Life's busy, read it when you're ready!

Create a free account to save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

Browse thousands of RP articles

Articles, news, and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians.

Get Articles Delivered!

Articles, news,and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians delivered direct to your inbox!

AA
By:

The Pope who hated black cats

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.

Solomon says…

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)


Up Next


Church history

Jenny Geddes: the Reformer who let fly…

You can download or listen to the podcast version (5 minutes) here. **** Our story is about what should have been a small thing. It wasn’t such an unusual thing. You hear about it from time to time. Someone got upset and threw their stool. Someone got excited, got a little rowdy, and that was the end of it, right? Not quite. The stool thrower was a certain Jenny Geddes, She wasn’t a notable woman, merely running a fruit stall just outside the Tron Kirk, the main church in Edinburgh. Her stall was the 1600s equivalent of a hot dog stand. She wasn’t the sort of person that you would expect to appear in the history books. She was average. Not unusual. Much like you or me. But maybe that goes to show you that if the cause is important enough, the small can rise to do big things. In 1635, Charles I, king of England and Scotland, had declared himself to be the head of the Scottish church. Not all the Scots were terribly happy about this. In the spirit of the Reformation, the Scottish church had gone a good ways toward removing Catholic influences and developing its own, distinctive, Protestant style of worshipping. There was quite a bit of fear that Charles would change all that. Charles wanted the Scottish church to be more like the English one, uniting religion in his kingdom. Catholic subterfuge? Charles and the unpopular English Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, appointed a committee of, admittedly, Scottish bishops to develop a prayer book for use in the Scottish church. The Scots saw this prayer book as a way to make the Scottish church Catholic again by subterfuge. A lot of the more conservative Scots, the more Puritan leaning members of the church, were not impressed. So when it came time to debut the new Book of Common Prayer in an actual worship service, tensions were running high. Sunday, July 23, 1637 saw Deacon John Hanna nervously ascend the pulpit at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Sitting in the back of the cathedral was Jenny Geddes. Interestingly, the women were required to sit at the back, and bring their own stools to sit on which undoubtedly has a fascinating story behind it. For our purposes, it’s enough to realize that any stool light enough to be brought from home is also light enough to be thrown across the room. At some point Geddes had had enough. She rose and colorfully accused Hanna of being a Catholic priest in disguise. She yelled “Devil cause you severe pain and flatulent distension of your abdomen, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?” and then flung her stool across the room and at Hanna’s head. Cursing flatulence on someone and flinging your stool seems to have been the trigger for chaos. A riot started in the church – possibly involving more flying stools – with the service ending up more like a barroom brawl than a place of worship.  One worshipper who dutifully used the appropriate responses from the new Prayer Book was soundly thumped with Bibles. The riot spread out onto the street, even the city council chambers were besieged, and in time the authorities were called in to break up the chaos. The ruling authorities in Edinburgh appealed to the capital in London to withdraw the new Book of Common Prayer, but the government of Charles I refused. The Scots responded by signing a National Covenant in February 1638, to make the Scottish church more Presbyterian and less Anglican, and later that same year tossed out the Scottish bishops who had written the new Prayer Book. King Charles treated this as rebellion, and in 1639 launched the First Bishops War, the first in a series of wars with the Scots known as the Wars of the Covenant. These wars would tax his treasury, and, ultimately, lead to the confrontations with Parliament which would eventually cost him his head. Conclusion All this came about because one woman threw a stool. The funny part is that historians aren’t even sure if Jenny Geddes was a real person, or just a wonderful element to throw into a pretty crazy story about religious and political reform. Whatever the case, the riot was real, and it goes a long way towards showing that at the right moment, real, average, even boring, people can make a spectacular difference. Sometimes it’s not where you take your stand that matters, but where you take your seat. This article is taken from an episode of James Dykstra’s History.icu podcast, where history is never boring. You can check out other episodes at History.icu or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts. For some further digging… Wikipedia on "Jenny Geddes" Undiscovered Scotland on "Jenny Geddes" Reformation History on "Jenny Geddes" Scot Clans on "Jenny Geddes" InAmidst.com on "Lo and Behold"...


We Think You May Like