Chartreux Cat – the French Breed Cat
“In nine lifetimes,” we are told, “you’ll never know as much about your cat as your cat knows about you.” This inequity prevails, no doubt, because cats are born with certain insights into human nature while humans are obliged to make inductive sense of cats, whose first and last words on most nonedible subjects are “no comment.” Thus we should not be surprised to find that people often resort to speculation and conjecture when attempting to explain the origins of cat breeds.
Steeling a March of Chartreux Cat
Sometimes these cat-origin hypotheses find their way into encyclopedias, websites, breed articles and other repositories of knowledge. Microsoft’s Encarta 98, for example, solemnly declares that monks in the Le Grande Chartreux cat monastery near Grenoble, France, “may have developed the Chartreux cat in the 16th century. The monks favored this cat for its skill as a hunter, and used it to protect the abbey’s stores of grain from rats and mice.”
The switch from contingency (“may have developed”) to certitude (“favored this cat”) is an interesting example of begging the answer, but once begged is well-begun. To be sure, the Carthusian order, founded by Saint Bruno in 1084, was home to accomplished steelworkers who provided armament for the Crusades. (Perhaps the illusory link between the Carthusians and the Chartreux cat was born of the similarity between the color of steel, blue-gray, and the color of the cats in question.)
The monks of Le Grande Chartreux cat also forged a potent, green, herbal liqueur whose trade-secret recipe, which contains 130 plants cultivated by the monks, was given to them in 1605 by Marechal d’Estrees, the legendary French field marshal — and seized for a short time by Napoleon in 1810 when he went about confiscating all secret recipes that might have been useful to the state. (Could he have been after the secret recipe for a certain kind of pastry?)
For all that is known about the Carthusians, there is no evidence that the good fathers also cultivated cats or obtained cats from monastic knights returning from the Crusades or brought cats back to France from the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century. Nor is there any evidence that the monks even named the Chartreux cat. Carthusian archives, we are told, do not mention un chat, the cat of any other color at all.
Diderot to du Bellay
One mustn’t grieve if the monastery connection is ultimately enveloped in sackcloth and silence, for there is still much factual information by which to chart the Chartreux’s development. Diderot — the French critic, philosopher, and novelist — referred to the Chartreux cat in Les Bijoux Indiscrets, published in 1848. The Comte de Buffon, the most prominent theoretical biologist of his era and the chief author of the 44-volume Histoire Naturelle, published between 1749 and 1804, listed four cat breeds then common in Europe: the domestic, the Spanish, the Angora and the Chartreux. The 1723 edition of the Universal Dictionary of Commerce, of Natural History and of the Arts and Trades reported that Chartreux was a common appellation for cats with blue-gray fur; and 165 years earlier the poet Joachim du Bellay noted that “entirely gray” cats were common in France.
The 441-year-old trail grows cold as steel at that point. Some writers maintain that Chartreux cat descended from Syrian cats — stocky individuals with wooly, ash-gray coats and copper eyes — which were brought to Europe during the Crusades. Other authorities, citing the omniscient and ubiquitous “recent research,” argue that Chartreux cats were named neither by nor for Carthusian monks but after “well-known Spanish wool of the early 18th century” instead. The cat, of course, adheres to a vow of silence on these matters, and the reader is well advised to take all theories with a grain of steel when sorting through the claims and counterclaims attending the origin of any breed.
The Chartreux’s long natural history notwithstanding, the breed’s modern-day chronicle does not begin until 1931, when several Chartreux cats were exhibited under that heading at a cat show in Paris. Those cats belonged to a Mlle. Leger, who lived with her sister on the small Brittany island of Belle-lle-sur-Mere off the northwest coast of France. Cat-show records indicate that Mlle. Leger was the first person to exhibit Chartreux cat in France.
The Leger sisters, whose cattery name was de Guerveur, also bred Persians and Siamese. They moved from the mainland to Belle-lle-sur-Mere in the late 1920s, and shortly after they had arrived on the island, they discovered a bountiful population of blue-gray cats in Le Palais, the island’s principal city. Because many of these free-roaming cats frequented the grounds of the hospital in Le Palais, they were known in that vicinity as “hospital cats.”
Though we haven’t a clue about how the blue-gray cats of Belle-lle-sur-Mere arrived from the French mainland (unless the monks operated a water taxi), we do know that World War II left many cats homeless throughout France, obliging them to fend for themselves and to arrange their own breedings. In addition, cats were sometimes killed for food, and several French observers have reported that Chartreux cats were also killed for their plush coats.
