In the Middle Ages, the cat had many negative connotations. It was commonly associated with symbolic connotations of evil, death, the devil, witchcraft, and heresy. The cat was an easy target for such accusations, because it is a highly ambiguous and complex animal. In a way, the cat resides in two realms at the same time : wild and domestic. Its pagan and folk status, combined with its nocturnal character, allowed the cat to be a logical scapegoat for medieval moralists.1
According to Irina Metzler, the cat as a diabolic creature occurs in two varieties: “as allegory of the devil catching souls, and as direct manifestation of the devil, as an animal worshipped by heretics or later on by witches in subverted Sabbath ceremonies”.2 It was in the early fourteenth century that Arnold of Liège, a Dominican friar, explained that a cat playing with a mouse is a metaphor for the Devil toying with a human soul. However, in the twelfth century, the French Theologian Alan de Lille already asserted that the name of the Cathars was etymologically connected to cats. He claimed that Cathars worshipped a black cat, who was the Devil in disguise, and that they kiss its bottom during their services.
The fear of black cats, or cats in general, was thus already present before the writings of Arnold of Liège. The epitome of anxiety about cats had been reached when Pope Gregory IX issued the first church document to vilify cats, specifically black cats. This papal bull was issued between 1232-1234 and was called Vox in Rama. In this document, he declared the black cat to be an incarnation of the Devil and stated that Satan’s natural form was half-feline and half-man.3 Pope Gregory IX accused heretics, such as Cathars and Waldensians, of worshipping the Devil in the shape of a black cat in rituals where they kissed the feline’s posterior.
As such, Alan de Lille was probably influenced by these earlier accounts of people kissing the bottom of a black cat. Another example can be found in Walter Map’s De nugis curialium (1180). Here, Walter Map “describes how the Devil descends as a black cat (murilegus niger) before his devotees. The worshippers put out the light and draw near to the place where they saw their master. They feel after him and when they have found him they kiss him under the tail.”4
It might seem that during the Middle Ages most associations of fiendish cats were made with heretics, during the witch craze, but also earlier on, cats and witches seem to be well acquainted. In his Le Champion des Dames (c. 1440), Martin le Franc wrote about old women who were being accused of holding a Witches’ Sabbath. Franc seems to be influenced by earlier writings on ‘Waldensian witches’. That is, women worshipping the devil in the form of a black cat.5
Women and cats have had a special connection for centuries, both positive and negative. Most stories of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, the Norse goddess Freyja, and Roman goddess Diana feature cats, with special focus on the feature of shape-shifting. Bastet was a major protector deity represented as a cat. Freyja rides a chariot pulled by two cats and Diana seems to have transformed herself into a cat to escape Typhon (an evil-dragon-like creature often associated with the Egyptian God of Storms, Set). In the Middle Ages, it was said that wounds inflicted on women shape-shifting into cats would be still visible once they had returned to their human shape.6 This idea seems to have originated with Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1211), who wrote on female witches who flew by night and preferably shape-shifted into a cat. This shape-shifting story makes a comeback in the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (c. 1486). Its authors, Sprenger and Institutoris, made sure shapeshifting became a stereotype in subsequent witch folklore.
Cats are hard to get a hold of. Medieval society wanted to own cats and narrow their duties down to animated mousetraps. Yet, as we all know, cats cannot be owned. Rather, they own us. Heretics and witches, in a way, can also not completely be domesticated. They challenge orthodox thought, roam freely hither and thither, and act strange and wild whenever they feel like it. Even nowadays people still regard black cats with suspicion. This, in some cases, even counts for older women. Are there still witches and the Devil incarnate among us? I would keep a close eye on your surroundings this Halloween ;).
1. Blair, 11.
2. Metzler, 6.
3. Blair, 8; Metzler, 8.
4. Rowland, 70.
5. Metzler, 10.
6. Metzler, 11.
Blair, Lindsey Nicole. “Cats and Dogs: The Development of the Household Pet through
Symbolic Interpretations and Social Practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” Iowa Research Online, 2016.
Metzler, Irina. “Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse.” Medium
Aevum Quotidianum 59, 2009, pp. 16-32.
Rowland, Beryl. Blind Beasts: Chaucer’s Animal World. Kent State University Press, 1971.