It is ultimately based on the fable of the mice, or rats, who proposed to hang a bell round the cat’s neck, so as to be warned of its approach. An early reference to this fable appears in The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, attributed to the English poet William Langland (circa 1325-circa 1390):
translation: Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College
A rat of renown · most ready of tongue
Said, as a sovereign · help to himself:
“I have seen men,” quoth he · “in the city of London
Bearing bright necklaces · about their necks,
Some with collars of skilful work · uncoupled they wander
Both in warrens and wastes · wherever they like;
And otherwhile they are elsewhere · as I tell you.
Were there a bell on their collars · by Jesus, I think
Men might know where they went · and get out of their way!
And right so,” quoth that rat · “reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell · or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar · for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat’s neck · then we may hear
When he romps or rests · or runneth to play.
And if he wants play · then we may look out
And appear in his presence · the while he play liketh,
And if he gets angry, · beware and shun all his paths.”
All this rout of rats · to this plan assented.
But though the bell was bought · and on the collar hanged,
There was not a rat in the rout · for all the realm of France
That dare bind on the bell · about the cat’s neck,
Nor hang it round her ears · all England to win;
They held themselves not bold · and their counsel feeble,
Esteemed their labour as lost · and all their long plotting.
original, as published for the Early English text society – London, 1867:
A raton of renon · most renable of tonge,
Seide for a (souereygne · help) to hym-selue;
“I haue ysein segges,” quod he · “in þe cite of london
Beren biȝes ful briȝte · abouten here nekkes,
And some colers of crafty werk; · vncoupled þei wenden
Boþe in wareine & in waste · where hem leue lyketh;
And otherwhile þei aren elles-where · as I here telle.
Were þere a belle on here beiȝ · bi Ihesu, as me thynketh,
Men myȝte wite where þei went · and awei renne!
And riȝt so,” quod þat ratoun · “reson me sheweth,
To bugge a belle of brasse · or of briȝte syluer,
And knitten on a colere · for owre comune profit,
And hangen it vp-on þe cattes hals · þanne here we mowen
Where he ritt or rest · or renneth to playe.
And ȝif him list for to laike · þenne loke we mowen,
And peren in his presence · þer while hym plaie liketh,
And ȝif him wrattheth, be ywar · and his weye shonye.”
Alle þis route of ratones · to þis reson þei assented.
Ac þo þe belle was ybouȝt · and on þe beiȝe hanged,
Þere ne was ratoun in alle þe route · for alle þe rewme of Fraunce,
Þat dorst haue ybounden þe belle · aboute þe cattis nekke,
Ne hangen [it] aboute þe cattes hals · al Engelonde to wynne;
And helden hem vnhardy · and here conseille feble,
And leten here laboure lost · & alle here longe studye.
In the latter use, the phrase to bell the cat originated in Scotland with reference to the story or legend of a secret conspiracy formed by certain of the Scottish nobles to put down the obnoxious favourites of James III (1451-88), Stuart king of Scotland (reigned 1460-88); the following is from A Complete Collection of Scotish [sic] Proverbs Explained and Made Intelligible to the English Reader (London, 1721), by James Kelly (floruit 1721):
It is well said, but who will bell the Cat.
The Nobility of Scotland entered into a Conspiracy against one Spence, the Favourite of King James the 3ᵈ. It was proposed to go in a Body to Stirling, to take Spence and hang him, and then to offer their Service to the King as his natural Counsellors. The Lord Gray says, It is well said, but who will bell the Cat: Alluding to the Fable of the Mice, proposing to put a Bell about the Cat’s Neck, that they might be apprised of her coming. The Earl of Angus* answered, I will bell the Cat: Which he effected, and was ever after call’d Archibald bell the Cat. The Proverb is us’d when a Thing of great Difficulty is propos’d.
* Archibald Douglas (circa 1449-1513), 5th Earl of Angus
Several mentions were made of both the proverb and the anecdote in the course of the 18th century; for example, in Observations on some English Proverbs, by ‘A. Briton’, published in The Penny London Post, or, The Morning Advertiser (London) of Wednesday 27th May 1747:
It is well said; but who will Bell the Cat?
This is a Scottish Proverb, and was occasion’d, as Mr. Kelly informs us, by the following Circumstance in History. The Nobility of Scotland entered into a Combination against one Spence, the Favourite of King James III. It was proposed to go in a Body to Stirling, seize Spence, and hang him; then to offer their Service to the King, as his natural Counsellors; upon which the Lord Gray observed, it is well said, but who will bell the Cat? Alluding to the Fable of the Mice, who proposed to put a Bell about the Cat’s Neck, that they might be apprized of her coming. The Earl of Angus reply’d, that he would Bell the Cat, which he accordingly executed, and was even afterwards call’d Archibald Bell Cat.——This furnishes the Nobility of all Nations with a very good Lesson, not to suffer a wicked Favourite to domineer over his Sovereign, as well as themselves, and the whole Nation, without exerting their Authority against him, in the most vigorous Manner, according to Law.
