Part 2 of Cats and Humans: Cats Under Christian Rule

St. Gertrude

Ancient Israel being a nation of herdsmen, cats are only mentioned once in the Bible:

“The idols' faces are made black with the smoke that is in the house. Owls, and swallows, and other birds fly upon their bodies, and upon their heads, and cats in like manner.”  Baruch 6:20-21

Likewise, Bastet's holy city only appears once in the Bible--in a failed prophecy:

“The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity.” Ezekiel 30:17

Initially, Christian painters honored the cat's role as a fertility symbol by including cats in paintings of the Virgin Mary. According to legend, Jesus' mother and a cat gave birth at the same time in a Bethlehem stable, and when Mary was unable to lullaby her baby to sleep, a newborn kitten crawled into the manger and purred him to sleep.  

Saint Gertrude became the patron saint of cats, and Saint Agatha turned into a fierce cat when angry.  Naturalistic cats were carved into church furniture, represented in gargoyles in Notre Dame, and appeared in illustrations in the 700 AD Lindisfarne Gospels, and in the 800 AD Irish Book of Kells. Christian Europe had laws that placed a high monetary value upon cats, punished anyone who abused or neglected a cat, and awarded the family cat to divorced wives.

In the ninth century, an Irish monk wrote endearingly of his cat in a poem entitled

“Pangur Ban (the title means A Fuller White):

“Pangur, white Pangur, how happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me it is study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse.
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live without tedium and envy.”

By the 13th century, the Catholic Church was experiencing growing disillusionment within its ranks combined with a permanent split with its Eastern branch. Pope Gregory IX blamed the church's problems on Satan worship, and because the church regarded women as morally and intellectually weak, and associated cats with Bastet, Artemis, Diana, Hecate, and Freya, women and cats became targets of the church's wrath. The resultant persecution was based upon the Bible and upon Pope Gregory's 1233 Vox Romana 

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22:18

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” I Timothy 2: 13-14

“Then all sit down to a banquet and when they rise after it is finished, a black cat emerges from a kind of statue which normally stands in the place where these meetings are held. It is as large as a fair-sized dog, and enters backwards with its tail erect. First the novice kisses its hind parts, then the Master of Ceremonies proceeds to do the same and finally all the others in turn; or rather all those who deserve the honor. The rest, that is those who are not thought worthy of this favor, kiss the Master of Ceremonies. When they have returned to their places they stand in silence for a few minutes with heads turned towards the cat. Then the Master says: 'Forgive us.' The person standing behind him repeats this and a third adds, 'Lord we know it.' A fourth person ends the formula by saying, 'We shall obey.'” Vox Romana

So it was that the little predator that had symbolized divine fertility; lulled Jesus to sleep; and was lauded for its protection of food, health, books, manuscripts, bedding, and altar candles, came to be regarded as the associate of Judas. In the eyes of the church, the cat not only represented Satan, the cat was the embodiment of Satan, and the screams of tortured cats came to be regarded as music to God's ears. But it wasn't just women and cats who were persecuted, the church ascribed cat worship to all its enemies, and under torture, its enemies confirmed that this was true. Nor was the persecution limited to Catholics--England's Queen Elizabeth I celebrated her 1558 coronation with the burning of a cat-filled papal effigy. The  church's hatred of cats even infected medicine and academia.

“They who keep cats with them in their beds have the air corrupted and fall into hectics and consumption. The hair of cats eaten unawares stops the artery and causes suffocation.”
Edward Topsell, The History of Four-Footed Beasts, 1607

“The cat is a venomous animal which infects through its hair, its breath, and its brains.” Ambroise Pare, French surgeon 1510-1590

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared: The cat is the devil's favourite animal and the idol of all witches. Witches, he argued, could shape-shift into cats, so he ordained that both witches and cats be burned. The last public killing of cats occurred in Ypres, Belgium in 1817, although the city's celebration continues to this day with toy cats. Yet cats were never universally despised even among leading churchmen, most famously the kitten-loving cardinal Amand Richelieu who left his kittens well provided for in his will although they were murdered after his death by the Swiss Guard. In his 14th century Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: 

“Lat take a cat, and fostre him wel with milk, And tendre flesh, and make his couche of silk, And let him seen a mous go by the wal; Anon he weyveth milk, and flesh, and al, And every deyntee that is in that hous, Swich appetyt hath he to ete a mous.

In the 1700s, couples in the French court wrote love letters to one another under the pretense that they were written by the couple's Turkish Angoras, as did America's premier wit, Benjamin Franklin. By the 1760s British poet Christopher Smart could safely write:

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way....” 

And of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), his cat-hating biographer, James Boswell, wrote:

“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.” 

