The English Cathedral With the 400-Year-Old Cat Door

The 400-year-old door hole in the Exeter Cathedral is as good as new for this little cat! (photo by Diane Walker, courtesy Exeter Cathedral)

There are a few rumors floating around about the invention of the handy cat door through which our beloved friends pass in and out as they please, but how far back does it go, really? Apparently for centuries, as the Exeter Cathedral in Devon county, England, is gaining attention for a 16th-century circular door hole for the resident pest control cat.

Historian and author Diane Walker told Hyperallergic that cathedral records indicated that the door in question was installed in 1376, when the space behind it was renovated and outfitted for a large astronomical clock. The clock’s mechanics were lubricated with animal fat which attracted mice down the line, and by 1598, per the records, then-Bishop of Exeter William Cotton had paid carpenters to make a hole in the door so his mouser cat could take care of the problem.

“The idea that the hole was cut to enable the bishop’s cat to catch mice in the space where the clock mechanism was located does lead to a re-think of the ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock, the mouse ran up the clock’ nursery rhyme,” Walker told Hyperallergic

“The story is normally illustrated with a picture of a mouse running up the outside of a long-case clock,” Walker continued. “But it makes much more sense that the idea of a mouse running up a clock would be associated with an ancient clock mechanism, such as that at Exeter Cathedral, where the original mechanisms included weightlines making an easy climb for a mouse attracted to the lubricating tallow.”

The best part of it all is that the cathedral actually had cats on the payroll throughout the 14th and 15th centuries — 13 pence a quarter, according to written records. It’s unclear how the cats received their wages, but the idea of a feline friend being sent off with a sack of pennies for its services is a darling vision for the mind’s eye. It’s been a while since cats have been a fixture at the cathedral, but every so often, a meowdel pays a visit to the door for a photoshoot for updated guide programming.

Cuteness aside, even Walker admits that while this is a very old cat door, it’s unlikely to have been the first. The 14th-century church of San Giorgio in Montemerano, Italy, has its own cat hole cut into a painted door that’s now preserved and on display. A 15th-century painting on panel of the Virgin Mary by an anonymous local painter who went by the nickname “Master of Montemerano” was reportedly adapted into a door at the church. A circular hole was cut into the bottom right side of the painted panel for pest control cats to keep mice from the sacristy, and thus, the painting was dubbed “Madonna della Gattaiola” (c. 1458), or “The Virgin of the Cat Flap.”

Montemerano Madonna della Gattaiola
The Master of Merano’s “Madonna della Gattaiola” (c. 1458), preserved and displayed at the Church of San Giorgio in Montemerano, Italy (photo by Matteo Vinattieri via Wikimedia Commons)

But humans have relied on cats for pest control long before the 15th century. Ancient Egyptians were known for pedestalizing cats and honoring deities with cat-like features. One would think that cat doors would have been folded into Ancient Egyptian architecture and design considering the cultural reverence for felines, but two Egyptologists confirmed with Hyperallergic that they haven’t come across any such invention in their research. Cairo-based professor, archaeologist, and archaeozoology expert Salima Ikram said that while cats were “definitely used for pest control,” the geography and climate of Northeast Africa meant that homes and buildings were more open-air so doors weren’t used often. And University of California, Los Angeles professor and architectural Egyptologist Willeke Wendrich told Hyperallergic that field researchers “hardly have any actual doors that have survived from antiquity.”

While Wendrich hasn’t come across cat doors in her research, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. “Cats were highly appreciated in Ancient Egypt and it seems to me that the concept of a cat door is not all that hard to come up with,” she said.

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