William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat remains shrouded in mystery. The bulk of the short fiction supposedly recreates an oration given by Gregory Streamer on December 28th of the preceding year. Streamer’s fantastic tale concerns an “experiment” he performed that allowed him to hear the language of cats. Streamer’s oration, split into three by the character and “reporter” of the tale, G. B., consists of a first part that details the occasion and origin of his quest to access the language of cats while lodging at a printing-house, a second part revealing his method of constructing a “philter” to allow him to hear their language, and a third part that records what he experiences of a feline congregation assembled outside the printing-house in which he lodged.
Although typically taken as a framing game in which Baldwin provides a fictional context with specificity and detail to provide a realistic narrative frame through which to offer his fantastic fiction, the year in question remains open for debate. William Ringler, in the introduction to his modern edition, sets December 28, 1552 as the date for Streamer’s fictional oration (Baldwin xvi). The meta-fictional elements that frame Baldwin’s satire have received a lot of critical attention recently. Most critics read Baldwin’s satire as both engaging with the complexities of fiction-making and as a satire of Catholicism. The odd piece of fiction, in its blending of genres and forms leaves many interpretive possibilities and mysteries yet to be explored.
One mystery surrounding the text is when it was first published. The earliest extant edition of Beware the Cat dates from 1570, published by William Griffith in London, and only exists in fragment. A second version of Baldwin’s fiction was published in the same year by John Allde. A later edition, printed by Edward Allde, John Allde’s son, appeared in 1584. Some contend, like Trudy Ko, that enough evidence for the existence of the 1561 edition exists that the issue should be reconsidered, arguing that its existence has been largely ignored by post-Ringler critics.
The whole of Beware the Cat remains as enigmatic as the woodcut that appears on the verso of the 1570 Griffith edition’s title page.
The 1570 William Griffith (Wylliam Gryffith) edition is the only known edition that includes this woodcut. There is no indication that the possible preceding edition of 1561, the John Allde edition of 1570, or the Edward Allde edition of 1584 featured the same.
In criticism of Beware the Cat criticism, only Edward T. Bonahue, Jr notes its significance, saying,
The largest and fiercest of this beastly trio crouches at the top, menacing the viewer with sharp fangs and claws, indicating its ability (and impending willingness) to inflict pain. The second, considerably smaller and differently proportioned, scurries to the left with captured prey clenched in its teeth. The third, similarly small but more docile, heads in the opposite direction with a wry smile and the fur along its spine ruffled in excitement. While the title page invites the assumption that all three creatures are cats, these portraits are sufficiently ambiguous to allow other identifications, and the variations among them might even suggest creation by different artists. (Bonahue 283).
Bonahue’s argues how the “framing” or “caging” of these three animals reflect the way “the ‘text’ of Beware the Cat is constituted by a multeity of subordinate components, varying in size, appearance, personality, and narrative origin, but inhering within the integrated artifact of the physical book” (Bonahue 285) in its “play of textual frames.” While the woodcut does play a part in Baldwin’s elaborate framing that “mediate[s] between fictional space and the actual world, or, in terms of narratology, to provide a transitional link between two or more distinct discursive fields” (Bonahue 285-286), it also builds an intertextual bridge between Baldwin’s fictional space and other fields of discourse.
While Bonahue might be correct to argue that the three animals were the creation of three different artists and that, within the context of Griffith’s edition, they might invite “the assumption that all three are cats,” I believe I have found the source from which these images were taken. The three animals coexisting within the same border in the Griffith edition of Beware the Cat can be found separated into two different woodcuts in Laurence Andrewe’s The Noble Lyfe and Natures of Man printed in Antwerp around 1521 and reprinted around 1527. While Griffith’s cuts might be copies of images from the Doesburg originals, I believe I can prove definitively that Griffith possessed at least a partial set of copies of The Noble Lyfe woodcuts if not the originals and included them in his edition of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat.
Here are the woodcuts as found in The Noble Lyfe.
