New Atheists really love their internet memes. There are whole Facebook groups that seem devoted to nothing more than the posting and exchange of snappy quotes and pithy mockery of religion, all served as an easy-to-share GIF or JPEG, each accompanied by a chorus of approval and agreement in the comments. These are often quotes from leading atheists or expressions of disbelief at stupid things said or accepted by religious believers, which forms a rich seam of material to be sure. But when they stray onto history, the results are predictably terrible.
So the Facebook Group called “No More Make Believe” (formerly known as “Atheists on Parade”) normally posts illustrations with quotes like “Religion is a thought prison with restraints that are only seen after you’re free”. But also posts ones with “quotes” like the fake one from Ferdinand Magellan, where he supposedly derides “the Church” and its alleged belief in a flat earth. This is despite the fact the Church had no such belief in Magellan’s time or any other time and the purported “quote” appeared nowhere before it suddenly popped up in a work by American agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll in 1873. “No More Make Believe” doesn’t seem to have a problem with “make believe” quotes. Or does have a problem with basic fact checking.
Which brings us to the meme above, posted on “No More Make Believe” on April 5, 2017. It’s interesting that it was posted with an edited note saying “Updated to remove erroneous information…My bad”. I didn’t see the original, so I have no idea what “erroneous information” was “updated”. But given that pretty much everything the text says is “erroneous information”, it probably doesn’t matter.
The Causes and Effects of the Epidemic
The first paragraph is more or less correct, but what it refers to as “the Black Plague” is more usually called “the Black Death”, though at the time it was referred to simply as “the Pestilence”, “the Dying” or “the Great Dying”. It certainly did cause the deaths of millions in Europe, though it began in central Asia and spread into Europe and into the Middle East, where it caused similar levels of devastation. Whether it was one disease or several is still a matter of debate, and it’s possible that it was actually a triple pandemic of bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic plague. There are a few historians who don’t believe it was plague at all, however recent DNA testing of victims’ remains from “plague pits” seems to make it clear that forms of plague – the Yersinia pestis bacterium – were the key pathogens involved. Plague in its various forms can spread in a number of ways, with pneumonic plague spreading person to person via airborne bacteria and septicaemic plague spreading that way or via bites from vermin such as fleas. Bubonic plague is certainly spread via animal vectors of this kind, so rats and other rodents spreading fleas would definitely have been a major factor in the spread of the pandemic.
Whatever the causes of the diseases’ spread, the reason for the high mortality rate was fairly simple: a general lack of any natural immunity in the population of Europe. Despite the popular perception of plague being a normal part of life throughout the Middle Ages, the era was actually marked by a centuries-long period where the disease was not seen at all. After the major epidemic of (probably) bubonic plague in the sixth century there do not seem to have been any such plague epidemics until the visitation of the Black Death in the late 1340s. As a result, few Europeans had any natural immunity. The plague revisited Europe periodically from the 1340s onward – usually at generational intervals – and then the 1660s saw another major outbreak. But increased levels of immunity meant that these re-visitations were not as devastating as the “Great Dying” of the 1340s.
Obviously, no-one had any clear idea of what caused the disease and the Church certainly did attribute it to the wrath of God, the way natural disasters were then and often still are to this day. This did not mean there was no attempt at natural explanations for the disease by churchmen and scholars, who accepted that while it may be a manifestation of divine displeasure, it was still a natural phenomenon. In the absence of any understanding of germ theory, they fell back on the ancient Greek idea of “miasmas” or “bad air” as the cause. While this was wrong, it resulted in the practices of quarantining victims and disposing of dead bodies quickly (even burning them en masse, despite religious taboos about cremation), which went some way toward containing the disease. But, as with any such epidemic in the pre-modern world, there was little else anyone could do other than let the disease run its course.
The overall death toll is not clear, with modern estimates ranging from 45% of the population up to the 60% claimed in the meme. The final toll varied from region to region, with some isolated places being untouched while in other areas whole villages were depopulated and abandoned completely. Large centres which were also hubs for trade seem to have been hardest hit, and cities such as London, Bremen, Milan and Florence clearly saw high death rates of up to 60% or more. It’s important to note that Europe did not see higher casualties than other parts of Eurasia and cities in the Middle East such as Cairo and Damascus saw similar mortality rates.
Reactions and Pogroms
Not surprisingly, there were many extreme reactions to the not inconsiderable shock of up to 60% of the population suddenly dying over the course of one summer. Later moralists claimed that the survivors and their descendants adopted levels of decadence and pleasure-seeking unknown “before the Dying”. The later fourteenth century saw fashions for tight clothing for women, short gowns and tight hose for men, new styles of music and dances and a general appetite for a good time that may have been a reaction to the plague, though it’s hard to tell if this really was a kind of “swinging 1360s” or just old moralists referring to some mythical previously moral time the way moralists always do.
What is clear is that there was a definite religious reaction to the shock of the epidemic. Devotions focused on the suffering of Jesus became much more popular from the mid-fourteenth century onward, with depictions of the Crucifixion becoming increasingly focused both on Jesus as a human being and on the gore and pain of the process of his execution. Images of death became increasingly commonplace, with memento mori – reminders of death – a theme in much popular religious art and literature. The popular story of three young men who meet three images of themselves in various stages of decay appears across Europe and effigies on tombs were increasingly accompanied by images of skulls or even second effigies showing the deceased decayed and rotting. The theme of the Danse Macabre – a dance with death that will inevitably include everyone from the Pope and Emperor down to the lowliest peasant – appeared in art, literature and songs.