But what of modern Catholicism's attitude toward cats? I don't know of a single church that concerns itself with the welfare of non-humans, but only the Catholic Church condemns them to suffer until such time as all human needs are met:

“It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.”
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2418

Although recent popes have apologized to various of the church's many victims, cats were not included despite constituting the majority of the aggrieved. Because St. Francis of Assisi referred to non-humans as brothers and sisters, one might hope that the current pope might do the same, but perhaps he took his name from some other Francis. In any event, upon learning how much money people spend upon their pets, Francis complained:

“After food, clothing and medicine, the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.” 

But on a positive note, he broke with numerous popes, including his immediate predecessor, by declaring that animals possess immortal souls and will live alongside us in heaven. The Bible agrees:

“The wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat...the lion will eat straw like the ox... Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain...” Isaiah 65:25 

Despite this enlightened view, the prescribed relationship between animals and humans was determined within the second page of the Book of Genesis:

“God blessed them and said to them, 'Fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.'” Genesis 1:28

Rule over cats? Good luck! When cats' observation that ours is a large and heavily armed race of homicidal maniacs didn't suggest to them that we deserved their homage, what did we do? What could we do? We could kill them, and kill them, and kill them. We could dance like King Louis XIV danced as caged cats were slowly lowered onto Parisian bonfires, and, when burning them grew stale, we could flay, crucify, eviscerate, draw-and-quarter, and throw them from towers while Christians cheered, happy in the knowledge that the same Jesus whom a kitten had once lulled to sleep had since realized that kittens were demonic.

We, the hideous, the loutish, the churlish, and the clumsy, destroyed the free, the noble, the brave, and the beautiful, and then came the rodent-carried Black Death. Our defenders being dead, and our sadistic god's maniacal laughter grown strangely silent, our bodies turned the color of blackened catfish before our putrid corpses were cast high upon meat-wagons. Now that the Plague is a distant memory, Christ's faithful can again celebrate him in song: “I've got joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my soul today.” If I were a praying man, I would sing too, a song of my own invention. It would start with the words Hail Bastet, and I would sing it whenever I remembered that what Christianity was to cats, the Black Death was to Christianity. Happily, cats survived that long ago reign of terror to grace our homes today, but, sadly, the religion of Christ also survived.

Christianity's last public killing of cats occurred in 1817 in Ypres, Belgium, where they were thrown from a watchtower. Today, as part of a family-friendly festival, toy cats are cast from that same tower. Would the pubic consider it just as amusing to draw-and-quarter Jews, or, in the minds of the many, is it more entertaining to watch cats die?

Kattenstoet, Ypres Belgium


angela said...

Well my cat agatha was well named then lol
Love my cats and my dogs all my furry feathered family
They, unlike my human family, have never done me wrong

Snowbrush said...

"They, unlike my human family, have never done me wrong."

Like I, you seem to hold pets in higher esteem than people. I wouldn't wish to live apart from people, but I find that when death comes, I miss pets more than I miss people.

Strayer said...

I've felt my soul entwined with cats for a very long time. I've felt in my bones the misery created by men and the church against both cats and women. Thus we be bonded in that way and in the delight of their beauty and existence and infinitely interesting characters. Thanks for this history, Snow. I did not know much of it.

The Tusk said...

Hail Bastet.

Snowbrush said...

Tusk, I've missed you for all these years, and I'm very, very glad that you're here.

"I've felt my soul entwined with cats for a very long time."

I always liked cats, had various outdoor cats as a kid, and even subscribed to "Cat Fancy Magazine" as a teenager (not knowing at the time that the word "Fancy" only referred to a "fancy" for pedigrees), but cats as a consuming passion only entered my life nine years ago. In every cat-related post I write, I think of you, and wonder how it will strike you, and if it will teach you anything you didn't already know. I have never put so much work into any post as into this one, and while writing it, I struggled a great deal over how much detail to go into regarding the church's brutality, and even how to write about it without becoming consumed with rage toward the Bible, the church, and all things Christian (to my surprise, I grew accustomed to the subject, perhaps because it was so important to me to describe). My next post will be about cats in Islam, and it will be a happy post indeed because Muslims have ALWAYS appreciated cats. Islam's love of cats and the beauty of some of its architecture are actually the only good things I know to say about that religion, but in those ways, at least, it excels. Another center of cat-appreciation is the nation of Japan, so I'm sure I will write somewhat about that too. Our new cat, Harvey, just got into my lap. He's such a joy--long gray hair, golden-green eyes, a fluffy tail, a ruff like a lion, and a willingness to ambush our fourteen-pound dominant male, Brewsky... When I wrote glowingly upon getting our second cat, Ollie (who sits in my lap as I read in bed each night), you pronounced me "a cat man," and it was to me what the pope's blessing would be to a Catholic.

