Was there a great Cat Massacre in the Middle Ages?
Before the cat was king

Was the Cat Massacre one of the reasons the Black Death decimated Europe?

While writing on the Medieval Black Death and even in the posted comments, I kept hearing that the stunning speed of the black death was at least partly caused by the Cat Massacre in the middle ages. Cats at the time were believed to be spies for the devil.

Without cats to kill the rats, the story goes, the fleas on the rats had free reign to spread the plague or black death.

Were Cats pests or pets in the middle ages? How valuable were they? Were they eaten? Was their persecution one of the reasons the Black Death decimated Europe in the Middle Ages?

Cat Lovers, be warned, this stuff is more gruesome than 19th-century lunatic asylums and bizarre insanity treatment devices combined.

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Pets or Pests?

In the Middle Ages, almost everyone believed that the furs and clothes worn by an individual should display his social standing. Those of noble birth could and should wear the finest furs available.

To ensure that standards were kept, an English Law in 1363 restricted common people to wearing lambskin, coney, cat and fox. Meanwhile, The nobility, clerics, and richer citizens could enjoy ermine, lettice, Baltic squirrel, and budge.

Cat’s fur was used as trimming for dresses, and was worn even by nuns. A duty of 1d per dozen skins of wild cat was levied at Ipswich in 1303 compared with 14d per thousand skins of domestic cat.

Furs were also thought to benefit the health: skins of the wild cat were supposed to cure rheumatism and gout, and mouse skins were thought to cure chilblains.

The wild cat was hunted too. It’s often mentioned in royal grants giving liberty to inclose forest land and licence to hunt there.

Cats definitely weren’t such common pets as dogs were in the Middle Ages. The risk of being labelled a witch was surely an effective deterrent.

Pets, in general, weren’t held in high esteem until after 1603.

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Is Lucifer Half-cat?

Pope Gregory IX(1145–1241) kicked off centuries of bad times for the black cat when he declared in the early 13th century that Lucifer was half-cat.

“Vox in Rama” may have been the first official church document that condemns the black cat as an incarnation of Satan. In it, a black cat is addressed as “master” and the incarnate devil is half-man half-cat.

The bull describes a sect’s bizarre initiation rites. After being approached by a mysterious toad, the initiate kisses an emaciated pale man and poof! forgets all about the Catholic faith. Once they have a nice dinner, a statue of a black cat comes to life, walking backwards with its tail erect. The new initiate and then the master of the sect pucker up and kiss the cat on the buttocks.

After various post-dinner orgies (sometimes homosexual in nature), a man from a dark corner of the room “comes forth from the loins upward, shining like the sun. His lower part is shaggy like a cat.”

The historian Donald Engels describes the Papal Bull as “a death warrant for the animal, which would be continued to be slaughtered without mercy until the early 19th century.” It is said that very few all-black cats survive in western Europe as a result.

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Coronations Not Cool for Cats

The Cat Massacre continued for religious reasons for another 300 years. Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) of Britain burned cats alive as part of her coronation celebration.

By that time the Protestant Reformation had swept Europe, and many people (including the Queen) were no longer practicing Catholicism. Hatred of cats had become non-denominational. England’s Witchcraft Act of 1563 associated the keeping of cats with “wickedness” and led to the executions of many more cats and their owners.

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Festival of Cats

This festival may sound like it involves parades of cats in top cats.

Sadly, no.

In Ypres, Belgium townspeople hurled cats from a belfry onto the cobbled streets below and then set them on fire in what came to be known as “Cat’s Wednesday”. The event combined gruesome entertainment and a culling of the cat population.

Ypres’ questionable form of pest control ended in 1817 after one lucky tabby reportedly landed unscathed (and ran away as fast as it could).

The event, called Kattenstoet (Festival of Cats), still takes place every year on May 2, though it now involves stuffed animals only.

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Cat-burning

Cat-burning (brûler les chats) is exactly what it sounds like.

