By Peter Konieczny
Cats in medieval Europe mostly had a bad reputation: they were associated with witches and heretics, and it was believed that the devil could transform into a black cat. How did this vision of felines come about?
Not that everyone in medieval Europe hated cats; in fact, we know of many cases where they were kept as pets and treated with love. However, many cats can still be found living in the wild. Furthermore, their prevalence of nocturnal activity helped create the idea that they were creatures that operated out of sight and beyond human control.
However, it was in the 12th century that cats began to be described in a very negative way, even being associated with the devil. We began to read crazy stories, like the one by the English writer Walter Map, where cats were becoming part of satanic rituals: “the Devil descends like a black cat before his devotees. The worshipers turn off the light and approach the place where they saw their master. They grope for it and when they have found it they kiss it under the tail”.
Catholic clerics accused heretical religious groups, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, of associating with and even worshiping cats. It was even believed that the name ‘Cathars’ came from cats. When the Templars were tried in the early 14th century, one of the accusations against them was allowing cats to take part in services and even praying to them.
Cats were also associated with witchcraft: the 1324 trial of Alice Kyteler in Ireland for heresy included the charge that she possessed an incubus that looked like a black cat. As medieval times progressed. this would develop into the idea that witches (especially women) had the power to transform into cats. This would even lead Pope Innocent VIII to declare in 1484 that the cat was the devil’s favorite animal and the idol of all witches.
Cats fulfilled a very important role for humans in the Middle Ages: they caught mice, which would otherwise have been a serious nuisance to people and their food. However, medieval writers even viewed this activity in negative tones, often comparing the way cats caught mice to the way the devil could catch souls. For example, William Caxton wrote: “The devil often plays with the sinar, like the cat with the mouse.”
In her article, “Heretic Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse,” Irina Metzler believes that the independent nature of cats was the source of this anxiety in humans. Medieval people generally believed that animals were created by God to serve and be ruled by humans, but the cat, even when domesticated, cannot be trained to be loyal and obedient like a dog.
Medieval people may have wanted to restrict cats to the role of animated mousetraps, for the same reason that the cat “stands on the threshold between the familiar and the wild.” “Cats were intruders in human society. They could not be owned. They would sneak into the house, like mice, and suffer because they had the insufferable mice at bay.” This causes a kind of conceptual tension. Although the cat possesses the characteristics of a good hunter, he is useful, “but while he does it, he remains incompletely domesticated.” Nor are heretics, in a transferred sense, completely tame, for in challenging orthodox thought and roaming free in their interpretation of religious beliefs they resemble the bestial definition of the wild. As symbolic animals, then, cats may be the quintessential heretical animal.
Metzer’s article, “Heretic Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse,” was published in Medium Aevum Quotidianum, vol. 59 (2009). you can read it MEMO: Medieval and Modern Material Culture Online.
Irina Metzler teaches at Swansea University. you can find it personal website here.
See also: Medieval Pet Names
Top image: Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 546 fol. 40v