Jews‘ Association with Cats:
Often depicted with the heretical symbol of the cat in the Bible Moralisée, the church considered Jews heretics. In one illustration two clerics devoted to the church read a book and pray, while two bearded men (Jews) shun the church. One of whom holds out a money bag to a seated idol in a temple. The other kneels holding a striped cat that looks away from him. The cat’s tail is up and the man seems to be kissing him underneath it.
Another illumination shows a cat sitting on a table of gold coins, a symbol of idol worship, the gold coins a symbol of money lending (Lipton, 1999).
Thomas Aquinas’ View of Animals
The 13th century did not begin well for the cat. Henry III (1207-1272), unlike Henry I, detested cats and would faint at the mere sight of one (Karras, 2005). Even so, records indicate that Henry’s sister purchased a cat upon arriving at Oldham and another when she moved to Dover in 1265; however, the purpose is unclear. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) wrote in 1264 “Of God and His Creatures” and in a section entitled, “That the Souls of Dumb Animals are not Immortal” he posited that animals do not have a consciousness or a soul and are unable to reason or understand. Instead, they live by their basic natural instincts (Engels, 2001). According to this treatise, the brutal handling and killing of animals was condoned, and the soulless cat’s basic instinct was judged evil.
The Rule of Anchoresses
Although condemned by the church, cats continued to be prized as excellent household companions because of their mousing abilities. Ancrene Riwle, most probably a Dominican friar, wrote in the years 1225-40 in “The Rule of Anchoresses” that “You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.”(Morton, 1853, p.228) However, true to this dualistic idea of the cat as good and evil in the Middle Ages, Riwle also wrote of the cat as the devil. “Has the cat of hell ever clutched at her, caught with his claws her heart head? Yes, truly; and drew out afterwards her whole body, with hooks of crooked and keen temptations; made her to lose both God and Men, with open shame and sin.” (Morton, 1853, p.66).
The Black Death
Living conditions in the Middle Ages were by no means sanitary. Houses made from waddle and daub accommodated 90 percent of the population, who were primarily living in the countryside working on feudal estates. These thatched roofed shacks shared by both animals and people attracted all sorts of vermin, especially rats. Researchers today believe that an average of 9.6 rats infested each house (Zahler, 2009). In addition, people rarely washed themselves or their clothes because they could not afford to heat water. Prior to the Black Death, the population had been severely weakened by the great famine of 1314-1317, which had killed more than 10 percent of the inhabitants of Europe. So dire were the living conditions during the famine that the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was based upon the fact that many families left their children in the forest to die because they could not afford to feed them (Bishop, 2001). So when the Black Death† appeared in 1347, weakened with malnutrition, living in an unsanitary environment and also burdened with the hundred years war that had begun in 1337, the population easily succumbed. In addition, to the lack of sanitation, there were few hospitals†† available for the victims. Perhaps most ironically a lack of cats, stemming from their vicious killings because of the church’s associating them with the devil, caused the black rat population to explode. With their numbers unchecked, rats invaded cities spreading the deadly disease through the fleas they carried. Even after a third of Europe’s population had been decimated between the years 1347-1352, scientists of the day remained ignorant of the plague’s cause; and consequently, the importance of the cat remained unknown.
†† There were only 400 hospitals in all of England during the Middle Ages (Bishop, 2001).