With his cloak of gray fur, sober as a monk’s robes, it’s no wonder that the Chartreux was associated with the Carthusian order in France. The quiet mousers would have been perfect companions for members of the silent, solitary order. It’s a pretty legend, but there is no real evidence that the cats were kept by the Carthusians, although perhaps they were simply not considered important enough to mention.
A more likely scenario is that the cats, a natural breed, were commonly found in France at least as far back as the 18th century, performing rat patrol in stables, shops and homes. Unfortunately for the beautifully furred felines, they were also prized by furriers for their thick blue pelts. A type of luxurious wool called “pile de Chartreux” may have taken its name from the soft, woolly coated cats.
As with so many breeds, however, it’s not really known how the cats came by their name or how or where they were developed. One of the earliest references to a French gray cat dates to 1558, an epitaph for Belaud, who belonged to poet Joachin de Bellay. Bellay describes Belaud “death to rats,” which is certainly an attribute of the breed, then and now.
The first reference to the name Chartreux for the blue cats is found in the Universal Dictionary of Commerce, Natural History and the Arts and Trade of Savvary of Brusion, published in 1723, which also mentions the cats’ association with the fur trade. French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, described them as the cat of France and gave them the Latin name Felis catus coeruleus, meaning blue cat.
Free-living groups of the cats lived in Paris and other areas of France until the early 1900s. They were not much valued, except for their skins and their aptitude for vermin control. It wasn’t until after World War I that French cat lovers took steps to preserve the breed. They gathered as many cats as they could and wrote a breed standard. Using only the cats that met the standard and produced kittens that met it, they were able to begin exhibiting the cats in European shows in either 1928 or 1931, depending on the source. One of the breed’s early adherents was the novelist Colette, whose Chartreux Saha took pride of place in her book La Chatte. General Charles de Gaulle was also known to love the breed, owning one named Gris Gris.
It was fortunate that fanciers had begun to breed the Chartreux when they did, because after World War II, none of the free-roaming cats could be found. Chartreux, which are still uncommon, were first imported into the United States in 1970 and were recognized by the Cat Fanciers Association in 1987. Today the cats are recognized by all major American cat associations. The Chartreux is even the official mascot of the Montreux Jazz Festival. They are less known in Europe, even in their homeland of France. Unlike many cat breeds, they have changed little over the years and remain, as Bellay wrote:
“the most handsome perhaps
That nature ever made in cat’s clothing.”