No. 12, August 2007

The Cats Castle Besieged and Stormed by the Rats

  Click the image to enlarge it One particular constituent reversal of the monde renversé topos, that of the cats hunted by the rats, early achieved independence as a subject in its own right, in the form of The Cats Castle Besieged and Stormed by the Rats. As a print, it was popular throughout Europe, from as early as c.1500 in Germany, 1 but the earliest known English example to survive was issued some time after c.1665, qrinted [sic] and Sould by John Overton, though it does not appear in any of Overton's published catalogues; it is preserved uniquely in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. A very closely-related version, but without any imprint, is held in the Library of Congress collection.

Without attempting a comprehensive listing, subsequent eighteenth-century versions include the 'wood royal' Cat's Castle, besieged and stormed by the Rats recorded in Marshall and Dicey's '1764' catalogue; 2 Cats castle besieged by the rats issued by John Marshall c.1790 (Bodleian); another of c.1790 by Bowles & Carver, and a version closely related to this, bearing the imprint of G (?) Ash of Fetter Lane, London (British Museum), and yet another example issued by G. Sheppard which is at the Lewis-Walpole Library, Farmington, Connecticut.

The present Overton sheet dramatically presents the feline fortress centre-stage, with flags flying from its turrets, a bell tower and a cupola with a rat being hanged from a protruding mast. In it stands Maister Tybet [sic] prince of Cat[s], who proclaims:

My command is to you all
To kill the Rats both great & smal


Downe with the Rouges [sic] defend me now or never
If they get up we are undon for ever.

However, the castle is the subject of a formidable assault by its rodent adversaries, with ladders set up against its walls, cannons on every side and advancing phalanxes of attackers, including a group approaching from the bottom left in a boat with the legend:

Fight ou [sic] brave Rats and kill our mortall foes
We’ll fight it out nor Will we feare thair blowes

while in the centre a cannon is being fired to cries of:

Kill or be kild no Quarter give
We will not have a catt to live.

To the right is the rats’ encampment with Nigro Musell prince of Ratts in his tent, where he is being told by a rodent advisor:

Your commistion [sic] is to kill and destroy
Mischevous Cats that doe your state annoy.

Above this is a gallows where a rat is hanging a cat with the legend: up you goe Mistriss puse, and another cat is having a noose put round her neck. Below are two scenes which appear inset in rectangular frames (though, in fact, only one may properly be so called—close inspection shows that it is the pole of the banner which forms the apparent lefthand margin of the scenes). These apparently inset scenes perhaps adumbrate the comic-strip presentation of later versions; the 'upper scene' shows two rats reading the letter of commission with its pendent seals, while the 'lower' one, showing a band of eight rats armed with halberds and spears held aloft, is captioned,

if wee these catcs [sic] can overcom and kill
of cheese and Bacon we shall have our fill.

This literary humour is reflected in details of the image—the rats' banners displaying cheeses and hams, while the flags flown from the cats' castle bear fish (three fish in the earliest-known German woodcut of c.1500, and also in the late seventeenth-century English version where they appear above the legend Herrings for ever, while the ensign which flutters from the stern of The Royal Rat depicts two rats either side of a large circular cheese over the motto, Cheshire Cheese for ever).

The names of the two battle-leaders on the present sheet perhaps suggest derivation from some French version (Tybert—spelled correctly in the Library of Congress impression—and Nigro Musell, perhaps Black Snout, the latter element from Old French musel, snout), and yet in an early seventeenth-century French version of La grande & merueilleuse Bataille, d’entre les Chats, & les Rats, which bears the imprint A Lyon pour Leonard Odet; au coin de rue Ferrandiere, 1610, the prince des Chatz is named Mitou, while in a later seventeenth-century version, closer in composition to the present example, issued by Pierre Bertrand in Paris and entitled Le Fort des Chatz assiege par les Ratz, he is named Raminagrobis (probably the source of the name of La Fontaine's feline hero). It is curious that it is the English sheet rather than the French one which uses the name Tibert for the cats' leader. Deriving from the name given to the cat in the medieval French beast-epic, the Roman de Renart, it was certainly familiar to the Elizabethans and lies behind Mercutio's punning reference to Tybalt as King of Cats in Romeo & Juliet (III.i.76), and Nashe's contemporary reference to Tibault...Prince of Cats in Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596). By the time of the late eighteenth-century English sheets, the protagonists are the less colourfully-named King Mew and Prince Squeak.

Though all European versions of the print bear a close generic resemblance, telltale details in the English version suggest it derives immediately (in reverse) from a Dutch model. 3

The originators of the prints have left the siege in the balance—from the images it is not possible to guess the outcome—but the lengthy verse text accompanying the Lyon version, at least, makes it clear that the cats, who are explicitly said to represent great villains [gros larrons], successfully defend the castle and the few surviving rats, representing the lesser villains [les petits] are forced to flee. The earliest known version similarly leaves the outcome of the siege undecided, but we are given some orientation as to how to read this provocative image from the couplet

disi figur get alle di an
dy iren obristen under sta[n]

This image refers to all those
who are subject to their superiors

Though even this in its ambiguity—tautology, indeed!—gets us no further, though German commentators have noted the popular peasant movements in late fifteenth-century Germany associated with such names as the Bundschuh, and a little later, Armer Konrad. At the time our present print was issued, the tragic upheaval of the English Civil War was still fresh in the memory, and it is quite possible that an earlier (lost) version—or, just possibly, the very version without imprint in the Library of Congress—had been issued in the 1630s or 1640s. But while there is some reason to believe that the rats storming the cats' castle was sometimes capable of a political interpretation, it seems that for the majority of viewers most of the time it was a purely humorous image.

The Bowles & Carter version, London, c.1790, has verse captions as follows:

As the Cats had been long the Rats' foes
The latter resolv'd to oppose

So by Land and by Sea in a throng
They scratch and they quarrel ding dong

And over their foes to prevail
Some fire and some the Walls scale

Yet how it will end we can't say
But see the fight out and you may.

King Mew his commission bestows
to murder all Rats as his foes.

Prince Squeak gives his orders with joy
All Enemy Cats to destroy.

A Squadron of rats sally out
to put all the Cats to the rout.

The Pussies when taken are banged
Drawn quarter'd beheaded & hang'd.

British Museum 1953,0411.70. Dimensions of original: 217 mm x 295 mm


For the anterior history of the motif, found in wall-painting from the twelfth century, see Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages (Stroud, 2002), p. 148. Back to context...
available at Back to context...
A sixteenth-century two-block woodcut print, of which the right-hand half only survives in an eighteeenth-century impression, reproduced in E.H. van Heurck and G.J. Boekenoogen, L’Imagerie Populaire des Pays-Bas: Belgique-Hollande (Paris, 1930), p. 29. Back to context...