On cats

The other night I was mindlessly scrolling about on my phone through Instagram, as one does when they really ought to go to bed but are stuck being entertained instead of resting, when I came upon a video of a cute stripey cat. This ordinarily would not be the sort of thing that you would come to a medieval history blog to read about, I will grant you. However, what seems to have been usually just an account with a cute little cat strayed into my danger zone by claiming that the “Black Plague had a lot to do with cats” and, oh babes, it got worse from there.

According to the cute cat website “religious leaders” in the fourteenth century “labeled cats as evil” “especially black cats” which led to a mass cull of cats across Europe, and that “even cat owners were taken out of fear that they were evil witches”. Apparently, the lack of cats “made the rat population explode. [and so] Disease carrying rats multiplied and spread the Black Death.”

Warning! Graphic/made up story!!!
The cat is cute, and does not deserve to be used for LIES.
Free the cat, IMO.

This post, which I have gone to look at again in order to write this is up, was up to 104k likes at the time of writing this. This, obviously, reflects how cute the cats are, but is pretty disappointing considering that everything it reported is totally made up and not real.

Let’s go piece by piece.

First of all, I would like to ask which “religious leaders” this cat account thinks condemned cats in the fourteenth century. Cuz here’s the thing – we don’t have a single document that says this happened. None. Not from a pope, not from a bishop, not from a popular preacher who likes to blame all of society’s ills on weird shit, not a one. So that’s weird right? You would think that if there was a massive cat killing free-for-all spurned on by “religious leaders” you could show people where that happened. Moreover, if everyone decided that they were going to get up tomorrow and kill every cat that they came across, someone would have taken the time to write down all the cat killing somewhere. In a chronicle! In a letter to someone else! Literally at all!

You would see some kind of documentation, because a mass cull of cats would represent a huge 180 from standard medieval practice surrounding the animals, because medieval people fucking loved cats. The little guys show up in medieval marginalia hunting mice and being cute:

Un bebe in British Library MS Harley 928 f. 44v .

Sometimes they are chilling in houses making sure that there were no mice around the food:

Stripey! British Library Additional MS 35313. fol. 1v.

Or sometimes just being a cute lil’ family of black cats marching about. Not being declared evil:

Bodlian Library MS BODL. 533.

They also show up in medieval manuscripts because they walked across them and left their little paw prints:

FEETS! Burney MS 326, f. 104v.

…or because they peed on the manuscripts and the monks that owned them complained about them…

“Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book!” Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r.

When they were less annoyed the monks would sometimes draw little doodles of them dressed up as monks:

BnF, Latin 1178, fol. 37v

Notice there where there’s cats walking around monastic libraries peeing on things and having monks draw little pictures? Yes, I said monks. You know, religious guys. Monks were noted cat havers, as rodents would come eat manuscript pages (because they are made of animal skin) and you want a little guy on patrol in order to prevent that.

A little cat patrolling St Mark’s books, British Library Add MS 35313, f. 16v.

In fact, we even have images of cats hanging out with religious men from the fourteenth century, when allegedly that had all been massacred, to whit:

Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264

 They were also considered absolutely essential for keeping stocks of food clear of vermin and were active in monastery kitchens.

A fire in a Monastery kitchen, featuring a scared cat, who was presumably on patrol. The Monks are pouring water over someone who was burnt. Morgan Library MS M.184 fol. 19v.

Clearly then, cats had jobs and they were very much welcome in plenty of religious spaces, as opposed to having been “condemned” by a “leader”.

Elsewhere cats were particularly associated with nuns and even anchoresses. Anchoresses, who were a type of woman religious person who locked herself up in a cell or sometimes a church in order to contemplate God had a nice manual written in the thirteenth century called the Ancrene Wisse stating that if you wanted to get into the religious house arrest business it was important that you “should have no animal but one cat only.”[1] Cats, were an indispensable part of the monastic landscape who served both as workers and as companions.

A nun and her cat, British Library  Stowe MS 17, f. 34r.

