Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Demonization of Cats

Here is a description of a medieval cult:
At length, when the novice has come forward, [he] is met by a man of wondrous pallor, who has black eyes and is so emaciated [and] thin that since his flesh has been wasted, seems to have remaining only skin drawn over [his] bone. The novice kisses him and feels cold, [like] ice, and after the kiss the memory of the [C]atholic faith totally disappears from his heart. Afterwards, they sit down to a meal and when they have arisen from it, the certain statue, which is usual in a sect of this kind, a black cat descends backwards, with its tail erect. First the novice, next the master, then each one of the order who are worthy and perfect, kiss the cat on its buttocks. Then each [returns] to his place and, speaking certain responses, they incline their heads toward to cat. 
This is from a papal bull called Vox in Rama ["A Voice in Ramah"], issued by Pope Gregory IX somewhere from 1232 to 1234, condemning a German heresy. There is more, outlining the practices of this form of devil worship, requiring German authorities to root out and stop this practice, and kicking off a demonization of cats that caused them—especially black cats—to be killed in large numbers. This destruction of cats, and the subsequent increase in rodents population, enhanced the spread of the Black Death a little over a century later.

...and it is all very likely untrue.

Let us start with the Black Death: killing all the black cats—or even more cats—in Western Europe would not stop the spread of the Plague in India, China, Constantinople, etc. The earliest text we have of Vox in Rama is from an 1883 collection printed in Germany of Latin texts. It is possible that Gregory sent a letter to Germany that got collected here, but it does not sound like a typical papal bull. If his injunctions were applied at all, they may have been applied only locally in a very few areas.

Some even question whether it is a late forgery: Gregory was very erudite, and a lawyer. This document is very unlike any of his writings. It seems like a document created later to support a theory of devil worship.

This was not necessary to stain the reputation of cats, however. The 12th century English author Walter Map had already associated cats with witches who take feline form in De nugis curialium [Latin: "The trifles of courtiers"]. He relates many supernatural folktales.

Maybe the independent nature of cats bothered people, who felt that creatures were created by God to be subservient to man. Maybe the fact that Muslims liked cats—Muhammad speaks well of them—made cats seem pagan and suspicious. Some combination of circumstances singled out cats for vilification. We will probably never know for certain the underlying reason.

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