November 29, 2023

“Naming cats is a difficult matter,” declares the opening poem Old Possum The Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot. But the possibilities are many and varied: “Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James”; “Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter”; “Munkustrap, Quaxo or Coricopat. It must have been less complicated in the Middle Ages when you could call a cat Gyb and be done with it. “A shortened form of the male name Gilbert, Gyb,” explains Kathleen Walker-Meikle v Medieval catsdates back to at least the late fourteenth century as a “popular name for individual pet cats”.

In a slightly different form, the name appears even in Shakespeare, where Falstaff is described as “melancholic as a cat gib”. Gybo’s equivalent via Chanel was Tibers or Tibert; the sixteenth-century French poet Joachim du Bellay kept a “beloved gray cat” named Belaud.

Legal texts reveal that the Irish chose “cat names that refer to the animal’s physical appearance”, such as Méone (“little meow”), Cruibne (“little paws”) and Bréone (“little flame”). Walker-Meikle also highlights Pangur Bán, a cat “immortalized in a ninth-century poem by an Irish monk”. This hymn to the parallel skills of man and cat begins as follows in Seamus Heaney’s English translation:

Pangur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, Equals, Cat and Clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine liberate meaning pent.

Frequent readers of Open Culture may recall a 12th-century Chinese poet who wrote about being domesticated by his own cats, verses we featured here a few years ago. We recently compiled a list of 1,065 medieval dog names that run the gamut from Garlic, Nosewise and Hosewife to Hornyball, Argument and Filth. You will notice that It seems that names for dogs in the Middle Ages were more amusing, if less dignified, than those given to cats. Perhaps this reflects strong, clearly centuries-old differences between the natures of the animals themselves, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. But whatever our preferences in this area, who among us couldn’t do with his own Pangur Bán?


Related Content:

List of 1065 Medieval Dog Names: Nosewise, Garlik, Havegoodday and more

Cats in medieval manuscripts and paintings

Cats in Japanese Woodcuts: How Popular Japanese Animals Became Stars in Their Popular Art

He reads TS Eliot Old Possum The Book of Practical Cats and Other Classical Poems (75 minutes, 1955)

In 1183, a Chinese poet describes being domesticated by his own cats

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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