Beware the Cat

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Beware the Cat (1561) is a short English novel written by the printer's assistant and poet William Baldwin (sometimes called Gulielmus Baldwin), in early 1553. It is notable as the first horror fiction text longer than a short story and has also been claimed by some academics as the first novel ever published in English of any kind.[1]

Publication history[edit]

The work languished unpublished after 1553, due to the change in the political climate under Mary Tudor, but it was published, perhaps with some revision, in 1561 in an edition suppressed by the state, now lost. Another edition appeared in 1570 now only known via a Victorian era transcript, apart from four pages which still exist and another in 1584. The work was dedicated to the actor John Young.

The 1570 quarto edition is entitled: A MARVELOVS hystory intitulede, Beware the Cat. Conteynyng diuerse wounderfull and incredible matters. Uery pleasant and mery to read. On publication in its 1570 edition it was subject to an anonymous poetic riposte of 56 lines, "A shorte Answere to the boke called: Beware the Cat", which rebukes the author for making fun of the narrator Master Gregory Streamer (who is not otherwise known to have really existed). The novel survived the centuries, and was published in Typographical Antiquities (1786) as a fine example of black-letter printing. It was also known in mid-Victorian times, since it was published by the Chetham Society in their volume Remains, Historical & Literary (1860). It received almost no attention from literary scholars, although William P. Holden produced an obscure edition in the original archaic English, issued from Connecticut College in 1963. A full scholarly edition only appeared in 1988 (Ringler and Flachmann), after which some further scholarly papers appeared.

The text of some versions is accompanied by paratextual notes by the alleged author/narrator, which run down the page, and which at key plot points attempts to explicate the author's opinions on women's roles in society, the practice of magic, and cats.


There is an anti-Catholic undercurrent in the plot (with one later scholar claiming that the "cats" symbolised "Catholics")[2][better source needed], but many of the allusions are now lost and many such aspects of the book may not even be noticed by modern readers. The initial setting is in London in the reign of Edward VI. The story is framed by the oration of an embedded first-person narrator on a cold Christmas night, one Master Streamer, who recounts a complex cycle of interlinked stories to two of his friends as they share his bed. These stories feature a version of "The King of the Cats", an Irish werewolf, the Grimalkin, and an underworld society of talking cats, among several other horror and magical/supernatural elements such as an ancient book of forbidden lore and magic potions. The use of dialogue is highly advanced for the time, the characters are clearly drawn, and the description of the London streets is vivid (such as a unique account of a Tudor printing house and its yard at Aldersgate). The subtlety of the anti-Catholic sentiment also sets it apart as a knowing piece of effective propaganda. The first two sections are essentially horror stories, and the book is then lightened with a third and more comedic section.

In its structure the book resembles the ring composition method found in fairy tales and preliterate storytelling.

A later (1584) edition of the text included a poem entitled 'T.K To the Reader' which makes more overt the anti-Catholic sentiments. This possibly gave that particular version of the text a more political reading than Baldwin had originally intended.[3]


An abridged and rewritten version in modern English by David Haden, was published in his Tales of Lovecraftian Cats (2010) along with Haden's adaptations of public domain horror stories by other authors.

A one-hour performance of Beware the Cat was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2019. It was brought to life by researchers at the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and Sussex, and included artwork by Penny McCarthy. Royal Shakespeare Company Stage Adaptation (RSC article), Royal Shakespeare Company Stage Adaptation (Guardian Newspaper)

Further reading[edit]

  • Boehrer, Bruce (2009-03-01). "Gammer Gurton's Cat of Sorrows". English Literary Renaissance. 39 (2): 267–289. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6757.2009.01047.x. ISSN 1475-6757.
  • Bonahue, Edward T., Jr. (1994-07-01). ""I Know the Place and the Persons": The Play of Textual Frames in Baldwin's "Beware the Cat"". Studies in Philology. 91 (3): 283–300. ISSN 0039-3738. JSTOR 4174490.
  • Bowers, Terrence N. (1991). "The Production and Communication of Knowledge in William Baldwin's Beware the Cat: Toward a Typographic Culture". Criticism. 33 (1): 1–29. JSTOR 23113621.
  • Cox, Catherine I. (2015-03-16). "Plague like Cats". Explorations in Renaissance Culture. 41 (1): 1–29. doi:10.1163/23526963-04101001. ISSN 2352-6963.
  • Maslen, Robert (1999-01-01). "'The Cat Got Your Tongue': Pseudo-Translation, Conversion, and Control in William Baldwin's "Beware the Cat"". Translation and Literature. 8 (1): 3–27. ISSN 0968-1361. JSTOR 40339807.
  • Paradox, The (2018-09-02). Dream of a Thousand Cats. NOVEL: An Exploration of the Form and Power of Dreams and the Birth of a Revolution. 1. p. 13. ISBN 9780463228258.
  • Ringler, William A., Jr. (1979-01-01). ""Beware the Cat" and the Beginnings of English Fiction". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 12 (2): 113–126. doi:10.2307/1345439. ISSN 0029-5132. JSTOR 1345439.


  1. ^ Ringler, William A. and Michael Flachmann eds. "Preface." Beware the Cat. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1988.
  2. ^ "Cats in Early Modern Period Literature - Beware the Cat 1570". The Great Cat. 2013-09-13. Retrieved 2017-11-28.
  3. ^ "William Baldwin (or G.B.): 'Beware the Cat' (1584), complete text".

External links[edit]