...Due to the virus, Peggy and I have cancelled--or had cancelled for us--every non-essential meeting or appointment. The one thing that hasn't been cancelled is our volunteer cattery work, and we're tormented over what to do. The cattery is so small that if one person moves, others have to move, which means that there is no way to maintain anywhere near a safe distance. On the other hand, the cats need us, but, then again, our own cats also need us to, and our primary commitment is to them. A major consideration is that we both have risk factors that make it unlikely that we would survive this virus. Whatever we do, we need to both do it in order to protect one another. I'm inclined to cancel the cattery work, but I really don't know where Peggy is in her own decision-making process, although I think it is likely that she is so on-the-fence that she will go along with whatever I choose. My own feeling is that I will have failed no matter what I decide.

Marion said...
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Snowbrush said...

"I figure these nuts ‘disappeared’ my pets."

During my research for this post, I discovered that the sentiment, "cats are Satanic, kill them" still exists among many Christians. How they reconcile their belief in cats as forces of evil with their belief that only humans are eligible for heaven because only humans can distinguish between good from evil, I can't imagine.

"I have 4 cases of TP that I ordered before the panic and my pantry is stocked."

I'm glad that you are provident, and I wish your mother well.

"Stay safe, Snow. Love to you, Peggy and the felines."

Thank you. Peggy and I began self-isolating this week, something that, barring some emergency, isn't physically hard to pull off in our case. Emotionally, it will surely be hard for Peggy because she is socially active.

"I love being home."

I do too. It's a relief to no longer be on the fence regarding self-isolation.

kylie said...

Cats are always regarded as so mystical, it's no surprise the earlier church found them threatening but I had no idea there was any anti-cat sentiment in modern Christian circles.

I hope you both stay safe, imposed isolation will at the very least afford you more time to enjoy your furry companions

Snowbrush said...

"imposed isolation will at the very least afford you more time to enjoy your furry companions."

They are indeed a great comfort.

Marion said...
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rhymeswithplague said...

I don't comment much any more, but I know you are a Pisces and not an Aries no matter what Marion say.

KL said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving such a lovely comment about me. I am honored. I have been away from the blog world due to lots of tragedies but hopefully back.

So, it seems like you are a cat person? Wow! this is a really good research. So, historically it seems cats have been both worshiped and vilified. What about dogs?

Great post. I have to read all your other posts about cats.

KL said...

Forgot to write that I hate any kind of display, even for fun or amusement, about torturing or abusing of any kind of living things, be it a human or bird or mammal or insect. We need to respect all forms of lives.

Snowbrush said...

"So, historically it seems cats have been both worshiped and vilified. What about dogs"

Despite having loved dogs my entire life, I haven't studied dogs, but from what I've come across while studying cats, it appears that while individual dogs were sometimes accused of being a witch's familiar (accusations of witchcraft were a British invention, by the way), they escaped the widespread persecution of cats. In the Christian world, dogs were highly regarded for accompanying their masters on the hunt, defending the family home, and battling their master's enemies. In the Jewish and Muslim world, however, dogs were considered unclean and cowardly. Even today, cruelty to dogs is commonplace in Muslim lands, and I've found repeated instances in non-Muslim lands of seeing-eye dogs not being allowed into Muslim-run restaurants or taxis. Clearly, in the case of both dogs and cats, their treatment by humans depends as much or more upon the qualities that humans project onto them than upon their actual attributes.

"Forgot to write that I hate any kind of display, even for fun or amusement, about torturing or abusing of any kind of living things, be it a human or bird or mammal or insect."

There was an ancient Egyptian prohibition upon so much as laughing at a cat, yet it was also commonplace to find Egyptian art in which cats were portrayed with what is assumed to be amusing intent, such as herding geese, serving food to wealthy rats, providing child-care for baby rats, being judged by rats, or being tied under their mistress's chairs (cats were customarily pictured under women's chairs and dogs under men's chairs) so that they were just out of reach of bowls of food. And of course it's also true that although the death penalty was prescribed for anyone who killed a cat, the priests of Bastet broke the necks of hundreds of thousands of young adult cats, which were then mummified as offerings to the goddess.

Such contradictions also abound in Medieval Europe, where, even during the persecutions, anchoresses were occasionally allowed to have cats (although they were counseled to avoid loving them); cats were sometimes portrayed realistically in church art; and cats were described warmly by the 13th century saint and scholar Albertus Magnus. Most surprisingly, various high church officials were known to love cats. So it was that cats were never hated by everyone in Western Christendom (cat-hatred was never a part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity), and during the time that they were hated, there were still people who either loved them or were neutral toward them.

I am not scholarly enough to know to what extent the comparison applies, but in trying to explain their bad treatment to myself, it seems to me that the plight of cats in the Middle Ages was similar to that of Jews under the Nazis in that brainless authoritarians hated everyone their leaders hated, with the behavior of others being dependent upon a combination of bravery and practicality. Therefore, if you were an eccentric old lady in Cornwall with an obvious birthmark, a fondness for cats would almost certainly get you--and they--killed, but if you were a French cardinal, you could probably get away with it.

The Tusk said...

Thanks Snow, good catching up with you.