People like or dislike different kinds of animals. I’m a bird person. They fascinate me. Others are cat people. And historically, we know that some civilizations, like the ancient Egyptians, have been fascinated by cats. Others, too, have had a fascination with the animal. Pope Gregory IX was one of them, though he really wasn’t a fan. And some would say that his hatred of cats may have caused the deaths of millions.
Then things got a bit weird…
Ugolini di Conti was born in Italy somewhere between 1145 and 1170. After an education in Paris and Bologna, he joined the church, being made a cardinal by his cousin, Pope Innocent III. In 1227, he became Pope, adopting the name of Gregory IX and that is when things became a little bit weird.
In June of 1233, Gregory issued a papal decree or bull, called Vox in Rama. Among those working for Gregory was an inquisitor named Conrad of Marburg. Busy in the German territories, this man’s job was to root out heresy and punish heretics. He claimed to have found an odd form of Satanic ritual which involved, in part, the kissing of a black cat’s buttocks, and acknowledging him as their satanic master.
The pope took this association between cats and the devil entirely seriously and issued his bull. It resulted in the killing and torturing of cats across Western Europe, For example, in Denmark the pre-Lent festival of Fastelavn saw a black cat put into a barrel and beaten to death to ward off evil. The Kattenstoet festival in Ypres, Belgium, may have found its origin in this time. The festival involved the throwing of live cats from the belfry of the Cloth Hall in a possible attempt to expel the evil spirits the cats represented. This cat throwing festival has been revived in modern times, though now a jester throws out toy stuffed cats to waiting children below.
Here the story, as it’s usually told, becomes an example of the law of unintended consequences. As Europeans feared and killed cats, rat populations thrived or so the story goes. And carried on the backs of rats were fleas that carried the Black Death or bubonic plague. In other words, Pope Gregory’s attack on cats was indirectly responsible for the deaths of up to 50 million people across Europe because there were no cats to kill the rats who carried the plague.
Too neat, too tidy
It’s a neat little story, and one that we’re all tempted to believe. After all, people in the Middle Ages were silly, and modern people like us are far, far smarter. We understand more clearly what they couldn’t possibly have comprehended. And, of course, since religion isn’t very popular today, anything that makes religious believers look dumb is eagerly lapped up.
But history is never quite that simple. Though Pope Gregory put a target on the backs of cats in the 1230s, it’s not clear how many cats were killed nor how long the anti-cat hatred lasted. As well, it wasn’t until the 1340s that the Black Death started to make the rounds of Europe. Were they still killing a significant number of cats a hundred years later?
And even if cats were still actively hated, you have to remember that while cats don’t quite breed like rabbits, they can multiply quickly. Unchecked a cat will breed two or three times per year, with from 1 to 8 kittens per litter. In her lifetime, a cat can give birth to up to 100 kittens. And, of course, those kittens, at five months old, can give birth to more kittens. So, according to the Roice-Hurst Humane Society website, over seven years a cat and all her kittens and all their kittens and all their kittens can total up anywhere from 100 to 400 new cats.
As well, bubonic plague made a reappearance every few generations for the next few hundred years, killing as many as 100,000 people in London from 1665-1666. The plague doesn’t seem to have been affected by how fashionable or unfashionable cats were at any given time.
And while the fleas on rats were one of the ways bubonic plague can be spread, it certainly wasn’t the only way. The fleas that carry the disease can live on dogs, humans., and, yes, even cats. So, ironically, if cats had killed all the rats, the cats themselves may have spread the plague. And if there had been no cats and thus the rats had proliferated, the rats probably would’ve done the work.
So did Pope Gregory, the most powerful religious leader in Europe in his day, cause the Black Death by encouraging the destruction of cats? To let the cat out of the bag, no, he probably didn’t. And the story of him causing the Black Death should warn us that when a story seems too neat, and too simple, it just might not be true.
That applies to stories we hear from our news sources, social media, and even our friends. After all, as Solomon said, the one who states his case first seems right until another comes and examines him (Prov 18:17). Find out what the other side of the issue is. If the story makes us seem absolutely right – or absolutely wrong – we might not be getting the whole story.
So the next time you hear something that confirms or even denies what you believe in a way that’s too good, too simple to be true, dig deeper. Investigate. Learn more. Be curious. After all, it’s not like curiosity killed the cat, is it?
James Dykstra is a sometimes history teacher, author, and podcaster. This article is taken from an episode of his History.icu podcast, “where history is never boring.” Find it at History.icu, or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts.
For further reading
The Kattenstoet festival (Wikipedia)
Vox in Rama (Wikipedia)
What is the Fastelavn festival?
Did Pope Gregory IX’s hatred of cats lead to the Black Death?
Cats breed like bunnies
Pope Gregory IX (Wikipedia)