As you can see, the woodcuts from The Noble Lyfe resemble those found in Griffith’s edition of Beware the Cat. The only major difference is the absence of the original borders surrounding the originals and the construction of a new border around all three. While the three figures might remain as ambiguous in the context of Griffith’s edition as Bonahue suggests, the originals in The Noble Lyfe are supposed to be of a leopard in the first block, and an “Ermyne” at the top and a “Cirogrillus & Erinacius [that] is all one” paired in the second. I will return to the significance of the three animals later in this post.
The cuts from The Noble Lyfe certainly look similar to the ones found in Griffith’s Beware the Cat, but the three figures found there are split between two separate woodcuts in The Noble Lyfe whereas in Beware the Cat they are combined into one. There is evidence, however, that original separate borders around the cuts used to make the Beware the Cat impressions might have been removed. Look, for example, at the way the leopard’s tail and the head and the back of the ermine in Beware the Cat have flattened and straighter lines than one might expect of a new cut.
As I discussed in a previous post, The Noble Lyfe, printed by Jan van Doesburg in Antwerp for the first time around 1521, was an English translation of Der Dieren Palleys, printed by Doesburg in Antwerp the year before. Both of van Doesburg’s editions derive, in part, from the a Latin edition of the Hortus Sanitatis, and while the woodcuts from the Antwerp editions follow the cruder editions of the Hortus over more detailed editions, the woodcuts in Doesburg’s editions were almost certainly modeled after rather than produced from the same blocks used to produce the Hortus Sanitatus. Here are the three figures as they appear in a 1497 edition:
The Doesburg cuts were modeled after the cuts from the Hortus, but even a cursory examination of the scans available on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and on Google Books that Doesburg’s copies do not follow their Hortus Sanitatus originals exactly. The woodcut found in Beware the Cat, with the exception of the border, almost duplicates the woodcuts from The Noble Lyfe and Der Dieren Palleys.
While I have yet to examine physical copies or obtain higher quality scans, I think I can say definitively that the woodcuts found on the verso of the Griffith edition title page of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, at the very least, copied blocks used in Doesburg’s editions of The Noble Lyfe and Der Dieren Palleys. It might even be possible, if I get the opportunity to inspect the physical copies of each text, to argue that Griffith was in possession of the same blocks.
The Griffith edition of Beware the Cat might have used the same woodcuts that produced Der Dieren Palleys and The Noble Lyfe. I would not make such a suggestion if another of Griffith’s publications did not also include yet another block modeled after or taken from the series of woodcuts used to illustrate The Noble Lyfe. Griffith must have been in possession of part of the series used for, or at least copied from, The Noble Lyfe, since he used the “Gryphon” from the same series in his 1570 edition of Stephanus Bodonius’ The Fortresse of Fayth.
Despite the more elaborate printer’s device featuring a gryphon, Griffith opts for a second woodcut of a gryphon resembling that from Doesburg’s books. To me, this proves at the very least that Griffith was in possession of at least a partial set from or copied from The Noble Lyfe and/or Der Dieren Palleys around 1570. Until I get a chance to inspect the physical copies to determine the exact sizes and wear patterns, I do not feel comfortable suggesting the same blocks were used, but I am comfortable saying that Griffith at least possessed a partial set copied from those others.
Despite the gryphon at the end of the Fortresse, the title pages of The Fortresse of Fayth and Beware the Cat, both printed in 1570, both feature a printer’s device with a gryphon.
As we only have a fragment of Griffith’s edition of Beware the Cat, we cannot be sure whether it too included the second gryphon at the end or if it included other woodcuts throughout the text. At the same time, the second gryphon in the edition of the Fortresse links Griffith to another block modeled after or taken from Doesburg’s editions.
I should note, too, that I have found a second printer’s device used by Griffith featuring a gryphon, again distinct from both the printer’s device and the gryphon woodcut featured in his edition of The Fortresse of Fayth. Cruder than that found on the title page of The Fortresse, Griffith used another image of a gryphon as a printer’s device on his 1565 edition of The Tragedie of Gorboduc.
