The wonderful Dr. Eleanor Janega has a new blog post up about cats in medieval Europe. In it, she takes aim at the weird zombie myth that Christian leaders in the 13th century (focusing on a papal bull from Pope Gregory IX in 1233) thought cats were somehow evil and ordered a mass killing. This, in turn, led to a massive overpopulation of rodents, which then caused the spread of the flea that then carried Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that caused the plague).
But, I mean, c’mon.
As she points out, there’s absolutely no evidence of a great cat massacre in the 14th century and - on the contrary - there’s plenty of evidence that cats were, well, cats throughout the European Middle Ages.
But also this story has caught on with a certain online crowd because of one specific deeply rooted belief about “The Dark Ages” (but against that read our book!) as an age of totalitarian domination by an absolute theocracy that controlled people’s lives in every way. It isn’t true, of course. Some church leaders might have wanted to assert control over every aspect of daily life, but they never did, most didn’t want to, and at best were still trying to do things like get really basic levels of education for priests, push people to go to confession once a year, and other pretty basic levels of oversight. If you were a priest in some French parish and decided to start telling people to kill their cats, it wasn’t going to go well for you. And yet, people are all too willing to imagine the medieval Church operating like Chairman Mao’s “Four Pests Campaign,” except against cats based on anti-witch superstition. It doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, pass the most basic laugh test.
Anyway, go read Eleanor’s piece and don’t believe everything about medieval Europe that you see on TikTok.
My favorite is the monk who cursed his cat for peeing on his manuscript.
I appreciate the photographs of the cats for proof of your authority on this subject 😻
Yeah, Robert Darnton never intended his musings to become stupid conspiracy theories. Sigh. But I do love that the neo-fascist Christian Right is accusing others of dreams of totalitarian domination. 🙄