As cliché lovers know and cat lovers detest, there are currently more ways than one to skin a cat. But when was there only one? According to research on a pit of bones found in eastern Spain, the practice first appeared in medieval times between the end of the 10th and 11th centuries CE. Why … and why did they need more than one way?
If your answer to the first question was a quizzical “To eat?”, you’re obviously of the generation that rarely if ever sees real leopard-skin coats anymore. Or perhaps you believe that pagans, like witches, loved and worshiped cats and would never do anything to harm them. Those questions, at least at the start, were not on the minds of researchers led by Lluís Lloveras, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Barcelona, when they began digging in an area where crops may have been stored at a medieval Spanish farming site in El Bordellet near Catalonia in the southern province of Barcelona.
Then they found the cat pit.
According to Lloveras’ report in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, one pit contained about 900 domestic cat bones with unusual characteristics. In addition to be carbon dated to between 970 and 1025 CE, the bones were from young cats – 9 to 20 months – and had cut marks consistent with the skinning process. The age of the cats suggests their skins were taken by people in the fur business because they hadn’t yet been damaged by disease, fleas or accidents. While coats and garments trimmed with fur from exotic wild cats was prized by the rich, the lower classes and even nuns wore house cat fur. Sister Felina, is that a Manx habit you’re wearing?
If wearing tabby fur isn’t gross enough, Lloveras says these cats may also have been sacrificed as part of some medieval rituals since other pits in the area from the same period contained the bones of sheep, goats, dogs and other animals known to be used for sacrifices. While the evidence is not as solid for this as opposed to the widespread practice of using cats for clothing, Lloveras says the researchers will continue to dig for more signs.
As for the origin of the aphorism, etymologists point to an 1840 short story by the American humorist Seba Smith or to Mark Twain’s 1889 “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” which contains the line: “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat.” More interesting is the speculation that the saying refers not to the four-legged cat but the catfish, which must be skinned before eating.
If you’re interested, the New York Times interviewed a taxidermist who said the best way to skin a cat is to “go with the grain of the hair” and … well, you can read it for yourself.