Here, we see an earlier and cruder printer’s device again featuring a gryphon. This example shows us that William Griffith was in possession of three different gryphon blocks, and still included those similar to The Noble Lyfe woodcut in his edition of The Fortresse of Fayth.
The fact that Griffith included The Noble Lyfe’s gryphon at the end of his edition of the Fortresse might simply mean that, in an attempt to increase demand for his books by adding as many illustrations as possible, he simply added woodcuts to make William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat more marketable. These woodcuts might not have been included at Baldwin’s behest or even with his knowledge, but it is curious that Griffith chooses two woodcuts that intimately relate to the content of Beware the Cat. At the same time, the question remains why he would include all three figures rather than simply the one of the leopard since that cut, in this context, most relates to Baldwin’s fiction. This is especially significant if I am correct to think the blocks were altered in order to fit all three within a single frame. One might ask why all three were included rather than simply printing the leopard in isolation.
The three figures might have been chosen for their resemblance to cats, as Bonahue suggests, but I disagree. Certainly the top figure might, in this context, be taken for a cat rather than as a leopard, but the other two are less likely to be so mistaken. The second, if one ignores the shape of the head and the ears could have been taken for a cat, but the last in the series, with its quills and tail almost certainly could not. Still, it might be possible that Griffith chose both woodcuts because the leopard and the ermine might be seen as cats in the context of his edition of Baldwin’s fiction. The third figure, however, remains a mystery. In the Hortus Sanitatus and in Doesburg’s two bestiaries, the figure represents both the hyrax and the hedgehog.
The tail and the cloven feet should also make it difficult to consider the originals found in the Hortus Sanitatus, Der Dieren Palleys, and The Noble Lyfe as both a hyrax and as a hedgehog. The Noble Lyfe uses what would eventually become the bottommost figure on the Beware the Cat woodcut to illustrate the section on hedgehogs. Andrewe’s translation describes, “it is a lytelle beste lyke a pigge & his skynne is rownde about full of sharp pinnes save only onder his bely that no man may come nygh hym & it is moche lyke an urchin but whan it is layde in luke warme water than it is so glad that it stretcheth hym selfe a broade” (Andrewe 43). While the original conflates the hyrax with the hedgehog, and while Andrewe, the English translator of The Noble Lyfe, says that it is “moche lyke an urchin” the textual description of the image still refers to it as a “Cirogrillus & Erinacius [that] is all one,” and the image is used to represent both.
As I see it, we are left with two possible scenarios. The first is that both woodcuts from Doesburg were chosen for their resemblance to cats, but only because the top figure in the second block resembled one. The lower figure included in Griffith’s Beware the Cat was included only because it was already on the block as paired with the topmost figure, and, thus, is incidental to the decision to include both cat-like figures. Such is Bonahue’s stance on the woodcut.
The second possibility, however, depends even more upon the text of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat itself. The first and second figures can be taken for cats, but the third figure is supposed to be taken as a hedgehog despite the fact that the figure only somewhat resembles one. In the process of assembling the parts necessary for his “philter,” Gregory Streamer hunts and ultimately dissects a hedgehog. I will return to the significance of the hedgehog later, but first want to explore the significance of the first figure.
The Griffith edition’s first figure, described as a leopard in Doesburg’s books, depicts that large cat with a human-like face. The leopard in The Noble Lyfe is one of many instances in the same text where animals resemble if not directly contain parts of men. As I discussed in an earlier post, bestiaries like The Noble Lyfe that purportedly uphold the superiority of man over animals are constantly strained by not only their resemblance to man but also in the ways that man could use them. In this example, having the face of a human on the body of a cat-like creature exposes the blending and obfuscation of such a boundary. The tale of cats offered as an oration by Gregory Streamer frames its feline subjects through the experience of a human speaker. With the edition of the woodcut in the Griffith edition, however, the reader encounters the forms of animals immediately after reading the title page. Streamer’s oration, framing his felines through his own speech as he does, is, through this woodcut, first framed through depictions of non-human animals.
