Belling the cat is an idiom for asking someone to do a risky, impossibly difficult job:
"who's willing to bell that cat?"
Its origin is a fable known by a couple of different names: The Bell and the Cat, and The Mice in Council.
|Gustav Dore's illustration of the fable, |
c. 1868. Public Domain.
Since Aesop lived from 620-564 BCE and there's no record of the tale until the late 12th century, it's highly doubtful this phrase dates back that far.
Odo of Cheriton, a 12th century English preacher, is credited as the first person to capture this fable in print. It's included in his work, Parabolæ, dated around 1200, CE.
There is some speculation that the fable originated from an earlier Middle Ages author or perhaps a contemporary of Odo's, but there is no documentation to substantiate this.
Possibly one of the most interesting uses of "bell the cat" comes by way of a nickname.
In 1482, a group of noblemen were bitterly opposed to King James III's friendship with a low-born mason, a man by the name of Robert Cochrane. It appeared King James' friendship with Cochrane was so strong that they feared James' monarchy was actually a puppet regime, with Cochrane as its master.
As the story goes, the noblemen met to discuss how they could rid themselves of Cochrane. One of the noblemen, a Lord Gray, asked, "Tis well said, but wha daur bell the cat?"
|Pieter Bruegel's illustration, c. 1559. Public Domain.|
Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, led the charge that ultimately ended in Cochrane's death at Lauder Bridge. From that point on, Douglas inherited the nickname, "Archie Bell-the-cat."
This tale has met with some recent opposition by one historian who claims the story is revisionist history written by those in the following century. Regardless, it makes for fascinating reading!
|We know of one kitty Allie would like to see "belled" - she'd like an Early Warning System please!|
Odo (of Cheriton),Syracuse University Press, 1985, page 129.
The Proverbs of Scotland, Alexander Hislop, Edinburgh: Alexander Hislop & Co, 1868.
Wikipedia on Odo of Cheriton
Wikipedia on Robert Cochrane
James III: A Political Study, Norman Macdougall, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1982.
Wikipedia on Archibald Douglas