Cat Being Hanged as a Priest, cats

Cat Being Hanged as a Priest

Shadowing the great rebirth of the Renaissance was the Reformation.  When in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, a reform movement sprang up, Protestantism. Cats, somehow representative of Catholicism, and always victims of man’s abuse, became a key symbol for English reformist protests. Often cats represented priests and clergy, as in a horrifying episode of animal cruelty that occurred in Cheape, England, recounted in a chronicle of the time.  

“The same 8th April being then Sunday, a cat with her head shorne, and the likenesse of a vestment cast over her, with her fore feet tied together, and a round piece of paper like a singing cakebetween them, was hanged on a gallows in Cheape, near the cross in the parish of St. Matthew; which cat, being taken down, was carried to the Bishop of London, and he caused the same to be showed at Paul’s Cross by the preacher, Dr. Pendelton.” (Stow’s Chronicle p. 623 footnoted, Jardine, 1847, p.46)

Protestants also burnt effigies of the pope stuffed with live cats that would shrilly cry in pain, somehow pleasing the mad crowds. Belling a cat first mentioned in Bidpay and then in Aesop’s Fables, during the Reformation, came to mean that there was a need to depose a Bishop, and in other words, who would be brave enough to do it?

Protestants, as an insult to Catholics, published various engravings of friars and nuns in compromising circumstances.  In one engraving a friar teaches cats to sing.  In the center of the picture, a friar stands with a cat on both his shoulders and one on his head.  Three more are on the table in front of him with their paws on sheets of music. 

The lyrics are:  “The organs are disliked I’m wonderous sorry,

                           For the music is our romish Church’s Glory.

                           And ere that it shall music want I’ll try,

                           To make these cats sing and that want supply.”(Hattaway, 2002 p.363)


Other strange abominations occurred such as the eventual Bishop of London, John Stokesly, being charged with baptizing a cat in order to find lost treasure in his parish of Calley Weston, Northamptonshire.  Even though he was cleared of the charges, he would be called ‘heretic hemtu’ or ‘bloody bishop christen-cat” (Cressy, 2000).  Another Bishop, Matthew Wren, was highly upset at the fact that protesters roasted a live cat on a spit outside his church during the New Year’s Day service, which disrupted his sermon with the unlucky animal’s tortured screams. 

The cat quickly became the victim of not only Protestant politics, but Catholic as well.  In the mid 1600’s, the Catholics used the cat to protest against the Roundheads.  They shaved the poor feline’s head and cut off its ears and proclaimed it a Roundhead.  This was the ultimate insult.  By associating the Roundheads with animals, the Catholics maligned them as inferior to man (Fudge, 2004).

Strange incidences of cat cruelty as well as other absurdities continued, and in 1662, in Henley, Oxfordshire, as a silly prank, 5 young men baptized a cat in the church’s font and named him Tom. Meanwhile, games such as “cat clubbing” were enjoyed by the Dutch.  A cat was placed in a barrel that was hung from a tree; and the players would try to break it, and set the cat free, in order to chase it down and capture it again, and have the whole episode replayed (Klein, 2006). Another cruel Dutch tradition, which was mainly practiced for newlyweds, was Ketelmusik.  A group of musicians, in a crude effort to serenade newlyweds, beat pots and pans and pulled the fur of cats so that their screams accompanied the music.  This ritual spread to Germany, where it was called Katzenmusik, and even to France, as fair le chat (Ruff, 2001). And to top that, according to an old Germanic law, cats could attend trials and serve as witnesses against thieves and murderers.  In fact, in a 16th century trial, a French lawyer, Bartholomew Chassenée, defended rats against the charge of destroying a barely crop.  He claimed that the rats could not appear in court for fear of a cat hindering their trip (Evans, 1906).   


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 


Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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