Thursday, November 19, 2015

Historic Cats: Pangur Bán

Lutrell Psalter, f°190r (detail)

In addition to fostering cats, I study the medieval period, especially the art form known as illumination. This art was used to decorate the books of the middle ages and comes in all sorts of forms from glorious to silly, breathtaking to irreverent. I also have an appreciation for poetry both modern and medieval. If you combine all of these things that I love into one place, you get Pangur Bán.

The poem Pangur Bán comes from the 9th century and was written by an Irish monk in a book known as the Reichenau Primer. The Primer itself is a collection of hymns and grammatical texts that was likely pen practice for a scribe. Preserved in the book is also the poem in which the author compares his work of study to the work of his cat hunting mice. 

The cat's name in the poem is Pangur Bán, which is not so much a name as it is a description of the cat. In Irish, the word Bán means fair or white. Pangur, however is not an Irish word. The Welsh word pannwr means fuller, which was a job in the middle ages. A fuller used a combination of washes, scouring and felting to remove oils, dirt and impurities from wool cloth. At the end of the process, the wool would be a bright clean white, as well as soft and strong. In short, Pangur Bán was likely an all white and beautiful cat. Today, we'd probably say the cat was dazzling white or sparkling white in color. He also seemed to be especially good at mousing, enough that he inspired a monk at study to write a poem about the similarities of their work.

So, here is the poem, translated from the Irish by Robin Flower.

Pangur Bán
Cat and mouse, Hours of Charlotte of Savoy, 
Paris, France, ca. 1420-1425, f° 165r (detail)

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Created by @LauraEAydelotte with images of materials from Ms. Codex 724 
at the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania.


  1. Thanks! It's always been a favorite of mine. I figure I have a cat blog, so I can put whatever cat stuff I want on it... so yay cats and calligraphy.