Medieval cat poetry

Pangur Bán was an Irish monk’s cat in 9th century Germany; we know this cat’s name because the monk wrote a poem about him. Even though this poem was written more than a thousand years ago, Pangur Bán was not the first named cat in history.

Cat sitting on straw
Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Names are a surprising gap in the ancient and Medieval historical record. Oh sure, rulers and prominent public figures get named all the time, but almost the entire mass of humanity for thousands of years are – to us – essentially anonymous.

(Side note: Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, claims that an Uruk period tablet contains the very first name we know about: Kushim, a barley merchant. The evidence feels tenuous to me, but I’m not exactly a scholar of Sumerian.)

If the names of people are lost to history, then the names of pets are even harder to find. One of the first cats whose name we know is Pangur Bán, a mouse-hunting cat in a 9th century CE monastery on an island in a lake in what is today southern Germany. An Irish monk wrote a poem about Pangur Bán, comparing the cat’s activities with his own responsibilities as a scribe.

Just one copy of this poem exists, in a manuscript called the Reichenau Primer. The monk was probably practicing his penmanship in Latin, Greek, and Old Irish:

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.

I and White Pangur
practise each of us his special art:
his mind is set on hunting,
my mind on my special craft.

Pangur Bán

Despite the ancient provenance of this poem, the first named cat in history is probably two thousand years older than Pangur Bán. Apparently, a cat named Nedjem is mentioned on the tomb walls of an Egyptian noble named Puimre; Nedjem translates as “pleasant” or “sweet.”

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