When a heroic and dedicated band of breeders determined to preserve the Chartreux cat in the early 1950s, they attempted to strengthen the breed by outcrossing to other blue cats — Persians, British Shorthairs and whatever non-pedigreed types approximating the Chartreux standard were then available in France. Because blue was the sine qua non of that standard and blue cats were in generous supply, Chartreux fanciers had many breeds and varieties to choose from in their efforts to revitalize the breed.
Reconstructive surgeons do not always color between the lines, however, and by 1970 there was so little difference between the Chartreux cat and the blue British Shorthair that the Feline International Federation (FIFe) declared the two cats should be judged in the same category as a single breed. This decree was in force for seven years until European breeders, aided by the writing and scholarship of Chartreux fancier Jean Simonnet, succeeded in convincing FIFe that the Chartreux was a separate breed deserving its own classification. England remained unconvinced, withal, and to this day the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy does not recognize the Chartreux as a separate breed.
Bonhomous Beginning Chartreux Cat
In 1970, Helen Gamon, a cat fancier from La Jolla, California, brought the first Chartreux to the United States. Three of the initial 10 Chartreux cat imported by American breeders were supplied by the aforementioned and long-lived Leger sisters. Thanks to the efforts of Gamon and other breeders in this country who began to talk about Chartreux, the breed was accepted first by one then by another of the cat registries in North America until, in 1987, with the Chartreux’s elevation to championship status by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the breed had achieved universal acceptance.
Personality Profile of Chartreux Cat
“Living with Chartreux cat has its ups and downs,” says one of the breed’s admirers. “The curious rascals’ maneuvers range from hiding under sofas and chairs to climbing precious lace curtains. Fortunately, Chartreux cats have short activity spans. After 15 minutes of exasperating antics, the cats settle down like couch potatoes for the rest of the day.
“Of all the charming qualities a Chartreux cat embodies, however, it is still the coat that enchants an owner most. The dense, water- repellant fur feels like no other; and holding that soft, furry-purry body close after a bad day warms the heart of every Chartreux person.”
According to the 5.1M version of Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, the Chartreux “loves to view things from heights and can deftly leap from floor to top of the refrigerator.” We can believe the lofty-view part. Many cats like heights, but unless the refrigerators in France are no taller than Napoleon, we doubt that any domestic cat can leap to the top of them deftly.
Back on terra firma, the Chartreux cat is known for its delicate voice, measured approach to life, devotion to its owner, skill at harvesting smaller animals, and Mona Lisa smile. Neither hail-fellow nor hermit, this stout companion ” accommodate itself to everything,” wrote Fernand Mery in The Life, History, and Magic of the Cat. “It is a simple and good-natured peasant, but a sure friend.”
The Building Code of Chartreux Cat
The Chartreux cat balances a deep-chested, broad-shouldered, well-muscled body on fine-boned, comparatively short legs. Its plentiful torso is connected by a short, stevedore neck to a head that’s large and broad, but not round. The contrast between the Chartreux’s wide forehead and its narrow, though rounded, muzzle creates the impression that the cat is smiling. This meditation is enhanced by large, round, moderately wide-set eyes, separated by at least the width of an eye, that range in color from gold to copper. The Chartreux’s nose is straight, and short to medium in length. Small- to medium-size ears, rounded slightly at the tips, are set high and erect on the head.
The Chartreux’s coat, soft and dense in texture, is medium-short to medium in length and may be slightly wooly. It may not, however, be any color but blue-gray — in shades that range from slate to ash — with tips that are lightly brushed with silver.
The Chartreux cat is a massive, slow-maturing breed. Males may take as long as four to five years to reach their full-monty adult weight, 12 to 16 pounds. Females usually weigh what they’re going to weigh, seven to 10 pounds, by the age of 3. The Chartreux’s unique combination of stocky body and slim legs — described occasionally as resembling “a potato on toothpicks” — has been achieved at some risk of patellar luxation (displacement of the kneecap). Indeed, the Chartreux cat is only one of two breeds — the Cornish Rex is the other — for which lameness in the hindquarters is a disqualifying factor in the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s breed standards. This is not to say that only two cat breeds are prone to patellar luxation, but it is to note that the condition must be significant enough to have warranted the attention of breeders.
Patellar luxation, “when mild, does not usually cause any symptoms in the cat,” says one observer, “but if it is severe, it can cause lameness. Because this condition is hereditary, most reputable breeders screen their breeding animals for it and do not use questionable animals for breeding.”