Cat Massacres and the Black Death
The Vox in Rama encouraged Conrad of Marburg to overreach himself and that same year he accused Henry II, Count of Sayn of taking part in satanic orgies. Henry was acquitted when he appealed to the bishop of Mainz and later that year Marburg himself was mysteriously murdered- probably at Henry’s behest. In the meantime, accusations of witchcraft began to spread amongst the ordinary people, as a way of settling grudges or seizing property and cats began to be used as proof of satanic association.
No one can say for sure how many cats were killed because of the association made between them and witchcraft by the Vox in Rama. However, historian Donald Engel believes that the Vox acted as a death warrant for the cat. Indeed the belief that the torture or killing of cats could break spells continued across northern Europe. Denmark’s Fastelavn held at the start of lent was based on the premise that for spring to begin, evil had to be banished. That evil came to be neatly personified in the form of black cats that were beaten to death to purge the new season of evil spirits.
Elsewhere in Europe, the legacy of cat killings passed into folk practices. Cat burning became a favorite medieval pastime in France, where cats were suspended over fires in cages or doused and set alight- even chased on fire through the streets by cat chasers. In Ypres in Belgium, it was the custom to hurl cats from the belfry of local churches and then set them on fire during the festival of cats or Kattenstoet. This cruel practice continued until 1817 although the Kattenstoet continues to this day- involving stuffed cats instead.
While there is no evidence that cats in medieval England were persecuted, their mousing skills were likened to the devil’s ability to catch souls, with the fifteenth-century merchant William Caxton remarking how “the devil playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.” Some historians believe that the persecutions across Europe so depleted cat numbers that mouse- and rat-catching by cats diminished- one of the reasons why the Bubonic Plague took such a deadly hold in Europe during the fourteenth century.
There is little real evidence for this. The Bubonic plague was carried not by rats themselves but their fleas; fleas which could just as easily transfer to dogs- and cats. Then, there is the fact that cats just aren’t good ratters-, which is why dogs; especially terriers are employed to catch rodents. Finally, even if cat numbers were vastly reduced, they were not wiped out. Once the initial hysteria died down, cats, like the would-be witches were left alone for a time, giving them time to repopulate- and remained prolific enough to continue to be culled.
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