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The First English Novel Was About Talking Cats

Literary scholars often trace the novel form back to 18th-century, although it depends on how you define "novel." A book called Beware the Cat, written by William Baldwin in 1553, appears to fill the bill.

Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.

And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?

An intriguing read, no doubt, but the story behind the book is interesting, too. Baldwin, a printer's assistant who wrote other books, sat on Beware the Cat for ten years due to the politics of Tudor royalty. Now, 500 year later, the novel is being turned into a play. Read about Beware the Cat at The Conversation. -via Strange Company


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