Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thursday Trivia: Bell the Cat

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.
Many often mistakenly cite its origin as one of the original fables of Aesop, but its first documented appearance only dates back to the Middle Ages.

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


  1. Gosh we have never heard that one before. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. HA! Interesting......I can see why in a multi-kitty household belling just might be nice as an early warning device....!

    Hugs, Sammy

    1. Allie NEEDS Faraday to be belled. NEEDS. *looks meaningfully at Mother*

  3. well huh - that was interesting. in our house we have a "no-bell" rule cause mom says she doesn't want to hear it. that being said, we read on Homer the Blind Cat's facebook page that when he was still alive and his mom Gwen got new kittens, they put bells on the kittens so Homer knew where they were (which has nothing to do with the English, but there you go)

    1. oooh that's right! We'd forgotten she did that to Fanny & Clayton!

  4. Had never heard of that! Thanks for sharing!

  5. That was new to us! Thank you for sharing it was very interesting.

    1. We try not to geek out too much on you all, but these posts are so much fun to research! ;-)

  6. The humans tried belling our purredecessor, Capt. Midight, a Mighty Black Hunter Cat, but he still brought the humans birds and field mice and lizards.

    So much for THAT bright idea, humans! MOL!

    Lilith Kitten Mahoney, Rosco P. Catrane, & Miss Tina Marie Maine Coon
    The Feline Contingent

    1. Yep, we're thinking it wouldn't do much good around here either! MOL! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting - we love to hear from you guys!!

  7. That reminded my human of the cat before me - she put belled collars on her but she always lost them! She did this so often, in fact, that my human kept several onhand, and when she showed up bell-less and collar-less, she just whipped out a new one and put it on!

  8. Wow, that was some interesting reading for sure. The bell in that Pieter Bruegel painting is crazy huge, by the way. The cat wouldn't be able to move with that behemoth around it's neck!

  9. That's an interesting one! We have been told that we sound too much like a herd of elephants and don't need an early warning bell. But we can believe that Faraday might need one, Allie. Or an alarm system!

  10. so why doesn't said kitty have a bell??

    I had never heard of that saying either, maybe it is a regional thing? Personally I don't like bells on cats, the noise drives me up the wall some days so it is just easier to avoid it.. we don't have belled balls either..

  11. We used to all have bells, but now a couple of us are missing theirs. Mom liked the early warning for herself and wanted to know if we were coming when called. She can tell who is coming by how our bells sound when we walk. Interesting to find out how this originated. XO, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Astrid, Lisbeth, Giulietta, Fiona and Calista Jo

  12. Faraday, it looks like theese airplane ears of yours are already anticipating the bells! (Such a cute pic.)

  13. Hmmmm. Bells for Waffles.
    I'll get right on that!
    ; ) Katie


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