“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this” – Terry Pratchett
If I was a cat god, I would be looking for payback. The imminence of the retribution of Felis silvestrius catus for the sins of our human fathers may account for the polite disdain with which they regard mankind. And rest assured a feline reckoning is a foregone conclusion, given our traditional treatment of their species. Once considered divinities, from Egypt’s Bastet, to China’s Li Shou, to the pre-Incan Ai-Apaec, to Poland’s Ovinnik, over time the cat descended into ill repute and for centuries has suffered from mistreatment, murder, accusations of witchcraft, and suspicions of infanticide, repeatedly subjected to genocidal pogroms, all the while steadfastly laboring to rid the world of mice. Cat massacres are not the stuff of legend, and have recurred with disturbing frequency throughout history. Whether the massacre of cats has been inspired by theology, superstition, public health, politics, or culinary preferences, the long suffering cat has continuously found itself the target of human depredation and insanity. The aloof attitude of the cat towards the humans it associates with has no doubt bred our resentment, for it does not seem to demonstrate the proper deference we expect from a domesticated animal, but as Paul Gray commented, “cats were put into the world to disprove the dogma that all things were created to serve man”. We find this unacceptable, thus when a scapegoat for our relative powerlessness is needed, we turn on the cat. And one day, the cat behaviors that we take to be an adorable expression of an animal with aristocratic pretensions will turn out to be the foundation of a subtle stratagem secretly whispered among cats and likely referred to as the “final solution to the human problem”. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Frankly, we’ve got it coming.
Pope Gregory IX (1170-1241 A.D.), born Ugolino di Conti, was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he. He called for papal supremacy. He called for a crusade, and he called for an Inquisition. One would think that pretty much constitutes three strikes, but apparently he was a relatively complex dude without whom the Dominican and Franciscan orders probably would have eventually been declared heretical, or at least in bad taste. He also has the dubious distinction of likely precipitating the first major recorded slaughter of cats in Europe. Before that, cat’s had a pretty good run, being marginally domesticated by roughly 7500 B.C. in the Middle East, probably due to the fact that we were busy settling down and storing agricultural surpluses and needed some cheap labor to keep away the vermin. The Egyptians mummified them out of respect. Aristocrats in Song Dynasty China prized long-hairs as pets of leisure. The ancient Greeks associated them with cleanliness. Even early Medieval Europeans waffled on the cat question. Vikings loved them. Black cats were even thought to portend good luck in England and Scotland. The Celts were on the fence, with the fairy Cat Sidhe suspected of soul-stealing, but it was rumored that on Samhain, the Cat Sidhe would bless a kind house that left out a saucer of milk for him (fairly standard Celtic fairy behavior). Unfortunately, bad times for our feline friends were just on the horizon.
Right after being elevated to Pope in 1227, Gregory IX, who up until then was known as a kind and charitable fellow, went all gangster. He commissioned an overzealous inquisitor name Konrad von Marburg (1195-1233) to go after heretics in Germany, excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II for not getting on board with the Sixth Crusade to regain Jerusalem, and when it turned out that the standard Episcopal Inquisition (the onus of finding heretics was put on local bishops) wasn’t especially effective, he organized the Papal Inquisition, a centrally run Inquisition staffed by full time, “trained” inquisitors and judges exclusively from the Franciscan and Dominican orders, scrupulously documenting trials and procedures, and generally laying the groundwork for what the nastier forms of the Inquisition would look like over the next few hundred years. Apologists have noted that what Gregory IX was trying to do was make the whole rooting out of heresy thing more legalistic, rather than the haphazard and often politically motivated inquisitions that had taken place up until then, often characterized by mob violence. Apparently he was not all that big on the burning thing, and conflicts kept arising between civil and church law, and the secular authorities were big into the bonfires, whereas Gregory IX thought the whole point was to try to bring heretics back into the fold. Apparently, Pope Gregory IX also hated cats. While he didn’t expressly order that we dispose of the entire feline species, he did issue a papal bull sometime in the 1230’s called the Vox in Rama condemning a German version of heresy called Luciferian in which he is said to have repeated claims from Inquisitor Konrad von Marburg that black cats were essential as a stand in for the devil in the diabolical rituals of what Marburg identified as a satanic cult. Marburg was a jerk and all about torture and terror, but it sounded pretty serious, so Gregory’s papal bull exhorted King Henry VII of Germany and the Archbishop of Mainz to do something about it.