This medieval French entertainment involved cats suspended over wood pyres, set in wicker cages, or strung from maypoles and then set alight. In some places, courimauds, or cat chasers, would drench a cat in flammable liquid, light it on fire, and then chase it through town.

The embers and charred bits of cat from these blazes would be collected and taken home for good luck!

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Beat the Cat out of the Barrel

This feline torture sport comes courtesy of medieval Denmark’s Carnival, or Fastelavn, a celebration of the start of Lent.

It was a family activity meant to purge evil omens; a black cat was believed to embody the spirit of winter, and before spring could arrive, it had to be banished.

The black cat was basically a living pinata; once it tumbled out, it was at risk of being further beaten if it didn’t scamper away quickly enough.

A Cat Queen and Cat King would be crowned based on battering performance.

Head-butting the cat

The most grisly and weird cat sport so far comes from the fair grounds of 17th-century Italy.

An unlucky cat would be nailed to a post or tree, and young men with hands bound behind their backs would take turns kneeling in front of it and slamming into it with their foreheads.

The cat did not fare well.

Anti-Sorcery Measures

According to historian Robert Darnton, cat torture was seen as the one remedy to protect against sorcery; by breaking the cat, you broke its malevolent power.

Cats were ingredients in both witches’ brews and folk medicine, and to make yourself invisible, at least in Brittany, you were told to eat the still-warm brain of a just-killed cat. In more than one folktale women who consumed cats in stews gave birth to kittens.

Even the useful skill of catching mice was turned against cats by medieval writers, often comparing the way cats caught mice with how the devil could catch souls. For example, William Caxton wrote “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous

The devil’s spirit

The independent nature of cats may have been the source of all of this human anxiety. Medieval people generally believed that animals were created by God to serve and be ruled by humans, but the cat, even when domesticated, cannot be trained to be loyal and obedient like a dog.

Edward, Duke of York, writing in the early fifteenth-century, summed up what many medieval people must have thought: “their falseness and malice are well known. But one thing I dare well say that if any beast has the devil’s spirit in him without doubt it is the cat, both the wild and the tame.”

The great Cat Massacre

A group of French apprentices came to resent the house cats which were treated much better than they were. Not only were the apprentices mistreated, beaten and exposed to cold and horrible weather but they were fed “catfood”(rotting meat scraps) while the cats enjoyed their food. In an early form of worker’s protest, they decided to deal with the nuisance cats by slaughtering them so as to distress their masters.

One of the apprentices imitated a cat by screaming like one for several nights, making the printer and his wife despair. Finally, the printer ordered the cats rounded up and dispatched. The apprentices did this, rounded up all the cats they could find, beat them half to death and held a ‘trial’. They found the cats guilty of witchcraft and sentenced them to death by hanging.

Was there widespread cat killing?

I found no evidence from England of regular large-scale massacres of “satanic” cats, or of burning them in midsummer bonfires.

Not to say there weren’t mysterious incidents. For some reason, the inhabitants of Cambridge, England rose up against some 79 cats. The skeletons of the cats were recovered from a 13th century well. The animals had been killed by having their throats cut and were subsequently skinned and dismembered for consumption by the inhabitants of the town.

Meanwhile, on feast days all over Europe, as a symbolic means of driving out the Devil, cats were captured and tortured, tossed onto bonfires, set alight and chased through the streets, impaled on spits and roasted alive, burned at the stake, plunged into boiling water, whipped to death, and hurled from the tops of tall buildings, all in an atmosphere of a festive family fun day.

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Cathabilitation

Phew, things got a lot better for cats by the 18th Century. Not everyone believed in witches anymore. Europe was invaded by the brown rat (worse than the black rat) and cats became more valued as rat-catchers. As disease became associated with being dirty, the “clean” cat became associated with health.

We start to see pet cats in Europe in the mid-18th century, especially among artists and writers. Cats became rather sweetly associated with intellectuals.

By the early 19th century, there are descriptions of children playing with cats. No bomb fires, cages or belfries involved!

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.