The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague

Matthew Weber - July 29, 2017

In the mid-1300s, there was an outbreak of plague so virulent that it killed between 75 and 200 million people in Asia and Europe. That is a staggering number of people for that time period, especially considering that the populations of Asia and Europe consisted of the majority of Earth’s population at the time. If the numbers we found are true, the total population of Earth in 1300 was between 300 and 500 million people. Killing off 200 million of those, if the top-end estimates are correct, make the Black Death the worst disaster in human history by far (percentage-wise at least).

Over the centuries there have been numerous attempts at trying to figure out what caused the Black Death. The prevailing idea is that the disease was carried by rats, and passed to humans through fleas. Bubonic Plague is known to travel in that manner.

Over the last few decades, however, that idea has been debated hotly, and other ideas have been proposed. The main idea that contradicts the idea that the plague was born through rats is that it wasn’t bubonic plague at all, but was instead pneumonic in nature, enabling the disease to pass from human to human.

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague
Painting illustrates the devastation of the Black Death. The National Interest

Through archeology, we know that the disease originated in Asia, and moved along the Silk Road (one of the busiest trading routes of the day) towards the west. According to several estimates, the East was hit with much higher mortality rates due to the disease than the countries to the west. According to historian Philip Daileader, who specializes in medieval history:

“The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45-50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75-80% of the population. In Germany and England … it was probably closer to 20%.”

Other historians suggest that the mortality rates were higher to 60 percent in the West and even higher in the East. The bottom line is that this was a major disaster that remains shrouded in mystery to this very day. With the virulence of the disease and the lack of proper medical care, hope was in short supply in Eurasia for the years between 1346-53.

From a cultural perspective, the disease was often seen as a punishment by God, who was punishing humanity for its sins. Other religious people blamed the Jewish people because of pogroms that erupted throughout Europe during those times. Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time, had to release two papal bulls in 1348 condemning people who blamed the Jews for the plague, saying that they had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He, showing a lot of common sense, wrote: “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.”

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague
Huffington Post

Cats are Cuddly But Are Also the Devil

Most people think cats are cute. Unless you’re allergic or have some sort of superstition, cats are adorable. But that wasn’t always the case. There is a reason why black cats are considered part of witchcraft, and it really all starts out several years before the outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-1300s.

Ugolino di Conti was born sometime around 1145. In the grand scheme of things, he would have been a nobody in history if not for the fact that in March of 1227 he was elected as Pope. Even then, as Gregory IX, he would likely have gone down as just another pope who led the Catholic Church through crusades and inquisitions (of which there were many such popes).

What makes him interesting, is that he is almost solely responsible for the persecution, shall we say, of black cats. Every Halloween it isn’t unusual to see black cat decorations out on lawns or displayed in windows, as everyone has come to know the black cat as a symbol of witchcraft and superstition.

It all started sometime in 1232, 1233 or 1234 (the exact date is lost to us), when Pope Gregory IX issued a church document that proclaimed the black cat as an incarnation of Satan and issued a death warrant for every black cat in Christendom. For some unknown reason, this death sentence was spread to almost all cats at the time, and the cat population significantly declined.

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague
Pope Gregory IX. NYU Press

The Papal Bull, which portrayed the black cat as a demon, was called Vox in Rama and was mainly a condemnation of German heresy. The bull also claimed that the devil would appear as half man, half feline.

Oddly, “cat massacres” are not at all uncommon in history, especially after the publication of Vox in Rama. Many reasons have been given for pogroms against cats, such as religion, superstition, concerns over public health, politics, and (grossly) cat-based delicacies (as in food).

The question is why. Why are cats constantly demonized by humans (especially with the consequences of doing so as we’ll see in the next part of this article)? Psychologists have actually studied this, and along with historians have come up with some fairly interesting (and often entertaining) answers. The one we enjoyed the most comes from an author named Paul Gray who writes “Cats were put into the world to disprove the dogma that all things were created to serve man.” Apparently somehow this basic truth, according to Gray, offends humans who use it as an excuse to blame cats for when things go wrong.

Now there is quite a bit of debate over whether or not Pope Gregory IX had anything to do with the initial demonization of cats. Some historians claim that there is no mention whatsoever of cats in Vox in Rama and that the superstition of cats came from some other source. But there is enough evidence that this did happen that the controversy is likely to exist for a long time to come. The important thing to remember is that with fewer cats roaming Europe and Asia, the more rats there were.

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague
A Woman disposes of bodies of victims of the Black Plague. Ancient Origins

The Black Death of Cats

So how do these two topics come together? Well, if it can be said that at least part of the plague was spread by rats, and it likely was, then it can also be said that the significantly decreased cat population was responsible for the increase in rats in Eurasia.

More rats, of course, meant more carriers of the disease, which could be why so many died from the plague. If this is true, then it is quite possible that Pope Gregory IX’s demonization of cats is one of the causes that allowed the black death to spread so quickly throughout Europe and Asia.

There is some evidence that this is true. The removal of cats from human’s good graces began around the same time as Vox in Rama was published, and if you study history prior to Gregory IX’s reign, you’ll also find that many cultures (like the Egyptians and several cultures throughout Asia) idolized cats, and in some cases considered them deities.

On the other hand, some Western Europeans didn’t care for cats too much even before anything Pope Gregory IX might have done. The Celtic people, for example, had several superstitions based on cats long before the Catholic Church persecuted felines.

The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague
A sign that hung outside of Plague victims during a plague outbreak in the 1600s. Likely also used during the Black Death. Wikipedia Commons

This is a very controversial subject for historians who study the time period. There are many things we just don’t know, which makes determining something like “blame” hard to do. For one, there is evidence that has surfaced in the last few decades, as we said, that says that the plague was not bubonic in nature, but instead pneumonic, meaning it was passed between humans and not the fleas of rats.

Secondly, there are arguments over whether or not Pope Gregory IX had anything to do with the cat demonization that happened in the late 1230s. It might be that he was just parroting ideas from a man called Konrad von Marburg, who he appointed to root out heresy in Germany.

Thirdly, there is medical evidence that plague is not carried by the fleas of rats at all, though again, this is up for debate. The medical jargon is beyond us, but according to Hilary Hurd of Biomedical Central, rats don’t serve as hosts to the plague at all. But again, this has not been proven completely.

Finally, even if Pope Gregory IX demonized cats and started an institutionalized superstition against black cats, it is likely that there were many other factors in play beyond the lack of cats in Europe that led to the devastation that occurred during those dark years.

In the end, there is a lot we don’t know. It is possible that a pope, through his own actions, played some role in the deaths of millions of cats in the 1230s. If that’s the case, and the plague was bubonic in nature, it could be that he also played a role in exacerbating the black death that killed so many.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 16 Dreadful Details about the Black Plague

World History – Religious Responses to the Black Death

Table Magazine – Was Plague a Punishment?

Medium – Did Pope Gregory IX’s Hatred of Cats Lead to the Black Death?

History Collection – Antisemitism Helped Protect Jews From the Black Death… And Then Got Them Killed

Tales of Times Forgotten – What Did People Really Think Was Causing the Black Death?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Papal Bull

Ranker – People In The Middle Ages Hated Cats So Much That They Ritualistically Tortured Them

History Collection – The Unfortunate Scapegoats of the Black Death Were Mainly Heretics, Jews and Witches

History Collection – 10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down

Nautil – Why Medieval Cats Approved of the Plague