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Black Cats & the Black Death

Another interesting historical tidbit that will hopefully inspire the desire to learn more. I received a lot of positive feedback about the Mad Hatter post so I thought I would hurry up and do another one.

cats

I am an animal person. Being a librarian, I kind of have to be a cat person. It’s a prerequisite to get into a Library Science program. So, from my research and gatherings of cat history over the years I have learned that cats became domesticated sometime around 7000 B.C. in the Middle East. Wild cats are found all over the world except in polar regions. They aren’t natives to Australia but were introduced by Europeans and are now considered a huge pest. The Australian war on cats is a whole separate post topic to be honest.

Cats were worshiped in many cultures, and even mummified in ancient Egypt. In Africa, Asia, and even in most Germanic tribes, cats were kept as pets to help ward off vermin and for companionship.

They weren’t completely without contempt however; the saber tooth tiger, and other largecats2 cats, created a fear of “man eating cats”. Which, back then, may not have been false. The Celts had legends of shape-shifting cats. Cat Sidhe or Cait Sidhe, could transform into a witch. They could also steal the souls of the dead before they could reach salvation. So, not a pretty picture of them there.

After Pope Gregory IX came to power in 1227, he was considered well liked for the most part, at least in the beginning. He was fierce in his beliefs and started to do some questionable things to cats3defend them. In the 1230s he called Vox in Rama, which expressed that black cats were part of satanic cults and represented Satan. Yes, thee Satan.

At the time, many “witches” and even a few “wizards” had been burnt at the stake for suspicion of witchcraft. Decades of cat killing began.

The Middle Ages, which is about 470-1450 A.D., was rampant with witchcraft accusations and the murder of hundreds of men, women, and children. Women were the most susceptible to the crime and along with them were their cats. More precisely, black cats.

So became of this decree? In 1346 trade ships anchored in Sicily. The ships had just returned from a voyage to Kaffa, which is present day Ethiopia, and were filled with items from Asia. Sailors aboard started to have these large, black, boils erupt on their skin. They were painful and covered their bodies, along with high fevers and (unbeknownst to them) internal bleeding. The pain only lasted a few days however, since most of them died quickly. These were the first European victims of the bubonic plague, or the Black Death.

The plague was spread from a bacteria that lived in the bloodstream of rats. Fleas would bite the rats then spread it to humans. Or, if a rat just bite a human they could bypass the flea altogether. Without as many cats roaming the streets and killing off wild vermin (rats for instance), the rodent population skyrocketed. It took about five days for an infected person to show any signs. Most infected people did not know they were sick. That means they were walking around, talking others, and infecting others unknowingly.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible
Painting shows a scene of people suffering from the bubonic plague in the 15th century from the Toggenberg Bible. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The bubonic plague was one of the worst epidemics this planet has ever had. It killed thirty percent of Europe’s population with its peak years being 1347-1351. This is estimated to be twenty-five to thirty-five million people. The crowded cities of Europe were great breeding grounds for the plague to spread. With no cats around, and no way for people to know at the time that’s how the disease spread, it seemed unstoppable.

The only logical explanation that could be thought of at the time was that the plague was punishment from God for all of mankind’s wrongdoings. First the Jews were persecuted for bringing the plague to kill off the Christians. Because it only makes sense that they would start a disease that also killed millions of Jews. They were expelled from parts of Europe and even killed from this accusation. Pope Clement VI thankfully used common sense and put an end to that. So the next logical explanation were the Gypsies, the Turks, and of course; witches.

cats5With the fear of new outbreaks of the plague, witch hunts ensued for decades after. The most murderous years took place during 1500’s to the 1650’s. The plague did have several small outbreaks arise, which only furthered the ideals of paranoia among the general public and the substantial need to continue these witch hunts.

 

 

Finding a total number of people killed for suspicion of witchcraft in Europe is almost impossible. Many of the court records are long gone, many of the convictions were not documented anywhere at all. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P. Levack estimates the total is under 90,000. Depending on where in Europe someone was accused may have meant the difference of life and death. In some areas only 10-15% of the accused were put to death, while in others, like Switzerland, 90% of the accused were put to death.

So how were witches spotted? Basically if you were a single woman over the average marrying age you were probably a witch. If your neighbor didn’t like you, you were probably a witch. If you were succeeding at life, you were probably a witch. If you owned a cat, petted a cat, fed a cat, or just looked too long at a cat; witch. People would claim that black cats would sneak into their homes at night and turned into a witch (someone in their community) to harm them. Many people did confess to this but most were under some sort of physical torture or knew it was coming.

 

 

 

Today, there is still a depleted population of black cats throughout Europe. More visible though, is our association with black cats and witches. Around Halloween you can see dozens of decorations of black cats in witches hats and witches petting a black cat.

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Author:

I am writer, librarian, teacher, mother, cartoon addict, doodler, and coffee/tea enthusiast.

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