Witches and Cats?
Again, contrary to popular belief, the idea that alleged witches were regularly victimised by the Church in the medieval period is largely incorrect. The heyday of the Witch Craze came much later, with its peak in the sixteenth century. The position of the Church for most of the Middle Ages was that “witches” did not exist and even that it was sinful to claim they did. This changed in the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, but this change seems to have been, at least in part, a reaction to the Black Death and only came much later in the fourteenth century. Fear of supposed witches does not manifest itself in any substantial way until long after the plague of the 1340s and there is no official Church acceptance of the existence of witches until 1484.
So while there is plenty of evidence for pogroms against Jews in the wake of the plague and clear evidence of revenge against other marginal groups, there is no evidence at all that I know of that “witches” were blamed. Which brings us to the claim about massacres of cats.
The story that the stupid medieval people, at the instigation of their even more stupid clergy, killed thousands of cats and so died in even greater numbers during the 1340s epidemic as a result is popular and widespread. A quick Google on relevant key words will turn up a plethora of articles of the “strange true facts about history” clickbait variety that repeat the story, such as “Cats and the Black Plague” or “That One Time The Pope Banned Cats And It Caused The Black Plague” or “Cat History: The Black Plague” or dozens of others. These articles are marked by a total lack of any reference to source material substantiating claims about a general medieval massacre of cats, a lack of any references to historical analysis of the Black Death or, if they have any references to the latter, a lack of any such references that actually mention any massacre of cats. Why? Because it did not happen.
The whole story is one of those pseudo historical urban myths that keeps getting repeated despite the fact it’s complete nonsense. And it gets repeated because it feels right to many people – it makes our ancestors look stupid and so make us feel smart, it blames the medieval Church for something that popular culture says is the kind of thing the medieval Church would do and it’s a nice story with an ironic ending. So no-one actually bothers to check on one rather important element: whether it is actually true.
The few versions of this story that bother to give anything like some substantiation claim that cats were declared servants of evil by Pope Gregory IX in 1232 or even that he declared that they should all be killed. That sounds highly specific and substantial, though some might notice that 1232 is over a century before the first appearance of the Black Death in 1347 and wonder why it took this long for any supposed cat massacre to cause the plague. Other versions of the story say the antipathy towards cats began with Gregory IX’s papal bull and then grew until the lack of cats in Europe made the plague particularly catastrophic.
But did Gregory IX declare all cats evil or order their destruction? Actually, no. The “1232” reference seems to be to Gregory’s papal bull Vox in Rama, issued in that year, which addressed an alleged outbreak of devil worship in Germany. This bull gives a description of the ceremonies of this group of “Luciferians”, which includes many standard tropes found in lurid medieval ideas about heretical practices. This involved visions of a giant toad, initiates kissing an emaciated pale man and finally a statue of a black cat coming to life and speaking with the initiates. Nowhere does the bull associate this diabolical cat with cats generally, condemn all cats or call for their slaughter. Yet the claim that this bull somehow did cause massacres of cats continues to be made, usually with no reference to any supporting evidence at all.
Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entries for both Pope Gregory IX and the bull Vox in Ramaperpetuate the idea that this pope and his bull caused a massacre of cats. And these claims and many of the ones in the articles noted above about the alleged cat massacre and the Black Death all reference one book as their support – Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat (Routledge, 2001) by Donald W. Engels. As far as I can tell, Engels is or was an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas and the author of a book on the logistics of Alexander the Great’s army. He certainly seems to like both Classical history and cats a lot. And he also seems to heartily dislike the Middle Ages.
The section in his book on the Black Death (pp. 160-162) is heavy on outdated cliches about medieval hygiene and the medieval Church but light on any substantiation about cat massacres. Engels declares confidently:
“For many years historians of medicine have understood that the virtual elimination of cats in medieval towns, beginning in the thirteenth century, led to an explosion in the black rat population. This in turn increased the virulence of the disease.”
This sounds all very authoritative and assured, but Engels doesn’t bother to actually give us any basis for this supposed understanding by “historians of medicine”. Or give any evidence that this “virtual elimination of cats” in medieval towns ever took place. I certainly don’t know of any sources that mention any such “elimination” and for animals that were virtually eliminated, cats sure as hell show up a lot in passing mentions, illuminations and marginalia from the period.
