The Black Cat as the Devil in Christian Sects:

The Waldenses

Many different Christian sects began to flourish during this time.  One of the first was the Waldenses, founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo.  The Waldenses believed that the individual could communicate directly with God.  This of course threatened the church, as the pope and the rest of the church hierarchy would no longer be able to sustain power, nor collect fees for indulgences that absolved sinners of their earthly misdeeds.  Hence, the church promptly excommunicated Waldo and declared the Waldenses heretical (Bishop, 2001).  To further malign the sect, William of Paris accused the Waldenses of worshipping the Devil in the form of a black cat; an accusation that would later be used against the Cathars and even the Knights Templar. The church easily condemned these sects as Devil worshippers and thus was able to charge them with witchcraft and heresy. 

WaldensiansaswitchesinLeChampiondesDamesbyMartinLeFrance,1451, history of the cat in the middle ages

Waldensians as Witches
Le Champion des Dames
Martin Le France


The Cathars

In roughly the same year, 1182, that St. Francis was born, Alain de Lille (1128-1202) a French theologian, proclaimed that the Cathars name meant ‘cat’ and was derived from the Latin, ‘cattus’ when in actuality the name came from the Greek ‘Katharoi,’ meaning pious ones (Turner et al., 2000).  Sealing the Cathars fate, the medieval writer Walter Map described a ceremony where the Cathars worshipped a cat.  “About the first watch of the night, when gates, doors, and windows have been closed, the groups sit waiting in silence in their respective synagogues, and a black cat of marvelous size climbs down a rope which hangs in their midst.  On seeing it, they put out the lights.  They do not sing hymns or repeat them distinctly, but hum through clenched teeth and pantingly feel their way toward the place where they saw their lord.  When they have found him they kiss him, each the more humbly as he is the more inflamed with frenzy—same the feet, more under the tail, most the private parts.” (Russell, 1972/84 p.130)

The church linked heresy with witchcraft and deemed the Cathars’ heretical behavior so dangerous that Pope Innocent II launched the Albigensian Crusade against them in Southern France.  The crusade and the inquisition which followed completely wiped out the Cathars in the 13th century.  The Church also tried to eradicate other major sects such as the Manichaens, Lollards and Templars in the same way by declaring their adherents heretics while also accusing them of worshipping the Devil in the form of a black cat. St. Augustine would even go so far as to accuse the Manichaens of eating their own babies in The Nature of Good (Russell, 1972/1984 p.124).

The Knights Templar

One of the five accusations against the Templars was that they worshipped a black cat, which appeared during their ceremonies (Lea, 2005). Consequently, St. Dominic and the Dominicans would declare the black cat the embodiment of Satan, and they would be at the forefront of the Inquisition.  From now on the church would use any association with cats as a tool to discredit those who threatened the power and control of the papacy by labeling them witches and/or heretics

The Devil Appears to St. Dominico of Calerueja Folio 313 Le Miroir Historical 1400-1410, history of the cat in the middle ages

The Devil Appears to St. Dominico of Calerueja
Folio 313
Le Miroir Historical

Vox in Rama Deems the Cat a Vessel of the Devil

Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) was the first to appoint inquisitors to seek out and prosecute heretics.  Previously, bishops had been appointed this duty, but because they did not bring cases unless someone complained, the church viewed them as ineffectual.  The inquisitors were mostly Dominican and Franciscan friars vested with the power to charge anyone and anything with heresy and/or witchcraft as they saw fit (Kieckhefer, 2000).  Due to the claims made by the inquisitor Conrad of Marburg that satanic sects existed in Mainz, Pope Gregory IX on June 13th, 1233, issued a papal bull, “Vox in Rama,” wherein the church proclaimed the cat a vessel of the Devil. The bull states in reference to the sect, “The following rites of this pestilence are carried out: When any novice is to be received among them and enters the sect of the damned for the first time, the shape of a certain frog [or toad] appears to him. Some kiss this creature on the hind quarters and some on the mouth, they receive the tongue and saliva of the beast inside their mouths. Sometimes it appears unduly large, and sometimes equivalent to a goose or a duck, and sometimes it even assumes the size of an oven.  At length, when the novice has come forward, [he] is met by a man of wondrous pallor, who has black eyes and is so emaciated [and] thin that since his flesh has been wasted, seems to have remaining only skin drawn over [his] bone. The novice kisses him and feels cold, like ice, and after the kiss the memory of the [C]atholic faith totally disappears from his heart. Afterwards, they sit down to a meal and when they have arisen from it, the certain statue, which is usual in a sect of this kind, a black cat descends backwards, with its tail erect. First the novice, next the master, then each one of the order who are worthy and perfect, kiss the cat on its buttocks. Then each [returns] to his place and, speaking certain responses, they incline their heads toward the cat. “Forgive us!” says the master, and the one next to him repeats this, a third responding [says], “We know, master!” A fourth says: “And we must obey.” When this has been done, they [put] out the candles, and turn to the practice of the most disgusting lechery. [They] make no distinction between strangers and family. Moreover, if by chance those of the male [sex] exceed the number of women, surrendering to their passions, […] men engage with depravity with men. Woman change their natural function making this itself worthy of blame among themselves. [When] these most abnormal sins have been completed, and the candles have been lit again and each has resumed his [place], from a dark corner of the assembly a certain man come[s], from the loins upward, shining like the sun. His lower part is shaggy like a cat.” (Rodenberg, 1883, pp.423-5, 537).  Heretics were to become known as ‘ketzer’ from the German name for cat, ‘katze’. The heretic, like the cat, defied Christian beliefs and appropriated souls (Williams, 1967).


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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