Mad Cats and Heavy Drinking

As some of your who follow me on twitter will know I have recently acquired a new research assistant – seen here on the right. He is a delight most of the time, but every now and then, as cats are wont to do, he likes to remind me who is boss, or let me know he is displeased about something. When he bites he tends not to be too vicious, but it can be something of a shock. This is a new world to me as someone who has never owned a cat before. In the many years of reading early modern medical texts and recipe books I have often come across cases of men and women being bitten by mad dogs, and lots of remedies for the biting of a mad dog – I even wrote a blog post about it. I was fascinated therefore when I came across a case in an English edition Barthélemy Saviard’s Observations in surgery of a case where a young shoemaker was bitten by ‘a mad Cat.’

Saviard recited in some detail what happened

A Young Man, a Shoemaker, was bit upon the Forefinger of the right Hand by a mad Cat, who came and threw herself between his Legs, after being drove out from two other Shops. The poor Lad, finding his Finger engaged between the Teeth of this Animal, called his Comrades to his Assistance, who had some Trouble in making the Cat quit her Hold.

Sadly this was not the end of the ordeal, not thinking the cat was mad, but only looking for somewhere to shelter having been abused at several neighbouring houses, the men let the stray in. Then

the wounded Person taking up his Work, felt the Cat rush upon him again, and fastened her Teeth into his left Hand, during the Time he was lifting up his Hammer to strike the Shoe he was at work upon; this Action having perhaps made the Animal fear he would strike her.

A Ward in the Hotel-Dieu, Paris, wikimedia commons

It took much more effort to remove the cat a second time, and sadly the cat was destroyed. Having been freed from his torment the young man consulted with a surgeon at the Hotel Dieu in Paris. His wounds were dressed and he appeared to be healed. All was not as it seemed though, and ‘one Evening drinking a little more than ordinary with some of his Friends’ the man found himself unwell again. He was ‘so heavy in the Morning, that he rose out of his Bed with Reluctance and could not apply himself to his Work, saying, he was very ill, and never in such a Condition before’ (one wonders if he was not hung over).

Eventually he sent for a surgeon and underwent bloodletting. But he did not improve and he began to ‘say he was mad’. As he deteriorated he refused to eat and drink, and his mouth became ‘parched and black’. After an attempt at a bathing treatment the unfortunate young man died. In his remarks upon the case Saviard compared the bite to that of a mad dog.1

Some recipe collectors also acknowledged the similarity of the conditions. An anonymously authored recipe book in the Wellcome Library includes the following recipe for ‘ye biting of a mad dog or cat’, made from garlic, London treacle, and tin.2

Wellcome Library MS7721

Whether the young shoemaker’s drinking or the cat bites were to blame for his condition, I am thankful that my cat bites have resulted in little more than slight redness and swelling.

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  1. Saviard, Barthélemy, Observations in surgery: being a collection of one hundred and twenty eight different cases. … Written originally in French, by Mr. Saviard (London, 1740), pp. 213-216.
  2. Wellcome Library MS7721

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