The devil now first appeared amongst the male heretics in the form of tom-cats and he-goats; amongst the women as toads and geese, and finally as cats. Gregory IX writes of such toads and geese to Prince Henry, the son of the Emperor Frederick, as “the outwardly evil shapes, because his inner person was overcome by Jesus Christ.” After many witches and three wizards had been burnt at Trier, the burning of such people, according to Semler, spread extensively in those countries, quite to the Rhine, so that at length earnest complaints were made in Mainz, that many totally innocent people had been burnt, because they would not confess that they were occasionally toads; and one Ansfried there confessed that he had himself put many innocent people to death for that reason. And now the frenzy passed over from old women and common people to nobles and counts, and they were accused of witchcraft with such unsparing violence that the evil was obliged to be put an end to (Ennemoser, 1854, p148).
A few decades of black cat killing ensued, having been officially vilified as an incarnation of Satan, and there are disproportionately fewer black cats in Europe to this day as a result. This is also likely where the strong association of witches and cats originated, that persists even today in the western world, even though traditionally witches familiars included a wide variety of potential animals (dogs, toads, bats, horses, and weasels to name a few). The fact that there were also a few pagan cat gods out there no doubt contributed as well. The forces of the anti-cat had been loosed upon the world, and until folks started to point out that people who wantonly murder household pets tend to also wet the bed, set fires, and have an unfortunate tendency to eventually go after humans in a psychopathic rage, it was open season on our feline friends for all manner of imagined offenses. Although of no solace to the feline victims, the widespread elimination of cats did have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the Medieval Black Plague, since it led to a surge in the European rat population, and rats were largely responsible for the rapid spread of the disease. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, as they say.
Swiss artist Gottfried Mind (1768-1814 A.D.) has been referred to as “the Raphael of Cats”, as he was an autistic savant with a supernatural ability to render the cat in his paintings, and kept cats about him like children. In discussing his biography, an incident is tangentially mentioned – the massacre of cats by the police of Berne, Switzerland in 1809.
Mind probably never in his whole life experienced more profound grief than that which was caused by the general massacre of cats by the police of Berne, in 1809. This severe measure was dictated by terror; an epidemic of madness having broken out among the cats. He contrived to save his dear Minette by hiding her, but his sorrow for the death of the eight hundred cats that were sacrificed to the public safety was overwhelming: he never was entirely consoled. It gave him great pleasure to examine pictures or drawings which represented animals. Woe to the painters who had not represented his favourite species with perfect fidelity! They obtained no favour from him, let their talent in any other direction be ever so great (Champfleury, 1885, p185).
Again, in 1889, the British Veterinary Journal cited an instance of the massacre of cats that occurred in Corbeil, France where the mere presence of a single rabid cat led to the wholesale slaughter of every cat the locals could get their hands on. Of course, the British never have anything nice to say about the French, but they earnestly desired that the remaining cats would be spared, if nothing else, to prevent rodents from getting too uppity. Maybe they remembered how things worked out in the 13th Century.
A Massacre of Cats.—A terrible carnage of cat? has been organised at Corbeil, not far from Paris. Two persons living in the town were bitten by a local “tabby,” which was declared rabid by a veterinary surgeon, whereupon the destruction of the town pussies en masse was decreed by the inhabitants. It is to be hoped, however, that the people who have organized the massacre will be brought to their senses before they pave the way for a plague of rats and mice—a contingency to which their present wild and extraordinary conduct would seem to point (British Veterinary Journal, 1889, p226).
The French seem particularly ill-disposed towards cats, as certain aristocrats appear to have been busy enacting their own feline version of The Hunger Games.
The Marquis of H., who passes through Lyons once a year on his way from England to Italy, has several dogs of a large strong breed, favorites to the degree that they always occupied cushions in the carriage, till medical advice, in consequence of their loss of health, obliged them sometimes to run behind. Mortal enemies to cats, I was rather surprised, when desired to guess how many they had destroyed on their way from Rome, to hear a thousand francs’ worth, “pour mille francs de chats.” Most cat proprietors placed the lame or infirm in the way of his lordship’s dogs, and set their own value on them after the massacre. It, however, once happened, that an ancient landlady thus lost a large Angola, an old friend of the family, and, in her wrath and sorrow, for the Marquis of H.’s dinner she served up its mangled remains before him in a basket (Holmes, 1842, p191).
Another incident in Paris in 1857, while gruesome, adds an epicurean angle. This was still not good for cats.
