Domesticating the devil
The early medieval contexts of Aldhelm’s cat riddle
in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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Infamous for an ambivalence that riles some and charms others, the domestic cat’s relationship with humans is now the subject of extensive zooarchaeological study. The point at which domestication took place is the subject of a debate that is complicated by the interbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The complexity of the cat’s domestication goes some way toward explaining the sparse literary and linguistic evidence for this animal in early medieval England, where they seem to have existed largely without human interference. Despite this lack, Aldhelm’s fascinating Anglo-Latin riddle, Enigma 65, Muriceps, explores the role of the mouser in vivid detail. This chapter provides a close reading of Aldhelm’s riddle, after discussing the cat’s pathway to domestication and surveying comparative evidence from early medieval sources. It argues that the semi-domesticated nature of early medieval cats shines through in Aldhelm’s poem, which employs both positive imagery of the mouser’s domestic role (faithfulness, vigilance and guardianship), and negative imagery drawn from the biblical tradition (secretiveness, snare-laying and tribal enmity). Aldhelm’s cat is both a welcome cohabiter and diabolical presence in the human household, an ambiguity that is juxtaposed with the more thoroughly domesticated dog with whom the riddle-cat refuses to cooperate.

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