So not only do we have repeated references to cats being kept as pets – especially by nuns, showing that unmarried “cat ladies” have a long history – but, as the illuminations above show, cats were actually prized because they were good at controlling rodents. Medieval bestiaries talk about how useful cats are for catching mice and rats. Isidore of Seville thought the Latin name for the cat – cattus – came from the verb “to catch (mice)”. Most households kept cats both as mousers or simply as pets and etiquette books on how formal meals and feats should be conducted talk about how “dogs and cats” should be driven out of the hall before food was served. The thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse – a guide for female hermits – advises “[you] shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat”. Far from being “virtually eliminated”, medieval people rather liked cats.
The Origin of the Myth? Despite his confident assertions about medieval cat massacres, elsewhere in his book Engels lets it slip that this is only an “assumption”:
“There are depictions of cats being killed in medieval art, and this evidence remains to be collected and analyzed. The assumption is made, correctly in my opinion, based on artistic representations, folk traditions, and contemporary documents such as the Vox in Rama, that the cats were massacred with their female owners in large numbers. The cat population of the continent was probably decimated, especially in the towns where the culprits could be more easily rounded up.”
So it seems his confidence is actually not solidly based at all. There may well be “depictions of cats being killed in medieval art” (though I can’t find any at all), but there are also depictions of cats as pampered pets and valued mousers, so that is a flimsy basis for this “assumption” that this massacre “probably” happened. Engels seems to have happily accepted the myth of a massacre of cats after Vox in Rama without bothering to check it. Not surprisingly, the rest of his account of how this supposed lack of cats caused the plague is full of other popular but baseless ideas and his conception of medieval people as unwashed idiots who lived in piles of garbage and actually liked rats while killing cats is as bizarre as it is baseless. He repeats the myth that European Jews were spared the plague because they were cleaner than their neighbours. Importantly, he does not explain why the death rate in central Asia and the Middle East was just as high as in Christian Europe, even though those regions were well-beyond the reach of any papally-ordained cat massacres. And his reference in the quote above to cats being “massacred with their female owners in large numbers” indicates that he thinks the witch craze happened in the medieval period and that he has a general ignorance of the period. Perhaps Engels should stick to ancient Macedonian military logistics. So where did this idea of a medieval cat massacre come from? Like many myths that are projected back onto “the Middle Ages” (witch burning, an aversion to bathing), it seems loosely based on some much later incidents of killing animals as a reaction to other outbreaks of epidemics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And the targets of these examples seem to have been dogs more than cats, though they could include both. One thing that was notable about the Black Death and later European manifestations of the plague is that it seems to have affected many animals and livestock as well as humans. This means it killed rats in large numbers (possibly causing their fleas to seek human hosts), but we also have descriptions of dogs, cats and cattle dying. As a result, the main mentions of cats and dogs in accounts has them as victims of the epidemic, not as its cause. Despite this, we do have some evidence that dogs and, sometimes, cats were killed in reaction to later outbreaks. In Edinburgh in 1499 a city ordinance required stray dogs, cats and pigs be killed in reaction to an outbreak of disease, and this law was repeated in 1505 and 1585. We find a similar reaction in Seville in 1581 and in London in 1563 and again in 1665, where the victims were again mainly stray dogs rather than cats. The reason seems to have been the medical belief that stray animals spread the plague:
“From the later 15th century, such observers as Marsiglio Ficino began blaming animals – dogs that molested corpses made the most sense – for spreading plague, probably through miasma in their fur.” (Joseph P. Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, ABC-Clio, 2012, p. 13)
The fact that stray animals were blamed seems to indicate that animals that molested the corpses of victims or stirred up “bad air” in garbage were seen as the problem. But this evidence all dates to well after the late 1340s, was aimed largely at dogs rather than cats, had nothing to do with “witches” and was not due to anything done by the Church. So it seems the whole myth is the usual tangle of prejudices about the medieval Church, popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the general tendency for people to accept weird-sounding “true facts” about the past that perpetuate the idea that our ancestors were not as clever as us. Add a heavy dollop of anti-Christian bias and we can see why New Atheists like whoever is behind “No More Make Believe” on Facebook didn’t bother to check their facts. Militant online “rationalism” fails again. Edit 07.05.17: Not to be outdone, the “Philosophical Atheism” group on Facebook posted this version of the same nonsense today. What is it with these idiots?
Edit 23.05.17: After making detailed critical comments on this and other pseudo historical memes on the so-called “Philosophical Atheism” Facebook group I have now been banned from the group, blocked from commenting and all my many detailed comments have been erased. Thus another great victory has been won for “rationalism” and “free thought”.
There’s a bunch more, which is also informative and fun.