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 himself into a black cat. How did this view of felines emerge?
It is not that everyone in medieval Europe hated cats – in fact, we know of many cases where they were kept as pets and were treated with love. However, one could still find many cats living in the wild. Moreover, their prevalence of being active at night helped create a view that they were creatures that operated out of sight and beyond human control.
However, it was in the twelfth century that cats started to be described in very negative ways, even being associated with the devil. We begin to read wild accounts, such as that by English writer Walter Map, where cats were becoming part of satanic rituals: “the Devil descends as a black cat before his devotees. The worshippers put out the light and draw near to the place where they saw their master. They feel after him and when they have found him they kiss him under the tail.”
Heretical religious groups, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, were accused by Catholic churchmen of associating and even worshipping cats. It was even believed that the name ‘Cathars’ came from cats. When the Templars were put on trial in the early fourteenth century, one of the accusations against them was allowing cats to be part of the services and even praying to the cats.
Cats also became associated with witchcraft – the 1324 trial of Alice Kyteler in Ireland for heresy included the accusation that she possessed an incubus that looked like a black cat. As the medieval period progressed. this would develop into the idea that witches (especially women) had the power to shape-shift into cats. This would even lead Pope Innocent VIII to declare in 1484 that the cat was the devil’s favourite animal and idol of all witches.
Cats filled one very important role for humans in the Middle Ages – they caught mice, which would have otherwise been a serious nuisance for people and their food. However, medieval writers even saw this activity in negative tones, often comparing the way cats caught mice with how the devil could catch souls. For example, William Caxton wrote “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.”
In her article, “Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse,” Irina Metzler believes that the independent nature of cats was the source of this anxiety from 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 function of animated mousetraps, for the very reason that the cat “stands at the threshold between the familiar and the wild.” “Cats were intruders into human society. They could not be owned. They entered the house by stealth, like mice, and were suffered because they kept the insufferable mice in check.” This causes a kind of conceptual tension. While the cat possesses the characteristics of a good hunter it is useful, “but as long as it does it remains incompletely domesticated.” Heretics, too, in a transferred sense, are not completely domesticated, since by challenging orthodox thought and roaming freely hither and thither in their interpretation of religious beliefs they resemble the bestiary definition of wildness. As symbolic animals, then, cats may be the heretical animal par excellence.
Metzer’s article, “Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse,” was published in Medium Aevum Quotidianum, Vol. 59 (2009). You can read it through MEMO: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture Online.
Irina Metzler teaches at Swansea University. You can find her personal website here.
See also: Medieval Pet Names
Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 546 fol. 40v