An incident occurred a week or two since in Paris which seems to indicate that animal comestibles are still more varied than is popularly believed. Three individuals were found by the police engaging in a massacre of cats. Two out of three escaped; but one was taken with his game-bag full. On examination by the magistrate next morning, the man confessed that cat-hunting was his profession. His modus operandi was to throw out a ball of liver into the street, which never failed to attract the wandering cats of the neighbourhood; these were immediately pounced upon by a trained terrier, and held down till the hunter came and finished the business with a heavy club. The same thing was repeated in other streets, and the fruits of the night’s labour were disposed of on the following day at the various restaurants of the city (Hogg, 1857, p470).
Cats were subjected to revolutionary style kangaroo courts in a revolt of printer’s apprentices against the oppressive behavior of their employers in Paris, France of the 1730’s, illuminated in great detail in historian Richard Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. Some people clearly didn’t get Darnton’s point and criticized him for discussing the fact that killing cats was perceived as hilarious by the embittered apprentices (his point being that when examining history, you are essentially transported into an “alien” mindset, which our modern sensitivities often seem to forget). This episode of retribution against cats for the poor conditions suffered by apprentices is often remarked upon as an earlier form of protest of working conditions. This of course did not help the cats, pouring salt in the historical wounds of a species that is patient, well-armed, and biding its time in many households until the order goes forth to exact revenge upon the human pestilence.
The supreme “copie” during Jerome’s years in the shop was staged by his fellow apprentice Leveille, who had an unusual talent for mimicry. Forced to get up early and work late before retiring to a miserable room in the attic, the boys thought they were being treated like animals—worse, in fact, than the favorite animal of the household, a pet cat called “la grise,” who ate choice morsels from the master’s wife’s plate. Early one morning, Leveille decided he had had enough of this injustice. He crawled out on the roof near the master’s bedroom window and began to howl and meow so loudly that he woke up the bourgeois and the bourgeoise. After a week of this treatment, the master commissioned the boys to get rid of the cats, and they gladly complied. Gleefully the two apprentices organized a cat massacre. Armed with tools from the shop, they clubbed every cat they could find, beginning with la grise. They staged a mock execution, stationing guards, naming a confessor, and pronouncing the sentence. Then they stood back and roared with laughter as a burlesque hangman dispatched the cats on an improvised gallows. The master’s wife arrived in the midst of the fun and thinking she had seen la grise dangling from the noose, let out a scream. There was little the master could do, aside from scolding the men for slacking off work, because he had provided the occasion for the slaughter in the first place. The scene ended with the bourgeois retreating before a fresh chorus of laughter, and then it passed into the lore of the shop. For months afterward, Leveille reenacted the entire episode in a kind of vaudeville routine, a copie of a copie, which provided the shop with comic relief whenever work began to drag. After he finished his number, the workers would express their delight by running composing sticks over the type cases, banging hammers against chases, and bleating like goats. They had got the master’s goat, had made him “prendre le chevre” (Darnton, 1983, p46).
It’s only a matter of time until the cats rise up and avenge themselves for our atrocities. Perhaps you are a cat person and believe that the belly rubs, warm laps, ear scratches, and catnip you’ve bestowed upon your beloved cat will save you, that your faithful feline will speak in your favor at the guillotine. Do not be fooled as the cats have not forgotten, for as Mark Twain observed, “The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid, either”. Your death will come not with a bang, but a purr.
Champfleury, 1821-1889. The Cat, Past and Present. London: G. Bell & sons, 1885.
Darnton, Robert. “Work and Culture in an Eighteenth-Century Printing Shop”. Library of Congress. The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 39:1. Washington, D.C.: The Library, 1983.
Ennemoser, Joseph, 1787-1854. The History of Magic. London: H.G. Bohn, 1854.
Holmes, Augusta Macgregor, d. 1857. A Ride On Horseback to Florence Through France And Switzerland. London: J. Murray, 1842.
Repplier, Agnes, 1855-1950. The Fireside Sphinx. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and co., 1901.
Hogg, James. “Dr. Vogel”. Titan: A Monthly Magazine v25 (July-Dec). London, 1857.
“Notes and News”. British Veterinary Journal and Annals of Comparative Pathology v29. July, 1889.
Fascinating material! I plan to read more about this subject. I had only a vague idea about this horrific side of the history of cats. Thank you for posting.
You state that “there are disproportionately fewer black cats in Europe to this day as a result.”. What would the correct proportion be?
As black cats are not a specific breed, rather the expression of a recessive gene, I imagine geneticists can tell you what the expected proportion of black cats to other kinds of cats in the European population would be had there not been a concerted effort to get rid of all the black cats over the years, in the same way that we know the relative proportions we expect to see of male to female cats. Of course, some folks say one black cat is too many….