Irrational fear of the cat contributed to associating them with the devil in the Middle Ages

Three factors conspired to commence the long general persecution of the cat in the Middle Ages, one of which is the starting point: fear of the cat. Fear breeds hatred which feeds superstition.

Medieval cat butt licking
Medieval cat butt licking. This desire for cleanliness by the domestic cats was interpreted as an act of the devil by the ignorant. Bestiary, England 15th century (København, Kongelige Bibliotek, GkS 1633 4º, fol. 28v). Image in public domain.
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I am returning to the Medieval era again as I have a theory that many (not all) people of that time of domestic cat persecution feared the domestic and stray cat because of their silent stealth and their weapons: claws and teeth. This was the starting point for believing that domestic cats were the incarnation of the devil as people were very superstitious and much more religious in those days.

When you combine these factors:

  • fear of an animal including irrational fear (ailurophobia)
  • superstition (more irrationality)
  • zealous religion – Christianity (and yet more irrationality).

You end up with some crazy beliefs.

Why cats were hated in Medieval Europe
These image are in the public domain due to time elapsed. The popes are Innocent VII and VIII.

General response when frightened of an animal

When people are frightened of an animal, their reactions can vary depending on the situation and the individual. Here are some common responses:

  1. Freeze: Some individuals may freeze in place when they encounter a frightening animal. This reaction is often an instinctual response, as they hope to go unnoticed or avoid triggering any aggressive behavior.
  2. Fight: In some cases, people may choose to confront the animal if they feel threatened or believe it’s necessary for their safety. This could involve yelling, throwing objects, or attempting to scare the animal away. This response also includes killing the animal in large numbers over a long period and then justifying it by saying the devil inhabited the animal. This is what happened in the Middle Ages (Medieval era).
  3. Flight: The most common response to fear is to run away from the animal. This reaction is rooted in the fight-or-flight response, where the individual’s instinct is to escape from the perceived threat as quickly as possible.
  4. Seek help: When faced with a frightening animal, people may seek assistance from others nearby or contact local authorities or animal control to handle the situation.
  5. Remain calm: Some individuals may try to remain calm and composed, especially if they have knowledge or experience dealing with the particular animal. By staying still and avoiding sudden movements, they hope to prevent the animal from perceiving them as a threat.
  6. Use deterrents: People may resort to using deterrents such as loud noises, bright lights, or specialized devices to scare off the animal and keep themselves safe.
Medieval cat butt licking
Christ on Majesty flanked by two angels blowing trumpets of the Last Judgement and a little grey guy licking its butt. Missal, Bavaria ca. 1440-1460 (New York Public Library, MA 112, fol. 7r)

Medieval response to being frightened of the domestic/stray cat

In the list above I set out some general responses to being frightened of animals but in mediaeval times the response was coloured by people’s attitudes specific to those times based upon superstitions, religiosity and ignorance.

The overarching response is to kill the animal that you are frightened of as this removes the source of fear. You mix in with that desire with the attitudes of the era and earlier (e.g., sacrifices to gods), and the cruelty of the era compared to today and you get what they had, hundreds of years of cat persecution.

If you devalue the animal, as you would at that time, killing it is not an issue. The way you kill the animal is dependent upon your beliefs. In mediaeval times beliefs were coloured as mentioned by superstitious attitudes in a toxic partnership with holier than thou religious leaders who demonised paganism with the need for strict retribution.

‘Paganism’ is simply a non-Christian religion. Back in the day Christians hated them as competition. Witches were both pagans and women. They lived with cats. And the zealous Christian leaders then linked cats with the devil. There may have been a dose of misogynism as well. Why were witches always women? And the fact that single women have cats as companions drew the innocent cat into the fray.

In the Middle Ages, cats were often compared to the devil or to death. The mid-14th century work Ayenbite of Inwyt (The Prick of Conscience) repeated the popular proverb of how the devil plays with the sinner like a cat does a mouse. And an author, Odo of Cheriton, in the early 13th century explored the idea of the devil-cat, explaining how the cat who eats mice is like the devil who tempts those who disobey the church’s teaching. The devil then devours them and throws them into hell. Edward, Duke of York, in the Middle Ages, declared in his book on hunting that “if any beast hath the devil’s spirit, it is the cat”.

Cats linked to the devil – conventional viewpoint

During Medieval times, cats were sometimes associated with negative connotations, including being compared to the devil. There were several reasons for this belief:

  1. Pagan associations: Cats were associated with ancient pagan religions and were often linked to goddesses like Bastet in Egyptian mythology or Freyja in Norse mythology. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, pagan beliefs and symbols were often demonized, including those associated with cats.
  2. Superstitions and folklore: Cats possess certain characteristics that were interpreted in a negative light based on superstitions and folklore. Their nocturnal nature, ability to see in the dark, and stealthy movements were seen as mysterious and potentially linked to witchcraft or supernatural powers.
  3. Connection to witches: During the time of the witch-hunting craze in Europe, cats were often believed to be companions or familiars of witches. The association between cats and witches reinforced the negative perception of cats and their connection to evil forces.
  4. Church teachings: The medieval Church played a significant role in shaping popular beliefs, and it promoted the idea that cats were associated with devilish or demonic powers. This perspective was reinforced through sermons, literature, and artwork that portrayed cats in a negative light.

It’s important to note that not everyone in Medieval times believed that cats were evil or associated them with the devil. There were individuals who appreciated cats for their ability to control vermin populations, and cats were sometimes kept in monasteries to protect valuable manuscripts from rodents. However, the negative associations with cats persisted in certain circles and contributed to the perception of cats as symbols of evil during that time.

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