The Question of the Mummified Cat
While touring Agecroft Hall, many guests are immediately drawn to one of our more noteworthy exhibits—the mummified cat in the wall. After seeing the cat, the main question we get from guests is whether or not the cat is real—obviously the cat is a real object, but it is not a real cat. The mummified skin-like covering is a special effect added after the skeleton was purchased. The more important question is if a dead cat in the wall is historically accurate to our time period, the early modern era in England.
Dead, mummified cats bricked up in the wall have been found throughout the UK while demolishing old manor houses and other buildings. The question then becomes if these dead cats were intentionally built into the building or if the cats were accidentally walled in, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While some cats, judging by the positioning of the skeleton, were indeed accidentally built into the home, it is believed that many of the cats that have been found were intentionally placed, already dead and treated, into the home during construction. Cats have been found in the walls, floors and ceilings of buildings, in positions of protection—reared back hissing or chasing (also mummified) rats. Some have also been found in more natural positions, lying on their sides, like our mummified cat.
But why were the cats placed in the buildings? Not including accidental entombment, there are two other credible theories as to why cats were placed in the buildings. The first theory is that the cats served as foundation sacrifices, offerings to protect the house and its inhabitants from evil and witches. This theory is substantiated by where mummified cats were found enclosed in buildings. Cats have always been surrounded by superstitious beliefs and holing them up in walls and roofs was believed to repeal evil. The second theory is that the cats were “vermin scares.” The creatures that were posed chasing rats or in a hissing position are thought to have been more frightening to both living vermin and evil spiritual ‘vermin,’ scaring both away.
Cats have been found entombed in England, Ireland, Sweden and Spain. If the cats are in fact foundation sacrifices, or thought to bring good luck and scare away evil and bad omens, they are in good company. Other foundation sacrifices include concealed shoes (it was believed the imprinted foot on the soul of the shoe helped to protect the soul of the inhabitant) and coins. These objects have been found in Australia and the United States as well and England and elsewhere.
In the early modern era, superstitions abounded because there were no credible explanations for things that happened in the natural world. If entombing a mummified cat in your ceiling or concealing shoes in your wall could possibly protect you and your loved ones from disease and harm, there does not seem to be any reason not to do so. Come see our not-so-concealed mummified cat on our guided tours.
Hoggard, Brian. “Dried Cats.” Apotropaios. <www.apotropaios.co.uk/dried-cats.html> Accessed 8 May 2018.
Howard, Margaret M. “Dried Cats.” Man, vol. 51. Nov. 1951. JSTOR. 8 May 2018.
Swann, June. “Shoes Concealed in Buildings.” Costume, no. 30. 1996. Apotropaios. Web. 8 May 2018.