The earliest known use of to bell the cat not as a proverb but as a phrase, and without explicit reference to the historical anecdote, is from The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, from the Restauration to the Revolution (Edinburgh, 1722), by the Scottish ecclesiastical historian Robert Wodrow (1679-1734); the following is from Wodrow’s reflections on the 1684 trial for treason of Sir Hugh Campbell (circa 1615-1686), Laird of Cessnock:
It is very evident upon the whole, there was a Design formed to bring this worthy Gentleman [i.e. Cessnock] under a Sentence of Death […].
It may be proper further to remark, in order to the Reader’s having some Idea of this Government, that the Justice Court, which ought to be most just and fair, and give all Allowances in Cases relating to Mens Lives that Law and Equity suggest, were in this Case evidently partial in refusing the relevant Exculpation of alibi, at the Time libelled, in casting Cesnock’s Witnesses for Exculpation, and repelling the most relevant Defence propounded upon a trifling Circumstance; and in their unaccountable Carriage to Ingrham when upon Oath, and their open Endeavours to push him to Perjury, so plain, as the Assizers, none of them Presbyterians nor Favourers of the Sufferers, could not bear them; and in their hectoring and abusing these Gentlemen, for acting as conscientious Persons would do.
And if those were their Methods with Gentlemen and before Lawyers, we may easily guess, how little Justice or Equity poor simple Country People, who could not bell the Cat with them, had to look for. And what sad Work would we meet with, if we had full Accounts of their Procedure from one who knew Forms and Law, and had been a Witness to their Procedure!
The phrase gained wider currency in the early 19th century; the earliest instance that I have found is from the New York Evening Post (New York, N.Y.) of Wednesday 6th March 1816, which published extracts from a speech against the creation of a national banking system that John Randolph (1773-1833) delivered during a congressional debate:
However great the evil of their conduct might be, he asked, in the course of his illustrations, who was to bell the cat? who was to take the bull by the horns? You might as well attack Gibraltar with a pocket pistol as to attempt to punish them. There were very few, he said, who dared to speak truth to this mammoth; the banks were so linked together with the business of the world, that there were very few men exempt from their influence.
The equivalent French phrase is attacher le grelot, to tie the little bell, defined as follows in the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française (4th edition, 1762):
On dit fig. & fam. Attacher le grelot, pour dire, Faire le premier une chose qui paroît difficile & hasardeuse.
It is figuratively and informally said To tie the little bell, to say, To be the first to do a thing that seems difficult and risky.
This phrase originated in Conseil tenu par les Rats (Council held by the Rats – Paris, 1668), a fable by the French poet Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95):
translation by Elizur Wright (1804-85) from Fables of La Fontaine (Boston, 1841):
Old Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety under ground;
Indeed he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived.
No doubt the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
I’m not so big a fool as that.
The plan, knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.
To argue or refute
Wise counsellors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.
original, from Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de la Fontaine (Paris, 1668):
Un Chat nommé Rodilardus
Faisoit des Rats telle déconfiture,
Que l’on n’en voyoit presque plus,
Tant il en avoit mis dedans la sepulture.
Le peu qu’il en restoit n’osant quitter son trou,
Ne trouvoit à manger que le quart de son soû ;
Et Rodilard passoit chez la Gent miserable,
Non pour un Chat, mais pour un Diable.
Or un jour qu’au haut & au loin
Le Galant alla chercher femme ;
Pendant tout le sabat qu’il fit avec sa Dame,
Le demeurant des Rats tint Chapitre en un coin
Sur la necessité presente.
Dés l’abord leur Doyen, personne fort prudente,
Opina qu’il faloit, & plûtost que plus tard,
Attacher un grelot au coû de Rodilard ;
Qu’ainsi quand il iroit en guerre,
De sa marche avertis ils s’enfuïroient sous terre :
Qu’il n’y sçavoit que ce moyen.
Chacun fut de l’avis de Monsieur le Doyen ;
Chose ne leur parut à tous plus salutaire :
La difficulté fut d’attacher le grelot.
L’un dit : Je n’y vas point, je ne suis pas si sot :
L’autre : Je ne sçaurois ; Si bien que sans rien faire
On se quitta. J’ay maints Chapitres vûs,
Qui pour neant se sont ainsi tenus :
Chapitres, non de Rats, mais Chapitres de Moines,
Voire chapitres de Chanoines.
Ne faut-il que déliberer,
La Cour en Conseillers foisonne :
Est-il besoin d’executer,
L’on ne rencontre plus personne.
Conseil tenu par les Rats – illustration by François Chauveau (1613-76) for Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de la Fontaine (Paris, 1668)