Monday, October 18

Cats and the Black Plague

The Persecution of Cats

Cats came under suspicion for a variety of reasons. Unlike dogs, they did not behave subserviently toward humans. This was considered unnatural, because it violated the biblical view that humans should have dominion over animals. Also, cats were very active at night and engaged in loud, raucous mating rituals. Though cats had always behaved in this manner, to the superstitious minds of the Middle Ages, cats were practicing supernatural powers and witchcraft. Most accused witches were older peasant women who lived alone, often keeping cats as pets for companionship. This guilt by association meant that roughly a million cats were burned at the stake, along with their owners, on suspicion of being witches.

In the early thirteenth century Pope Gregory IX (1145–1241) declared that a sect in southern France had been caught worshipping the devil. He claimed the devil had appeared in the form of a black cat. Cats became the official symbol of heresy (or religious beliefs not advocated by the church). Anyone who showed any compassion or feeling for a cat came under the church's suspicion. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Europe's cat population had been severely depleted. Only semi-wild cats survived in many areas.

In 1347 the bubonic plague swept across Europe. Called the Black Death, it killed twenty-five million people (nearly a third of Europe's population) in only three years. Thousands of farm animals died as well, either from the plague or from lack of care. The death rate peaked in the warm summer months and dropped dramatically in the wintertime because the plague was being spread to humans by fleas on infected rodents. The plague revisited Europe several more times over the next few centuries. In addition, millions of people are thought to have suffered from food poisoning during the Middle Ages because of the presence of rat droppings in the grain supply. Centuries of cat slaughter had allowed the rodent population to surge out of control.

Cats Under Welsh Law

Cats weren’t always persecuted in Europe. In the 900s, the Welsh took the sensible position of assigning value to cats, recognizing their ability to protect human food stores. The Welsh ruler Hywel the Good created laws that imposed strict penalties for stealing or murdering cats. Hywel mandated that if anyone were to kill or steal a cat

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