Cats in Bags and Barrels

He are some examples of how the cat, throughout history, was used and abused in an unthinking way at the convenience of people. Centuries ago the attitude towards cats was probably less enlightened resulting in callous, officially sanctioned abuse. There are more examples than the few listed here.


The first example comes from Turkey, an important country in the world of cats. Sarah Hartwell found this picture of Turkish policeman stuffing a cat into a large sack that already contains a woman had been deemed to have committed adultery. The judgment of adultery and the woman’s punishment was no doubt decided by men. The punishment was to be drowned in a sack. The cat’s role was to scratch the woman as the cat tried to escape before drowning with the woman.

Turkish adultress and cat

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

It is a bit of Turkish cat and human history. I am not sure of the date – probably late 18th century as a wild guess. From an animal welfare point of view the punishment is using the cat as a robot, a non-sentient being. That attitude is still present today in some places.


This Dutch example (from Finn Frode) shows a similar underlying attitude towards the domestic cat. People do like to place cats into bags and containers of some sort. On this occasion, it is a barrel and a carnival that led to cat abuse and cat cruelty, in the past. Thankfully, a cat is no longer utilized (see picture).

Striking the cat out of the barrel Dutch festival

It concerns a Shrovetide carnival (‘Fastelavn’). The big fun event on Fastelavn Monday was to partake in “striking the cat out of the barrel” (‘slå katten af tønden’ in Danish).

This is what Finn writes:

…in the old days until 1830 or so, a live black cat would have been placed in the barrel. After some beating the bottom went out and the terrified cat escaped, only to be mercilessly beaten to death by the festive crowd. It was clearly an animal sacrifice and supposed to kill evil symbolised by the black cat. As described elsewhere, this kind of cruel superstition was not uncommon in Europe, often in connection with witch-hunts.

On one day during a religious festival, over many decades and even centuries, annually, black cats across the country where terrorised and mercilessly beaten to death in the name of religion.


Cats were used as pig substitutes in a con trick by farmers in the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries). Once again, this form of cat abuse indicates the lack of value placed on a cat. I feel that that attitude subsists today in some quarters of society even amongst cat owners. Incidentally, dogs were also used as pig substitutes. One reason to value cats so poorly was because they were in plentiful supply at the time. It appears that England in the Middle Ages had a feral cat problem akin to the American feral cat problem of 2013.

This bit of “cat in a bag” history is the origin of two idioms:

  • “don’t let the cat out of the bag” or “who let the cat out of the bag?” – meaning don’t disclose a secret and
  • “never buy a pig in a poke” – a poke was a bag.

Farmers in the 15th century sold piglets in bags. To con the buyer some would put a cat in the bag rather than a piglet. Clearly the contents of the bag needed to be inspected. Equally clearly it was not sometimes.

If the cat did escape the cat was “let out of the bag” and the farmer’s attempted con exposed.

It is a little strange to me that the cat is placed in a receptacle in each of these historical, cat-orientated events. Perhaps the idea of placing a cat in a receptacle was presented to people because cats like to hide inside enclosed areas.

39 thoughts on “Cats in Bags and Barrels”

  1. This is a quote in your page under Holland: (‘slå katten af tønden’ in Dutch). This is Danish not Dutch.

  2. Sorry for reviving a thread from three years ago. FWIW, I first saw this picture of the woman about to be drowned in a sack with cats when I was eight or nine years old, 1971-ish. It was in a book called “History & Magic of the Cat”, which is still readily available for purchase at Amazon and other vendors. It appeared exactly as shown here, with the same caption. Whether or not any references are provided I do not know. I sometimes wonder if this image somehow affected my life in unmentionable ways.

    • Thanks for commenting John. Images can affect people for their lives I believe. They are an experience. I have an image of animal sacrifice from the internet which I should not have looked at which I can’t shake from my memory. It affects me.


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