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A Short History of the Domestication of the Cat

The Cat in the Middle Ages


Photo of black cat Neko

Black Cats Were Targeted as "Witches' Familiars"

Photo Credit: © Cynthia and Matthew Butler

Human attitudes toward cats underwent several changes during the middle Ages, from around 500 A.D. until 1600 A.D., as their perceived value waxed and waned. Sometime after the Egyptians discovered the value of keeping cats close, people in the Far East and India began to domesticate the animals. The pattern approximated the Egyptian views, in these respects:

  1. The cat was valued for their rodent killing abilities.
  2. The cat was later revered for bringing good fortune.
    The Maneki Neko remains today as a symbol of the "lucky cat."
  3. Cats lived in temples and palaces, and sometimes ceremonies were held for their souls after their death.

Throughout the Middle Ages, cats received mixed reviews. Depending on the part of the world they inhabited and who their keepers were, cats were kept merely as mousers, worshipped, or despised. Islamic peoples glorified cats, most likely because the prophet Mohammed liked them. A popular legend tells about Mohammed’s cat falling asleep on the sleeve of his robe. When he wanted to get up, Mohammed cut off the sleeve, rather than disturb the cat. An extension of this legend even suggests that the prominent "M" marking on the foreheads of tabby cats stands for Mohammed.

In Europe, black cats became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Although the black cat was initially targeted, all cats fell into disfavor. The common phrase " witch hunt" arose from the fanatical fervor with which witches and their "familiars" were searched down, tortured until they confessed their sins, and killed, usually by burning at the stake.

The Middle Ages was, indeed, a dark period in history for the cat, as cats were systematically condemned, hunted down and killed on sight. But it was a good time for rats.

As cats were exterminated on a massive scale, the rodent population grew unchecked, with fewer predators to control their numbers. Man had monkeyed with the delicate balance of nature and thrown it out of kilter. And as is often the case, the consequences would be dire. No one realized it at the time, but the swelling rodent population, combined with the generally unsanitary conditions prevalent in cities and towns of that time, would contribute to an even darker era for mankind, coming in the form of the Plague, also known as Black Death.

Preoccupied with avoiding the plague, caring for victims, burying bodies, and mourning their losses, people had no more time for hunting and killing cats. This helped the feline population recover somewhat and begin killing the rats responsible for spreading the plague. It is one of history’s many ironies that a tragedy claiming so many human lives actually helped save cats and eventually restored their image.

In time, people made the connection between rats, fleas and the plague, and with that new understanding, cats regained their valued standing in society as premier pest-controllers.

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