The same blurring of the boundaries between human and non-human animals occurs within William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat itself. As Streamer affirms “birds and beasts had reason as men… and in some points more” (Beware 6), hierarchical arrangement which separated man from beasts based on man as a rational animal could collapse and render them on an equal or even in some cases inferior footing. The “leopard” from The Noble Lyfe has the face of a man and the body of a beast and, over the course of Streamer’s oration, Baldwin challenges human presumption by creating an assembly of cats that have more rational order than Streamer’s own. I also contend, though I will not argue it here, that Streamer’s experiment “reduces” him to the level of beasts, and that the whole of Beware the Cat make the cats appear more “human” than its men, and man more beast-like than its cats.
Now I want to briefly return to the significance of the final figure in Griffith’s edition of Baldwin’s short fiction. As I mentioned previously, while there may be problems identifying that figure as a hedgehog, a hedgehog plays an important role in the course of Streamer’s oration. As we discover in the second part of Streamer’s narrative in Beware the Cat, a hedgehog becomes a main ingredient in Streamer’s “philter” concocted to allow him to hear the language of cats.
As Streamer begins to desire to “learn and understand” cats, he reports, “And calling to my mind that I had read in Albertus Magnus’ works a way how to be able to understand birds’ voices, I made no more to do, but sought in my library for the little book entitled De Virtutibus Animalium, etc., and greedily read it over” (Baldwin 24). Streamer consults the textual authority of Albertus Magnus, “when I came to ‘Si vis voces avium intelligere, etc.,’ Lord how glad I was. And when I had thoroughly marked the description of the medicine, and considered with myself the nature and power of everything therein and how and upon what it wrought, I devised thereby how, with part of those things and additions of other of like virtue and operation, to make a philter for to serve my purpose” (Baldwin 24).
Within the fiction, Streamer translates Albertus’ recipe, and then systematically manipulates the textual authority through “conjectures” to concoct a purgative meal, ear pillows, and “presciencial pills.” Working from the very textual authority that authorized both the narrator’s and Streamer’s initial interest in the possibility of the language and reason of cats, Steamer directly consults a recipe from Albertus Magnus’ Boke of Secretes, translating it in full within his oration, “If thou wilt understand… the voices of birds or of beasts, take two in thy company, and upon Simon and Jude’s day early in the morning, get thee with hounds into a certain wood, and the first beast that thou meetest take, and prepare with the heart of a fox, and thou shalt have they purpose; and whosoever thou kissest shall understand them as well as thyself” (Baldwin 25)[i]. After translating Albertus in full, Streamer proceeds to reveal how he manipulated textual authority in pursuit of his experiment.
Streamer does not rely solely upon textual authority as says,
But conjecturing that the beast which they should take was an hedgehog (which at that time of year goeth most abroad), and knowing by reason of the flesh thereof was by nature full of natural heat—and therefore, the principal parts being eaten, must needs expulse gross matters and subtile the brain (as by the like powder it engendereth fine blood and helpeth much both against the gout and the cramp. (Baldwin 25-26)[ii].
I will leave discussing this for a later post, but Streamer’s “conjecture” serves as an important interpretive crux in Streamer’s quest and in Baldwin’s fiction. Streamer’s attempt to “expulse gross matters and subtile the brain” ultimately work within the world of Baldwin’s fiction, but the text also reveals the connections and tensions inherent in what I call the paramaterial construction of the mind. For now, I simply want to suggest that the hedgehog plays a key role in Streamer’s experiment and in Baldwin’s fiction. By placing a hedgehog on the verso of the title page, the Griffith edition might key its reader in to a significant detail in the following fiction.
