The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history. It led to one of the most self-defeating slaughters in history. Cats were rumored to be the source of the plague. In those panicky times, no more than a rumor was needed. All over Europe the house cats were slain. Cat lovers today can take consolation in the slaughter along with the ghosts of murdered cats. They had their revenge in the form of millions of additional Europeans succumbing to a horrific death.
The killing of tens of thousands of cats during this time, encouraged primarily by the Catholic Church, caused the flea-infested rodent population in Europe to soar. Those rats most likely carried the bubonic plague, passing it on to humans through fleas that had been on the host rat, become infected, and then bitten humans. There were no insect sprays and no protection. Fleas and other pests were everywhere in the newly growing cities all over the continent. It is estimated that perhaps half of the population in Europe succumbed to this horrendous death from 1348 to 1352.
The bubonic plague was the most common type of infection seen during the Black Death. It was characterized by black spots on the chest and black swelling under the armpits and at the tops of the legs. The buboes, or swollen lymph nodes, turned black, oozed pus, and bled. Of those contracting the disease, four out of five died within eight days. The second most common type of infection seen at this time was the pneumonic plague, which affected the lungs, causing the victims to choke to death on their own blood. This type of plague had about a 95 percent mortality rate. The plague struck and then killed so quickly that the Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” It is no wonder that even the hint of the plague caused a panic. Not only did cats suffer, but often Jews and other minorities were blamed and murdered.
Now, cats were not always considered the “diabolical creatures” that Pope Gregory IX declared them to be in a papal letter in 1232. The ancient Egyptians had developed elaborate ways to store large amounts of grain and other food. Rats and mice were attracted and could damage much of the crop. The Egyptians found that cats were natural predators of the rats and could be used to protect the stores of food. Cats eventually moved into Egyptian households, and they became thought of as godlike and were revered and worshiped. Eventually in Egypt killing a cat was considered an extremely serious offense, punishable by death. The Romans were introduced to cats by the Egyptians, and they were the first European group to keep cats primarily as pets. But the animals were still valued for their ability to keep rodent populations down.
The Black Plague first surfaced in Mongolia, spread to China, and was brought over to Europe on merchant ships. During the early thirteenth century, cats began to be looked at with suspicion. The pagan Egyptians had venerated them and the pagan Romans valued cats. The Catholic Church was determined to root out heretics and eliminate paganism in Europe. In medieval society, cats were already somewhat misunderstood for their aloofness and independent nature. If you do not handle kittens, they become quite feral as adults. That makes them good hunters, but wary of humans. Pope Gregory IX first made an association between cats and the devil. The Church focused on the Albigensians, a group the Church leadership suspected of worshiping the devil. During Satanic masses, it was alleged that the devil took the form of a black cat. It was said that the Albigensians were required by Satan to kiss the back side of the black cat during the mass. The concept of “a familiar” also coincided with the persecution of the Albigensians and other heretical groups during this time. A familiar was a supernatural being who could take many shapes, and it was believed to be something Satan gave to witches and other devil worshipers to facilitate evil acts. Cats were thought of as a common familiar. In fact, manuals that were developed to help authorities hunt witches often cited that ownership of a cat was compelling evidence that the cat’s owner was actually a witch.
During this time, if a person was declared a witch, he or she was condemned to burn at the stake. If this happened, the cat was burned along with its owner. Many commoners became afraid of being accused of witchcraft, so they killed or got rid of their own cats. Cats were slaughtered by the tens of thousands in cities and villages across Europe, and the domestic cat population came close to being eliminated.
Some in the aristocratic class were less vulnerable to the superstitions wracking Christianity. They kept their cats exactly because of the animals’ ability to reduce or eliminate the rat population in and around their homes. Of course, they had no idea that the rats actually carried disease, but having some of those cats in the homes of the aristocracy certainly helped keep the plague from wiping out many in the upper classes. The mass killing of cats preceded the arrival of the infected rodents, greatly compromising the barrier between humans and the rats.
Many people during that time believed that the devil granted to witches the power to exact revenge for any slight or threat. This made them, and their familiars, a source of fear. It was thought that a witch’s revenge could devastate large portions of a country. So when things went wrong, the witches and their cats took the blame. Between 1300 and 1700, persecution of witches was at its peak in Europe. It is not surprising that this persecution coincided with successive waves of plague, which wracked the continent.
The Black Death was certainly the most devastating of all of these plagues. Not only did it decimate the population, but it also was the catalyst for profound social and economic changes. In western Europe, landlords had to compete for peasant labor, providing increased wages or even freedom for the peasants. When peasants demanded higher wages, and the landlords refused, revolts broke out in England, Italy, Belgium, and France. Many historians have suggested that the roots of capitalism took hold at that time. The disease also had a profound effect on the Catholic Church. So many believers had prayed for deliverance from the plague and killed their cats. When those prayers weren’t answered, the power of the Church and its numbers declined, and a new period of philosophical questioning emerged. The resulting social upheaval started an era of contemplation and concentration on the arts, music, and literature. The Renaissance had begun.
If it weren’t for the domestic cat’s existence in Europe and the sheltering of those cats by the aristocracy there, even more than half of the population could have been wiped out when the Black Death peaked between 1348 and 1350. The disease had enormous social, economic, and religious consequences, including the end of feudalism and the rise of the Renaissance. It took Europe’s population several hundred years to recover from the devastating impact of the disease. And the severity of this loss could have been dramatically reduced had it not been for the fear-mongering of religious leadership at the time.
Some superstitions about cats, which started in the panic seven centuries ago, still remain. These include such baseless notions as crossing the path of a black cat bringing you bad luck, cats being a threat to newborns, and cats being familiars to devil worshipers. It is no coincidence that the more cats were demonized and the more their owners were viewed as possible witches and heretics, the more widespread the Black Death became. Cats were the first line of defense against the real carrier of the plague.