Now, to be fair, I am giving you a thirteenth-century example about religious approval for cats, and the cat account says that cats were culled in the fourteenth century. But if there was suddenly a huge prohibition of cats you would expect that the religious guys who were writing little poems to their feline companions a second ago would probably write down the fact that they had just decided to kill their pet. And they don’t. And here’s the thing – the Church says a lot of stuff, and we know about what the Church says because of how source survival works. They are, for all intents and purposes, a massive legal entity, at least from the twelfth century onward. So, they write down everything they want people to do, and make legal arguments for various practices and tenets of faith. And they have the money and space to keep excellent records so not having a single scrap of information that one day some “leader” woke up and demanded a cat massacre is almost assuredly impossible.

But just to be kind, let’s do a little thought experiment and pretend that the Church did condemn all cats and that we just … lost every single piece of documentation that show this to be the case. Here’s the thing about medieval people – they aren’t exactly slavishly devoted to the precepts of the Church. The Church can go ahead and tell you something is sinful, but that doesn’t mean that anyone listened, particularly if it was condemning something they really liked. As I always say, if medieval people all listened to everything the Church had to say no one in the entire medieval period would have been born in the month of September, because sex is supposed to be off the menu during Advent. Spoiler: Virgos and Libras still existed in the medieval period. And sure, sex is sex and not cat ownership. But medieval people still had pets and thought of their animals fondly. Would you up and kill your kitten just because someone told you to do so? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Neither would they.

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Of course, the cat video (the cat video) maybe presents a reason why cat owners might off their pets on the whims of an unspecified “religious leader” which is that cat owners in the fourteenth-century were accused of being witches and killed. Yeah, here’s the thing about that, which I am so so tired of having to write down: witch panics are not a feature of medieval society. Indeed, medieval people didn’t really believe in the concept at all. Even in the fifteenth century when the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, a witch-hunting guide was written it had to justify its very existence because no one believed that ol’ Heinrich Kramer was right about witches existing. This is why he starts off with a long preamble defending the belief in witches as a whole.[2] His ideas aren’t taken with any degree of seriousness until the following centuries when you are smack dab in the early modern period and also, crucially, a couple of centuries past the Black Death.

If there was a major witch panic, we would have details. We would have the documentation that the Church had called for people to be killed for owning cats. We would have literally anything that indicates that this is true. But we don’t. Because it is not. The figure of the witch and the worry about her familiars is a modern concern and has nothing to do with the Black Death.

Finally let’s just look at the overall claim in general. The cat account (I am sorry, I am just super frustrated by the fact that a cat account is trying to do history, doing pseudo-history, and that people are GIVING IT THE TIME OF DAY. What is happening? Why? Can somebody please hold me and tell me it will be alright???) wants you to know that the Black Death happened because there were no cats and “disease spreading rats” were out of control.

A cat catching a mouse in the Macclesfield Psalter, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 1-2005, fol. 106r.

Well, first off, yersinia pestis is spread by fleas, not rats. So jot that down. Yeah, the fleas are on the rats, but it’s not, like, the rats that are doing it. Know how I know? Well because those fleas probably came off of marmots first. So, it’s completely possible for people to get the plague with no rats involved. And they did. Where the plague originated, which we currently think is probably modern-day Kyrgyzstan.[3] So, cats don’t really play into the origin of the Black Death at all, because while I am sure they might attempt to kill a marmot, those suckers are pretty big, and not really traditional prey for cats.

Secondly, you may notice that the prevailing idea of the emergence of the Black Death currently locates it in present-day Kyrgyzstan which, notably, isn’t really under the influence of the medieval Church. The nebulous “religious leaders” that the cat video warns you about? Not present on the steppe, where you largely see Muslim, animist, and Buddhist influences, though we certainly have Nestorian Christian graves which state that the inhabitants of said graves died of plague.[4] But, notably, the Church doesn’t control the Nestorian branch of the faith. So, if the reason the Black Death spreads is that there are no cats to kill rats because of religion, how did everyone in Kyrgyzstan get the Black Death? More to the point how did people get it in China?[5] And in India? And in the Middle East? And in Northern Africa? The Black Death hit afro-eurasia. Not just Europe. People would do well to remember that the fourteenth century was happening everywhere at the same time, and that the medieval world was actually really well connected, spreading things like silks, wines, furs, spices, and also diseases around.