Nearly every critic of Beware the Cat glosses over its second part in favor of the meta-fictional game Baldwin plays frame his narrative in the first part and/ or the collection of beast fables offered in the third and the anti-Catholic sentiments revealed throughout. I contend, although I will need to argue this in a separate post, that the second part of Streamer’s oration plays a complicated game in its deployment and satire of contemporary natural philosophy, and that Baldwin’s Beware the Cat uses contemporary natural philosophy to build in at least two competing explanations of why Streamer’s “experiment” works within the world of Baldwin’s fiction. The hedgehog stands at the center of Streamer’s philter, becoming a main ingredient in his concoction that will puncture the tympanum separating human and non-human worlds.
The conflicted status of the hedgehog in the “philter” Streamer partially constructs from it helps to expose how Beware the Cat complicates the boundary between beast and human as it reveals, in Michel de Montaigne’s terms, “human intellectual pretentions” as frauds. Despite the fact that we will receive a text primarily delivered from the mouth of a central human character, the woodcut underscores that despite the learned human discourse contained within, it, and the human pretention that constructs it, places those discourses at the level of beasts. Even if the third figure is not included because it was supposed to be taken as a hedgehog, the woodcut frames what turns out to be a human oration through the figures of non-human animals.
Again, while the convoluted transmission and circulation of woodcuts proves neither that they had any intended relation to the content of Beware the Cat nor that their inclusion was authorized by Baldwin, examining their relation to the tradition of the bestiary, especially one as peculiar as The Noble Lyfe, exposes the tensions inherent in a tradition that was beginning to feel the need to shore up the hierarchy separating man from beast as well as the problems of authority both of which are central to Beware the Cat.
Regardless of the meaning behind Griffith’s addition of these three figures to Baldwin’s short fiction, I do think there is enough evidence to assert definitively that the figures Griffith prints on the verso of the title page to his edition of Beware the Cat derive from Jan von Doesburg’s editions of Der Dieren Palleys and The Noble Lyfe. While it might just be a way for Griffith to increase the marketability of his edition, their inclusion construct an intertextual bridge between Baldwin’s satire and the discourses of natural philosophy in general and of bestiaries in particular.
Andrewe, Laurence. An Early English Version of Hortus Sanitatis. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 1954.
Baldwin, William. Beware the Cat: The First English Novel. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1995.
A Marvelous Hystory intitulede, Beware the Cat. London: Wylliam Gryffith, 1570.
Bodonius, Stephanus. The Fortresse of Fayth. Trans. Edward Crane. London: Wylliam Griffith, 1570
Bonahue, Edward T. “”I Know the Place and the Persons”: The Play of Textual Frames in Baldwin’s “Beware the Cat”.” Studies in Philology (Summer, 1994): 283-300.
Ko, Trudy. “Backdating the First Edition of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat Nine Years.” Notes and Queries (2009) 56(1): 33-34.
Montagnana, Bartolomeo. Hortus sanitatis, vel Tractatus de herbis et plantis, de animalibus omnibus et de lapidibus: Tractatus de urinis ac earum speciebus. Johannes Pruess, 1497.
[i] Streamer accurately translates the passage from the Latin edition of Albertus’ Liber Secretorum de Virtutibus Herbarum, Lapidum et Animalium of 1486 rather than the English translation of The Boke of Secretes.
[ii] According to William Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence, Streamer would probably be incorrect about the “natural heat” of the hedgehog, since “Tese beastes be of cold nature, better for medicine than meate” (Bullein lxxx verso), but they are prescribed for cramps by Pliny, “In contractions of the sinews, it is good to eat the flesh of stock-doves, especially if the same hath bin poudered and kept in salt. The flesh likewise of an Hedgehog is as good for crampes and spasms: as also the ashes of a Weazil” (Holland and Pliny 392). I will return to the significance of the hedgehog in a later post on the natural science of Beware the Cat, but for now want to stress that in general, Streamer’s understanding that “hot things purge the heat” does follow contemporary natural philosophy, and that he does ultimately combine his hedgehog with many other ingredients including many herbs and other ingredients that are “hot.” Despite Streamer’s misguided “conjectures” he does work from a textual authority as the basis of his “experiment” and ultimately produces a “philter” that works. I will return to two different reasons why Baldwin includes this tension in a separate post.