laws and customs of the time. This era, marked by agrarian dependence and flourishing trade networks, highlighted the vital role cats played in ensuring economic stability and food security.

A thatched 16th-century icehouse and granary at Ascott Park, Oxfordshire

As such, the health of stored grain and produce became a paramount concern, with any threat to these resources potentially derailing the economic underpinnings of both local and national economies.

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Recognising their indispensable role in pest control, cats during the Tudor period were not merely tolerated but actively protected and nurtured. Their presence in barns and granaries was encouraged as a preventive measure against the proliferation of rodents that could destroy vast quantities of food supplies.

In rural communities, where the margin between abundance and famine could be slender, maintaining a healthy population of cats was seen as essential to the communal well-being.

Protection of Cats

The protection of cats was often reinforced by legislation, showing their importance to the agricultural and maritime sectors. Laws and royal proclamations of the time sometimes mandated the presence of cats on ships and in granaries.

Littlehampton granary & Charlwood shed at the Weald and Downland living museum

On ships, these feline companions were crucial for protecting naval stores and ensuring that grain and other perishables reached their destinations without being compromised by vermin. The success of maritime ventures often hinged on such practical measures, with cats serving as silent sentinels guarding against unseen threats.

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In granaries, the scenario was similar. The stored grain needed protection not only from the elements and spoilage but also from rodents. Cats, therefore, were an organic solution to a potentially devastating problem.

Their natural hunting instincts were harnessed to protect the very foundation of Tudor agriculture. In this context, cats were an integral part of the agricultural infrastructure, viewed as workers whose contributions were as valuable as those of human laborers.

The Agricultural Revolution and Victorian Era

The Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century marked a momentous transformation in the rural landscape of Britain. This era introduced a series of significant changes in farming techniques, moving from manual labour and traditional methods to more mechanised and systematic approaches.

First used at the end of the 1700s and rising to prominence throughout the nineteenth century, steam engines changed the very landscape of the UK.

These changes dramatically increased the scale and productivity of agricultural operations, influencing various aspects of rural life, including the life of cats.

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As farms grew larger and their outputs increased, so too did the size and scope of their storage facilities. With these expanded granaries and enhanced storage came a greater need for effective pest control.

Cats, already established as proficient hunters, found their roles adapting to these larger, more centralized systems. They continued to be invaluable in managing the population of mice and rats, which now threatened much larger reserves of agricultural produce.

cats catching a bird
Barn cat with a bird circa late 1800s

The symbiotic relationship between cats and farmers became even more strengthened with feline prowess directly contributing to the efficiency and economic success of agricultural practices.

Cat Shows

Transitioning into the Victorian era, the role of cats underwent a more cultural transformation, particularly influenced by the prevailing sentiments of the time and Queen Victoria’s well-documented affection for animals.

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This period saw a significant shift in how cats were perceived and valued within rural and urban settings alike. No longer viewed solely as utilitarian tools for pest control, cats began to be appreciated as companions, offering emotional and aesthetic value to their human counterparts.

The Victorian era saw an increase in the anthropomorphisation of pets, where animals were increasingly seen as members of the family. Cats, with their dignified demeanour and graceful presence, fit well into this new place in the home.

Victorian woman and her cats
Because even in 1890, one cat was never enough!

They began to feature more prominently within the domestic sphere. This change was reflected in the period’s literature and art, where cats were often depicted in serene rural settings. They appeared in scenes playing with children or lounging by the hearth, symbolising comfort and homely bliss.

Fulmer Zaida, a champion show cat born in 1895 who ended up earning over 150 prizes.

Furthermore, the Victorian fascination with beauty and ornamentation saw cats being celebrated for their varied and often exotic appearances. The period also saw the beginning of cat shows, the first of which was held in London in 1871, indicating a growing interest in breeds, pedigrees, and the aesthetic qualities of cats.

20th Century to Present

The 20th century brought profound changes to rural Britain, with technological advancements reducing the reliance on cats for pest control. However, cats remained a common sight in farmhouses and rural homes, now more for their companionship than their utility.

As the century progressed, the advent of chemical pesticides and advanced farming machinery further diminished the functional necessity of cats for controlling pests.

Nowadays, the most prevalent relationship between humans and cats is domestic rather than agricultural. Nevertheless, the concept of the ‘barn cat’ remains deeply ingrained in farming life. The term ‘barn cat’ is now often applied more generally to a cat that has not been socialised and thus would find it difficult to adapt to a typical household environment.

Cats on a sofa
Cats nowadays don’t know how easy they have it!

Cat shelters frequently stipulate different conditions for the adoption of these cats, such as requiring a broad, open property for them to roam. Importantly, it is vital that owners provide food for these cats, rather than relying solely on their hunting abilities for survival.

As one might anticipate, modern alternatives to managing rodent populations exist, though each presents its own challenges. Drainage pipes can be fitted with grilles and mesh, though this solution can be costly and time-consuming to implement.

Rodenticides are another option, but they require proper training to use safely, and incorrect application can lead to prosecution. For many, the humble barn cat remains the most efficient and convenient solution.