Thirdly, even if we pretended that the cat account wasn’t just making up weird shit for clicks and there was a cat crackdown in Europe which contributed to the spread of Black Death, you would expect to see a higher death rate in Europe than you do in Africa and Asia. We do not. Sure, there are certain places that have a higher mortality rate in Europe, like Florence where it may have been as high as sixty percent of the population. But there’s also places like Bohemia where it is lower, but still present.[6] These higher mortality rates seem to correlate much more with population density than with an imaginary cat massacre. You see huge levels of mortality in all of the great fourteenth-century cities inside and outside of Europe and this has absolutely nothing to do with a cat cull, and everything to do with the difficulties of suppressing communicable diseases when people are living on top of each other.

So anyway, the cat video is wrong. And I know I shouldn’t get bent out of shape about it, but weird pseudo-history like this is an issue. When people think that the Middle Ages is a place full of superstitious backwards religious fanatics it allows them to think they can just ignore over a thousand years of history because all you are going to see is disease and cat murder. This then allows stupid ideas like this to perpetuate and exacerbates the problem further. Suddenly the only people paying attention to medieval history are weirdo trad people who can bend the truth to suit their own aims, and baby, we cannot have that.

I am not asking people to stop make adorable cat content. I love adorable cat content which is why the algorithm sent me his video in the first place. What I am asking is that people who make sweet animal content please not spread misinformation based on vibes they picked up somewhere along the way. Cats have always been doted on. Medieval people are people. They’d probably like your video if they’d lived to see it and you were slagging them all off in it. Maybe focus on making the kind of sweet content that we can all enjoy.

[1]Robert Hasenfratz (ed.), Ancerene Wisse, part 8,  https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hasenfrantz-ancrene-wisse-part-eight <Accessed 15 May 2023>, 76-79.
[2] Malleus Maleficarum, Part 1, Question I, “Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.” https://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/mm/mm01_01a.htm, <Accessed 15 May 2023>.
[3] Galina Eroshenko et al., “Yersinia pestis Strains of Ancient Phylogenetic Branch 0.ANT are Widely Spread in the High-Mountain Plague Foci of Kyrgyzstan,” PLOS ONE 12, no. 10 (2017): e0187230.
[4] Uli Schamiloglu, “The Impact of the Black Death on the Golden Horde: Politics, Economy, Society, Civilization,” Golden Horde Review 5, no. 2 (2017): 325–43. Bruce Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 242.
[5] Robert Hymes, “A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy,” The Medieval Globe 1 (2014), 295.
[6] Continuatio Francisci Pragensis, in, FRA, (Vienna: In commission bei K. Gerold’s Sohn, 1875), p. 603.

For more on the Black Death, see:
I assure you, the Black Death was really bad
On collapsing time, or, not everyone will be taken into the future
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
Chatting about plague for HistFest
A Black Death reading list
On individual blame for global crisis
Not every pandemic is the Black Death
On the plague, sex, and rebellion

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

4 thoughts on “On cats”

  1. I too had also heard about cat massacres growing up (I think it was mentioned in the Measly Middle Ages book I owned as a child, but don’t quote me on that). Definitely made me feel sad for the kitties at the time; glad to hear it wasn’t true.

    Having done some light research, Vox in Rama, the decree by Pope Gregory IX mentions black cats being part of Satanic rituals so maybe that is where the myth sprang from?


  2. I remember hearing something similar in the 90s but it was that people thought that cats and rat dogs were helping spread the plague so they were killed and this ironically made it worse.


  3. I remember reading that Iceland had the Black Death, even if rats weren’t established there yet. So rats were not necessary.


  4. Great article, I loved it… I had vaguely heard the canard about cats and the Plague and it always seemed dubious to me, so I’m glad to have your excellent demolition of it.


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