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  • Adrian Masters

A 'monstrous' male cat raises chickens in 1560s Spain, alarming Miguel de Muxica

On 25 April, 1566, a field justice of the Spanish city of Coria, Extremadura went before a scribe with an alarming story - "a monstrous thing, and never before seen, and which repugnates nature." When a chicken had died laying eggs, a white male cat took it upon himself to hatch and raise them.

A white cat, from a 1800s Thai manuscript on cat breeds.

The field justice, Miguel de Muxica, told the city scribe Francisco Pérez del Aguila in disbelief that the cat, "hatched them, and took the chicks of the eggs, and then proceeded to raise them" (los empolló y sacó pollos dellos, y después los crió).

Muxica summoned the owners of the cat and the chicks to come before the city scribes. The written testimony proceeded according to the Castilian scribal formula. The illiterate thirty-year old Andrés de Uzero swore upon the cross that the cat had raised ten or eleven of these chicks. His wife María Dominga had picked up the eggs with her apron and placed them near the hearth of their house. Then the white cat appeared and settled upon them. Amused, María gave the cat some soup, which it lapped without budging. It did the same at dinner, "did not move from them," acting as if "it had offspring of its own." Some days later, the chicks hatched, and María noticed the cat would feed them, clean them, hiss at anyone who approached, "and in this way raised them."

Andrés and María found this too amusing not to share. Townspeople soon came by to see for themselves. The thirty-six year old innkeeper Alonso Delgado provided supporting testimony, as did one Cristobal de Andujar of some 45 years of age. The city scribes then drew up a formal testimony with the signatures of the municipality's officials, and placed a great stamp upon the final document. The facts about cat who raised chickens were now official.

The outskirts of the town of Coria today

Today, animals parenting the young of other species is the stuff of clickbait lore. Who could resist a story of Edgar Allan Pig adopting baby lambs, or Gakii the bush baby being adopted by a baboon? But what this meant for the early modern inhabitants of Coria is another issue entirely. For peasants Andrés and María, the case of the white cat and the chicks a provided a laugh too good not to share with the town. For field justice Muxica, the case was perturbing - perhaps not only because a cat had crossed species, but because he was a male with inexplicable maternal instincts. What no one in Coria seems to have questioned at the time is perhaps something more peculiar, at least for readers today: why did these officials and townspeople think they needed to memorialize the event by swearing upon the cross before the town scribes?

According to much popular culture today, early modern Spain was superstitious, backwards, and rustic. In some cases this was clearly true. However, this stereotype has obvious limits that historians have sought to remedy for decades. It was also a litigious nation of lawyers and scribes, obsessed with the written word, and constantly preoccupied with providing reliable testimonies of the truth. Spaniards were sometimes credulous and prone to believe in higher powers' tendency to intervene, but they also frequently grounded their observations with the facts before them. Despite widespread early modern beliefs about cats, not a single witnesses suspected the Devil's hand, and by all accounts the townspeople of Coria simply laughed at, and cared for, the adoptive father without fretting over any of his possibly supernatural powers. Only Muxica was bothered, but instead of summoning a priest or an inquisitor to investigate, he simply sought to confirm the unusual events on paper as a testimony to the strangeness of nature.

Far from revealing the cosmos of a superstitious peasantry in a backwoods Extremaduran town, this odd case of a white cat and the chickens he adopted reminds us of the Spanish people's common conviction that everything and anything was fair game to be written down by a scribe - especially when truth dared to exceed fiction.

Primary sources

BNM, Mss. 6149 (go to image 87, or folios 82v-86v)

A few sources on Early modern Spanish attitudes towards testimony

  1. Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru. Durham & London: Duke Univeristy Press, 2010

  2. Richard L. Kagan, Lawsuits and Litigants in Castile, 1500-1700. Chapel. Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981

  3. Premo, Bianca. The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire. Oxford University Press, 2017.

  4. Enrique Villalba and Emilio Torné. El nervio de la República. El oficio de escribano en el Siglo de Oro. Barcelona: Calambur, 2010.

Postscript

There is one more mystery to this story, one which has no easy answers: where does this document come from? This text appears within the anonymous manuscript Papeles diversos as Testimonio de como un gato empolló y sacó pollos in an undated circa-1605 compilation (folios 82v-85v) once in the now-extinct library of the Count Duke of Olivares, and now found in the National Library of Spain, under the title Mss. 6149. Its author is a mystery, but the text suggests whoever he or she was the original transcript of the case was authentic. The author seems to have been an antiquarian, and perhaps had an agent who caught wind of the story and requested this official copy. The notarial archives of Coria might provide further answers, and lead us to other animals adopting

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