Cat lovers, be warned. The history of cats in the Middle Ages is gruesome. Medieval theories about cats claimed that they were cruel creatures that were in league with the Devil and witches. These beliefs were used to justify unimaginably cruel torture, even worse than the cat howling of the “cat piano.”
Cat legends and myths claimed that heretics worshipped cats and kissed them below the tail. Rumors flew that witches could transform into cats to bite and scratch babies. Even the pope answered the questions “are cats the Devil?” and “are cats demonic creatures?” with a resounding yes, setting off centuries of cat slaughter.
The cruel torture methods included cat burning, throwing cats from towers, and tying rockets to the backs of cats. The fear of black cats meant that they were thrown into barrels and beaten like piñatas or executed like witches. Even now, black cats are less likely to be adopted. The dark history of European cat torture is a reminder of how cruel humans can be.
The Ancient Egyptians revered cats – they even worshiped cats as goddesses. The penalties for hurting or killing a cat were severe in Egypt, and they loved cats so much that they even mummified cats. One Egyptian cat cemetery contained over 300,000 cat mummies. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that when a cat died in Egypt, “All the inhabitants of a house shave their eyebrows [as a sign of deep mourning]. Cats which have died are... embalmed and buried in sacred receptacles."
Cats were also popular in Ancient Greece and Rome. They didn't use cats as hunters – instead, they kept domesticated weasels for pest control – but pet cats were treated well. The Romans saw the cat as a symbol of independence. But everything changed in medieval Europe, when cats became associated with the Devil.
While the Ancient Romans celebrated the independence of cats, medieval Europeans were troubled by it. Medieval Christians believed that God had given them dominion over the Earth’s animals – but cats refused to be tamed. The dog, man’s best friend, could be taught loyalty and obedience, but no amount of cajoling could convince a cat to act similarly.
Historian Irina Metzler argues that the independent nature of cats caused anxiety for medieval Europeans. In the early 15th century, Edward, the Duke of York, had harsh words for cats. “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.”
Since the beginning, felines have been known for catching mice. For centuries, people around the world have found this very helpful: mice love to eat people’s food, and cats take care of the problem. But medieval writers had such a negative view of cats that they even skewered them for catching mice. Cats hunting mice were compared to the Devil snaring people’s souls. William Caxton wrote, “the Devil plays often with the sinner, just as the cat does with the mouse.”
Hunting cats were seen as cruel animals who tormented mice, enjoying their pain. This reinforced the rumors that linked cats to the Devil. Rather than adorable and helpful pets, medieval Europeans began to see cats as pure evil.
In 1232, Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull called Vox in Rama. It viciously attacked heretics with claims that they worshipped the Devil, participated in orgies, and ate babies. The Pope also claimed that heretics worshipped black cats. During their evil banquets, a black cat would emerge, walking backward, and each heretic would kiss the cat below the tail. After the ritual cat kissing, the heretics would worship the black cat.
This text created a long association between cats and evil in the minds of medieval Europeans. When the first major witch trials began in the 15th century, cats were accused of helping witches. Rumors about the evil nature of cats multiplied. Cats bit and scratched babies. Witches rode on cats to their evil parties. And witches could even turn into cats.