The history of the Chartreux cat is confusing. I explore five theories on the breed’s origin, believe it or not. This is a very handsome, blue purebred cat; an ancient French cat. The breed looks like the blue British Shorthair and people might mistake one for the other although the body conformation is subtly different. You can read about this breed by clicking on this link: Chartreux cat.
Five theories on the origin
The first story about its origin fancifully states that the cat is a cross between an Egyptian cat and a Manul (Pallas’s cat or Pallas cat – a small wild cat living in Asia). This cannot be true and there is no scientific evidence that these two species of cat (domestic and wild) can mate.
The second is far more realistic but has proved to be dubious. The cat was imported from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to France in the 17th century by Carthusian monks. The main monastery in France for these monks is La Grande Chartreuse. It is just north of Grenoble near the Italian border in south-east France. The monastery was established in 1084.
The monks became well-known for founding this breed of cat (and a yellow and green liqueur). There is a reference from 1723:
“..is called the Chartreux because of the monks of this name who owned the first breed” (Universal Dictionary).
Another reference is seen in the Grand Encyclopaedia of 1753 but it seems that the author Chevalier de Jancourt was simple taking the information from the Universal Dictionary:
“Chartreux cats, perhaps named because it was the monks of this name that were the first to have this breed.”
There is no archival evidence supporting these statements. In 1972 the Prior of the Grand Chartreuse stated:
“We have never had the Chartreuse order..at the Cape of Good Hope. As for the subject of a breed of cat which had been of use by the Grand Chartreuse, our archives stand silent. Nothing lets us assume that a breed of this type of cat had been utilised in any epoch of our long history.”
Bang goes that neat theory and one which is generally accepted.
The third story tells us that the Chartreux originated in the Middle East. Returning from the Crusades the knights gave the cat to the Carthusian monks. This theory is supported by the blue-grey cats in Cyprus, Malta and Syria but grey cats are seen in most places and there are no archival records supporting this story. Importantly there is no record of the monks having kept this cat.
The fourth also states that the breed originates in the Middle East and was brought to Europe 450 years ago. This fanciful story states that the cat’s fur was exploited to make pelts for the fur trade because it has a fine, dense coat.
The fifth story dispenses with the Carthusian monk connection and simply states that the breed originates in Northern Europe and Siberia. Its dense coat supports this. The then random bred cat was developed into two breeds, the Russian Blue and the Chartreux by breeders when the cat fancy developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
It is said (in an encyclopaedia of 1780) that “In France the cats are all of a bluish-lead colour”. This is unlikely but the overall theory about breeding from random bred stock is very plausible. All purebred cats have been developed by selective breeding from non-pedigree cats (random bred cats).
Origin of name ‘Chartreux’
The name of the cat ‘Chartreux’ is more likely to have been named after a fine wool imported into France from Spain called ‘Pile de Chartreux’. The abbey La Grande Chartreuse has nothing to do with the cat! Cat breeders like to add a smidgen of mystique and magic to their breeds. The connection with monks and a magical monastery achieved the goal nicely. That’s my theory.
The breed is mentioned and illustrated in Buffon’s 18th century Natural History. The breed was also mentioned by other authors such as Charles Ross in 1868 (at the very beginning of the cat fancy) when he wrote, “Bluish-grey is not a common colour; this species [he was incorrect to call the cat breed a ‘species’] are styled ‘Chartreux Cats’ and are esteemed rarities’.
Rebuilt post WWII
In 1928 the Leger sisters who had a cattery (Guerveur Cattery) began selectively breeding the cat on Belle-Ile-sur-Mere. The foundation cats were called Coquito (male) and Marquire (female). They exhibited in Paris. WWII interrupted the breeding program. The breed almost died out. It was rebuilt using random bred cats with blue coats and the correct body conformation. The modern Chartreux cat was reborn. Apparently because of the necessity to ‘recreate’ the breed some associations don’t distinguish between the Chartreux, British Blue and the European Blue.
The breed was exported to the USA in 1970. This is actually a very nice cat breed. It should be more popular than it is.
P.S. I am indebted to the excellent Cat World by Dr Desmond Morris for this page.