1566: Rat King of the Emblemata

The earliest known depiction of a rat king is from Joannes Sambucus' book Emblemata et aliqvot nvmmi antiqvi operis... which translates to Emblems with some ancient coins. Though Emblemata was first published in 1564, the illustration featuring the rat king was not added until 1566, when an expanded edition of the book was released.

Emblemata Rat King
Rat King illustration from Sambucus' Emblemata. [Larger version here]

        See the rat king in the bottom of the illustration? Seven 'rats' connected by their tails... though the artist made them look more like small dogs in this case.

        As the name says, Sambucus' book Emblemata was an example of an 'emblem book,' a popular type of book in the 16th and 17th Centuries... which is important, because it tells us something about how to interpret the content of the book. Emblem books, you see, was a picture book that had allegorical illustrations that would be accompanied by text that would often explain a moral lesson to be learned from the picture; so the illustrations are not meant to replicate an actual event, nor the text to explain one. Therefore, Sambucus' book does not contain an account of a rat king being discovered... but it does prove that people in general were aware of and talking about rat kings in 1566.

        Sambucus published his book in Latin in the city of Antwerp, Belgium. The emblem entries in his book consist of a motto, an illustration, and then a short poem meant to drive the connection of the motto and the illustration home. In the case of the rat king illustration, the opening motto is: "Caput seditionis tollendum"... which roughly translates as "Removing the head of the rebellion."

        I won't pretend to have a perfect translation of the poem that follows the illustration, but the gist of it appears to advise that to end an uprising, instead of trying to find the one person in control you should undermine what unites the individuals to start with.