Researchers shed light on the first ever English novel ahead of debut theatre performance

  • New insights into the world’s first ever English novel revealed by University of Sheffield researchers
  • Early modern piece is a magical and grisly satire of superstition and religious hypocrisy
  • At a time of huge transformation for England’s religious landscape, novel represents the controversies of the day
  • Author feared for his safety under the reign of Mary I and self-censored his work until Elizabeth I came to the throne
  • University of Sheffield researchers adapt novel into its first ever theatre performance

Cat Shadow Puppet - one of the specially commissioned images for the performance by Penny McCarthy

The world’s first ever English novel – a little known satire of magic and religious controversy written during a time of immense political and social change across England and Europe – is being brought to life by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The novel, Beware the Cat, was first written in 1552 before many of the more well-known early modern writers published their first work. It tells a tale of witchcraft, religious controversy, and talking cats in a bid to help us imagine what animals might say about the world if they had the ability to talk.

Centred on the grisly alchemical experiments of a rambling priest seeking to understand the language of cats, the story asks a question which has provoked humans across the ages: do birds and beasts have reason?

Written by William Baldwin, an author based in the bustling print shops of 16th century London, the novel was first penned (but not published) during the reign of Edward VI. In this era England was going through a period of intense religious reformation with people being forced to switch faiths from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again.

After Edward’s VI death in 1553, his sister Mary I took the throne, bringing with her stringent press controls and strict Catholic beliefs. The story’s racy and irreverent send up of Catholics and their practices made it risky to publish and the author censored himself by waiting until the more moderate Elizabeth I came to the throne. He didn’t go public with the novel until a decade later.

The storyline features many comical and grotesque moments, such as a boy being set upon by a gang of cats and a potion made of the eyes and brains of foxes (amongst other things). It also mocks academic experts for believing they know too much. Since its initial release in 1561 the book has been published a handful of times but full copies of the novel, particularly the earliest editions, are now incredibly rare.

Now, Professor Frances Babbage from the University of Sheffield’s School of English and Dr Rachel Stenner from the School of English at the University of Sussex are working on a project to adapt the novel into a theatre performance for audiences to see as part of the University’s Festival of the Mind, which is being held in Sheffield in September 2018. This will be the first time Beware the Cat has ever been performed.

“Beware the Cat’s censorship by its own author, William Baldwin, shows that it was a highly controversial story for its time but it is now nowhere near as widely known as the work of other early modern writers. Baldwin’s writings inspired some of the big names in literature from the age, including Shakespeare,” Dr Stenner said.

She added: “Aside from its pointed religious satire, the novel is very funny. It also makes a crucial contribution to early modern thought on our relationship with animals and the natural world.”

This project brings together a unique combination of experts from within the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, working in the fields of contemporary theatre, adaptation studies, animal studies, linguistics, and early modern studies: Frances Babbage, Terry O’Connor, Bill McDonnell, Bob McKay, Robyn Orfitelli. The performance will feature specially commissioned images created by Penny McCarthy from Sheffield Hallam University; the images will appear in citywide projections in the build up to the festival.

Dr Stenner added: “The performance features original artworks, a unique soundtrack, and a multivoiced reading of Baldwin’s writings, adapted to convey the liveliness of this quirky tale to a modern audience.” Beware the Cat, the theatre performance, is being staged at the Spiegeltent, Barker’s Pool in Sheffield on Saturday 22nd September, 5-6pm.

For tickets and information on the public performance of Beware the Cat - which is a free event - visit:

For more information on the University’s Festival of the Mind, including a full list of events, visit:

Additional information

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For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852