The source of these posts is a stack of tattered papers that their owner (a neighbour) said were letters. She was moving to a retirement home, and I was helping her clean out her house. “You like old things,” she said, “so today I thought we’d start with this.”
“This” was a wicker dress-basket crammed with handcrafts, photographs, and other family memorabilia from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The letters were packed in large envelopes. They looked and smelled much older than anything else in the basket, and were written in a script resembling late Elizabethan/Jacobean italic – though with many blots and smudges.
My neighbour said she’d had a go at deciphering them, but some inky little drawings made her think they were the work of children (perhaps her long-dead aunts, who were fond of pranks) and she lost interest.
Clever children? Certainly. But it was probably just a tale of family pets, written while one or both had been away at boarding school. And yes, they had gone to great effort to make the letters look old, they’d even devised a code to write them in, but really…
She told me to chuck them in the recycling bin, and help her sort and label the photos while she could still remember who was who. Which I did. However, the thought of those bright, industrious, children stayed with me, so I asked if I could take the letters home for a closer look. She frowned, hesitated, then agreed.
After many evenings spent poring over the papers I reached a few conclusions.
- Some seemed to have been written with greater ease and confidence than others. That indicated they were the work of either one child whose skill improved over time, or two children as my neighbour said.
- Some words, by their frequency, were easy to pick out. For example, “arrkst”, “catt”, “keween”, “loorrt”, “maarrk”, “niewes”, and “sayt”.
- The code was simple. It relied on the overuse of vowels and certain consonants (f, k, p, s, and t). Some consonants (b, d, g, q, and v) didn’t seem to be there at all, so the others had to be doing double duty – as themselves and as substitutes.
- The papers weren’t letters. There wasn’t anything resembling a date or an address on any of them, though a few were signed by someone called Kip.
My Neighbour’s Response
Whenever I visited my neighbour at the retirement home, I gave her an update on my progress with “the letters”.
She wasn’t particularly interested, but when I suggested they were older than she thought, and had been written by a couple of inventive Elizabethan children, familiar with Aesop’s fables and Beware the Cat, she became downright hostile.
“I threw those old letters away,” she said. “Have you been going through my bins?” Then she asked after her own cat, who’d died several years back. I reminded her of this, but all she said was, “You can’t trust anybody nowadays.”
I made one last try. “Elizabethans often spelled words the way they said them. There’s a weird phrase that I’ve spotted halfway through the papers, and it’s repeated several times. It’s Owerr oonerrrl or Owerroon errrl. What does that sound like to you?”
She said, “l know I miss my cat, but I’m not yet so doolally that you need to sit there pretending to be him. Now get up and shut that window – I’m cold.”
The Eureka Moment
That was it. The papers weren’t the work of children. They’d been written by cats. Elizabethan cats.
And the code was the cats’ attempt to use the English alphabet to reproduce the sounds that they could make and therefore hear. My neighbour may have suspected this herself, but there was no way she would admit to it now she was, in her own estimate, “not yet so doolally”.
Incredible? Maybe. Improbable? Yes. But, given the level of literacy achieved by some Elizabethans, not entirely impossible. As late as 1809 William Bingley (quoted in Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World) noted that cats were “susceptible of considerable educational attainments”.
I rushed home, and began transcribing the papers. Very secretly, I might add, because I often have to sound out whole lines, and I do produce strange noises.
Deciphering the Cat Code
In my transcriptions I’ve taken liberties with punctuation, spelling, and word choice, though I’ve tried to keep the flavour of the originals. Fortunately, the papers, though undated, seem to have been kept in approximate chronological order, or were sorted that way by my neighbour.
And, once I’d convinced myself that they were written by cats and whose cats they were (Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, is undeniably Owerroon Errrl, or Our Own Earl) I had little difficulty in finding the historical evidence needed to support my conviction.
Some of this evidence is included in notes at the end of a post. More detailed information may well require separate pages.
However, where the feline observations differ from the historical record I’ve taken the cats’ word for it. Even though they’re not always as good as they should be at distinguishing fact from fantasy.