The Devil's Handmaiden: Cat's in The Middle Ages


The superstitious beliefs which characterized the Dark Ages created some dark times for cats as well as humans. Christianity differed dramatically from the animal worshiping religions of the ancient world. The world order radically shifted and animals were no longer seen as possible expressions of the divine. Man was the only animal made in God’s image and the rest of the animal kingdom under his dominion.


The independent cat did not sit well with this Medieval mindset of complete sovereignty and their notorious imperviousness may have contributed to the perception that they somehow existed outside of the natural order. The second Duke of Norwich and grandson to Edward III summed the attitude up best when he said: “The falseness and malice [of cats] 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.”


Many of the cat’s woes began with Pope Gregory IX. Most known for his hatred of pagan religions and his proclivity for fear mongering, he declared war on unsuspecting felines by delivering the Vox in Rama in 1233, a controversial papal bull which was designed to stamp out heresy and branded the cat, especially black cats, as demonic creatures. From that point forward, millions of cats were barbarically tortured and massacred in the name of Christ.


In France, spectators gathered at Easter, Halloween and Mid Summer’s Day to witness the burning of cats either individually or collectively placed in a barrel and lowered into flames. In celebration of Lent in Denmark, crowds would trap black cats in barrels and then hit them with stick and clubs until it busted open like a pinata. If any cats, managed to escape, they would be chased and beaten to death. In Belgium, it was tradition to drag cats up the belfry of the local church and propel them to the cobblestone streets below. If any remained alive, they were beaten to death or set on fire. By the 17th century the depravity had become even more barbaric and cats being nailed to trees and beaten to death were common.

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.


In France, spectators gathered at Easter, Halloween and Mid Summer’s Day to witness the burning of cats either individually or collectively placed in a barrel and lowered into flames. In celebration of Lent in Denmark, crowds would trap black cats in barrels and then hit them with stick and clubs until it busted open like a pinata. If any cats, managed to escape, they would be chased and beaten to death. In Belgium, it was tradition to drag cats up the belfry of the local church and propel them to the cobblestone streets below. If any remained alive, they were beaten to death or set on fire. By the 17th century the depravity had become even more barbaric and cats being nailed to trees and beaten to death were common.


European and British settlers in the new world carried their superstitions into the new world and not only universally vilified felines, but also any people who would entertain them as pets. Many people were considered heretics entranced by the “heinous beasts” for even expressing affection for the unfortunate creatures.


Fortunately for cats, the development of the modern-day concept of the household pet began to emerge in the West between the 14th and 16th centuries. By the 16th century, social bonds between animals and humans became increasingly common and the cat was poised for a comeback.







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