24 January 2010

Historical vignette 5: the plague cats

Between 1347 and 1352 the Black Death raged throughout Europe, killing at least 25 million people, about a third of Europe's total population at that time.

A little-known contributing factor was the Christian hatred of cats during medieval times. For centuries cats had been suspected of being the "familiars" of witches (the witch's black cat is an image which persists in popular culture today) and were even associated with the Devil. By the time the Black Death struck, Europe's cat population had been drastically reduced by widespread killing. What these superstitious people didn't realize was that cats help to limit rat populations and to keep rats away from human homes and food supplies. And rats, of course, were the vehicle of the fleas that carried the plague.

Deviants who continued to keep pet cats likely had better chances of surviving the plague, though they must also have run a greater risk of being suspected of witchcraft.

More here on the historical relationship between man and moggy.

13 Comments:

Anonymous NickM said...

Well stuff me Infidel!

That's the most interesting thing I've heard for ages. As you might have guessed I'm a cat-lover and oddly enough I got home tonight to discover a little prezzie from Timmy*. Yes, he'd left a dead rodent on the dining-room carpet.

Now just down the road from me is the village of Eyam.

If you don't know the full details - including into the present-day then I suggest you wikipedia it.

*Not our choice of name. An inherited cat.

24 January, 2010 16:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Well stuff me Infidel!

If you insist.....:-)

Not our choice of name. An inherited cat.

Well, you could have re-named him Comrade Trotsky.....

24 January, 2010 16:50  
Blogger tnlib said...

I think I read about that one time. Weird how people want to destroy the very thing that can protect them.

24 January, 2010 18:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

And kittens are so cute!

24 January, 2010 19:35  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

I think the village of Eyam did a deal with the devil and got punished by being visited by the plague.

If my cat had chase and kill rodents, they would have to taste of Friskies.

24 January, 2010 21:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Make a deal with the Devil, face the wrath of Timmy.....

25 January, 2010 04:41  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Interesting post indeed, Mr.Infidel. I was "familiar" (odd choice of word's here) with the kitty kat horror myth's, but not even thought about rat's at the time and the Plague.

Damn dude ... I'm sure you seen some of the torture device's they used against some of these suspected witches to, heh? Maybe even when you were in Europe if you ever visited some of the old castle's or such, those were some gruesome tool's Guy! And we think our world is violent today? Geeeezzzz. I visited a torture museum in a castle year's back ... and it even made our wildest S&M fantasies look like Boy Scout practice's!

Thank You Sir! Nice piece!

25 January, 2010 04:44  
Blogger Silverfiddle said...

Human beings have believed in all kinds of silly superstitions. We still do it today.

Danny Glover believes the Haiti earthquake was Mother Nature punishing us for the debacle at Copenhagen...

25 January, 2010 05:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: All traditional cultures are pretty much ghastly. I know a fair bit about medieval European torture devices (the most imaginative culture in that area was probably imperial China, though).

SF: First the Haïtians made a deal with Satan, now they're responsible for how the climate talks turned out? People are morons.

25 January, 2010 07:22  
Blogger mendip said...

I seem to remember a modern twist on tis theme during the mid 80's when the AIDS epidemic was cresting. The Baptists, at their annual convention, voted AGAINST providing anti-AIDS information in their parishes. Their fear & loathing of gays, drug use, etc. trumped providing information to the lambs on what measures could/should be taken to protect themselves. It'd be interesting to see if there were ever any statistics compiled as to infection rates between informed and ignorant populations.

25 January, 2010 08:54  
Blogger B.J. said...

Don’t you just love this stuff? After reading Ken Follett this summer, I got off a jag of reading books about European plagues. And, yep, I have a life, LOL.

Cats who graced my life: Curious; Curious, Too; Tuxedo, Mama Cass, Cali (shortened from Caliph because he preferred dumpster food), Tempest and Oliver. God, I miss them all!

“People are morons.” You’re on to something there!

Oh, Lord! Danny Glover. Another South Carolina moron.

BJ

30 January, 2010 03:27  
Anonymous Hugo Grinebiter said...

I'm not sure about this. The great witch-hunting craze came after the Black Death and was likely one of its consequences. Nor am I sure that the precise pathology of the Malleus can be projected back to the Middle Ages. For witch-hunting was an Early Modern phenomenon, not a medieval one.

I know of at least one medieval source text about pet cats. And anyway, dogs are also ratters. Yet again, there were pandemic plagues in the Ancient World, before any Christian witchcraft nonsense.

I prefer to see the Black Death as the same sort of phenomenon as the devastation of the Americans by European diseases: new disease, no immunity. Rats and fleas in the Middle Ages didn't cause the BD before Y. pestis migrated along the new trade routes created by the Mongol Empire.

24 February, 2010 09:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Paranoia about witches (and their moggies) certainly preceded the "great witch-hunting craze". The Black Death did originate with a new pathogen being introduced, and epidemics were common in pre-modern times due to ignorance (and, in the Dark Ages, poor hygiene) but in the case of the Black Death the reduction of the numbers of cats must have made it worse.

24 February, 2010 16:39  

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