Four tiny paws

Maddie flew in from the garden, her eyes shining.

“I’ve found a mouse!” she exclaimed. “I’m feeding it! It’s got bright black beady eyes… it’s already had a tiny piece of cheese and I’m getting some currants. It just walks out and takes it and then scurrries back into its hole!”

I never saw the mouse. Maddie ministered to it all afternoon, by which time it must have felt, and possibly looked, like Henry VIII after a banquet.

But I walked out about teatime to find someone else ministering to the mouse.  There was an ample, baggy ginger furry behind swaying imperceptibly; rather like a golfer lining up his shot.

The dog was dispatched to rid the garden of the vanquisher of my daughter’s dreams.

Feeding the mouse has always been a dilemma. I can remember staying in an old house in the South of France where a mouse lived in the larder. As we drove away after a week’s holiday three out of the four members of the group admitted to feeding le petit souris.

But the cat is never far away. Take a look at the mediaeval bestiaries, those gorgeously illustrated records of animals laid down by people in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They are full of images of cats and mice; and those hinge down seats clergymen sit on during services, the misericord? A recurring theme is the cat with the mouse in paw.

Exeter Cathedral’s ancient astronomical clock is splendid indeed: yet mice were a part of its history, for they would scurry into the clock tower and nibble the ropes which held its weights.

So a cathedral cat was employed, and a cat-flap cut into the door to the clock tower. A mediaeval cat flap which remains today.

I have heard of a tradition that a small wooden figure of a mouse is hidden somewhere within the sanctuary of any church.

The net reveals little about the custom.

When I left work a few weeks ago, my friend Jan, librarian and overworked sub-editor of this blog, handed me a small package.

“There’s a catch to this,” she said. “You’ve got to include it in a blog.”

It was a small wooden mouse. It was taken from a carving by a man called Nick Hunter who specialises in reproducing mediaeval carvings. The little mouse is not mediaeval,however: he is based on the saying “as poor as a church mouse.” The same saying inspired British carver Robert Thompson to include a trademark lone mouse on his furniture in the first half of the 20th century.

I hied me to the nearest mediaeval bestiary  to nibble on the ropes of the puzzle of the lone liturgical mouse.

The mouse, said ancient sources, was born of the soil – hummus – hence its Latin name: Mus.

It is a small animal, the ancients reasoned, whose liver gets larger at the time of the full moon. Pliny the Elder observes they gnaw at iron, and in gold mines they have been observed to gnaw that, so that when you cut them open there is gold in their stomachs.White mice are a good omen: and mice feed their old with uncommon devotion and affection.

They conceive by licking, or by eating salt; and the mice in Egypt walk on two feet, Pliny asserts, as indeed do Alpine mice.

And in some mediaeval imagery: for example images of Gertrude of Nivelles, (626-659) an abbess-turned-saint on whose robes mice nibble – the mouse is said to represent the very human soul.

Thus cat-and-mouse imagery prevalent in so many churches represents the devil’s hunt for the soul. And a mouse on its own?

Could it be an attempt to place the very essence of the human spirit into a towering masterpiece of stone and wood?

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48 thoughts on “Four tiny paws

  1. somehow mice (not rats) do seem to be the small version of us. brave yet needing protection. well done Maddie for succouring your little friend while you could

    1. Mediaeval symbolism was so earthy: close to those people who lived in daylight hours and depended on a natural world they struggled to understand, Roger. Not so much religion, as trying to make sense of it all. And the mouse stood for something, back then.

  2. The profound little mouse! I have seen furniture by the carver whose signature is always that lone little mouse but as to my views on mice generally, they’re fine as long as they’re not in the house. In the house, no. Not good. 🙂

  3. No, sorry, I’m struggling with this one. Mice- the real, furry ones with long tails and black eyes- freak me out. I would be the one not feeding it; I’m more likely to be calling Rentakill.
    Kate, you have inspired many emotions in me; this is the first time you’ve made my skin crawl. You are too good at this 🙂

  4. Yes, fine from a distance…preferable carved in wood! I would love to see your collection of carved bunnies and mice and other creatures Kate 🙂

  5. Although I am not a fan of those critters at all, this post actually makes me feel some empathy for them. Yet, I prefer if they stay out of my house. What’s Gertrude’s take on rats? NYC is rife with those varmints (to access my inner Yosemite Sam).

  6. I’m so sorry, Kate, but I can’t get beyond the skin-crawling effect. I am just not capable, I don’t think, of any kindly thoughts. I will try, however. We are going up to our trailer in the woods this weekend and there is always evidence of the mice having enjoyed it for a while in our absence. I’m usually uncomforable for about the first 24 hours. My husband is a big help, though, having seen me hysterical more than once! This from a woman who likes snakes and can handle any insect without a wince! One small mouse and I go shrieking. I don’t know…but good for Maddie. I like to hear that she truly cared for her little friend. There was great history in this post, too, Kate, but I was reading with one eye closed and my shoulders up around my ears in a protective position! Debra

  7. I’ve always admired Maddie, but even more so now. You see, I am the one atop of the chair, like the woman in cartoons, screaming “eeeeeek” at the sight of a mouse. I sense that they are around when no one else sees them and they laugh. My family laughs. Then they scurry when they see them too. Sigh. Fortunately, we have not seen any mice in several year – but I’m always on the lookout.

    Yep. Maddie is my hero. As long at the mice stay outdoors.

  8. Maddie’s enthusiasm speaks to me of how wonderful a place the world can be when we embrace it rather than see it through a filter of fear. BRAVO Maddie!

  9. I think mice are cute as long as they stay out of my house. I once found a couple of very young ones who’d fallen into a wastebasket and couldn’t get out. (The house mice I encounter are usually field mice seeking shelter in the fall.) They were adorable. I released them outdoors in the hope they’d survive. Love your little carved mouse. Probably the best kind — wouldn’t damage my home nor be harmed by my cat.

  10. Kate, a cat’s got to do what a cat’s got to do. But I applaud Maddie’s tender heart.

    I love your history of the lone mouse and its connection to religion. “Thus cat-and-mouse imagery prevalent in so many churches represents the devil’s hunt for the soul.” Something to think about, indeed.

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