More extreme reactions included the revival of Flagellant processions. Movements of penitents who engaged in public displays of penance including whipping themselves and each other had been appearing periodically in western Europe since the eleventh century, but we see several very popular manifestations of Flagellants in the wake of the plague. In some places these were spontaneous one-off acts of faith, but in Germany and the Low Countries they turned into a genuine movement that paraded from town to town and even went as far afield as England. As this movement became more organised and took on more of a defiant political, apocalyptic and anti-establishment tone, the Church became less than enthusiastic about it and Pope Clement VI issued a bull condemning Flagellants in 1349, which later popes reissued when the movement emerged again later in the century.
But the most extreme reaction to the plague was seeking out and persecuting scapegoats. Medical wisdom of the time traced the plague, correctly, to an outbreak in central Asia which had spread via trade routes and attributed it, incorrectly, to a combination of “bad air” and astrological alignments. But many people wanted someone local and immediate to blame and punish and some soon found supposed culprits; predictably enough, among marginalised groups. Lepers, or really anyone with any obvious skin condition including psoriasis or even chronic eczema, were among the first victims of lynchings and pogroms. But anyone seen as an outsider were sometimes caught up in a frenzy of revenge, so foreigners, travelling friars and preachers, Romani people and religious pilgrims were all blamed and in many cases persecuted, beaten or killed.
The group most often scapegoated were western Europe’s Jews, given that they were a separate, non-Christian community that was easily identified. Pogroms against Jews broke out mainly in the Rhineland, which had seen large scale murders of Jews in earlier manifestations of mass hysteria, such as the beginning of the First Crusade in the 1090s. So hundreds of Jews were massacred or burned alive in Strasbourg in 1349, but there were similar pogroms elsewhere in Europe, including Toulon in France and Barcelona in Spain.
Of course, the meme above is keen to blame the Church for these massacres, but actually the Church spoke out strongly against them and instructed local authorities to suppress them. Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls – the first on July 6, 1348 and another on 26 September 1348 – condemning the pogroms and forbidding the persecution of Jews. Modern Jewish accounts often claim that Jews were targeted because they had better hygiene than their Christian neighbours and so suffered much lower mortality in the epidemic, though this seems to be based largely on modern misconceptions about medieval hygiene. Contrary to popular belief, all medieval people washed their hands before meals, washed and bathed regularly if not daily and washed dead bodies before burial, so these practices were not unique to medieval Jews. Clement VI’s first bull also counters any claims that Jews could have been responsible for the plague by noting that Jews were dying as rapidly as everyone else, which indicates that the Jews did not have some kind of lower mortality rate anyway.
So the meme’s claim that certain people were targeted as scapegoats is correct, but the implication that this was due to encouragement by “the Church” is not. The group that is missing in the accounts of victims of these revenge attacks, however, is “witches”.
Witches and Cats?
Again, contrary to popular belief, the idea that alleged witches were regularly victimised by the Church in the medieval period is largely incorrect. The heyday of the Witch Craze came much later, with its peak in the sixteenth century. The position of the Church for most of the Middle Ages was that “witches” did not exist and even that it was sinful to claim they did. This changed in the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, but this change seems to have been, at least in part, a reaction to the Black Death and only came much later in the fourteenth century. Fear of supposed witches does not manifest itself in any substantial way until long after the plague of the 1340s and there is no official Church acceptance of the existence of witches until 1484.
So while there is plenty of evidence for pogroms against Jews in the wake of the plague and clear evidence of revenge against other marginal groups, there is no evidence at all that I know of that “witches” were blamed. Which brings us to the claim about massacres of cats.
The story that the stupid medieval people, at the instigation of their even more stupid clergy, killed thousands of cats and so died in even greater numbers during the 1340s epidemic as a result is popular and widespread. A quick Google on relevant key words will turn up a plethora of articles of the “strange true facts about history” clickbait variety that repeat the story, such as “Cats and the Black Plague” or “That One Time The Pope Banned Cats And It Caused The Black Plague” or “Cat History: The Black Plague” or dozens of others. These articles are marked by a total lack of any reference to source material substantiating claims about a general medieval massacre of cats, a lack of any references to historical analysis of the Black Death or, if they have any references to the latter, a lack of any such references that actually mention any massacre of cats. Why? Because it did not happen.
The whole story is one of those pseudo historical urban myths that keeps getting repeated despite the fact it’s complete nonsense. And it gets repeated because it feels right to many people – it makes our ancestors look stupid and so make us feel smart, it blames the medieval Church for something that popular culture says is the kind of thing the medieval Church would do and it’s a nice story with an ironic ending. So no-one actually bothers to check on one rather important element: whether it is actually true.
The few versions of this story that bother to give anything like some substantiation claim that cats were declared servants of evil by Pope Gregory IX in 1232 or even that he declared that they should all be killed. That sounds highly specific and substantial, though some might notice that 1232 is over a century before the first appearance of the Black Death in 1347 and wonder why it took this long for any supposed cat massacre to cause the plague. Other versions of the story say the antipathy towards cats began with Gregory IX’s papal bull and then grew until the lack of cats in Europe made the plague particularly catastrophic.
But did Gregory IX declare all cats evil or order their destruction? Actually, no. The “1232” reference seems to be to Gregory’s papal bull Vox in Rama, issued in that year, which addressed an alleged outbreak of devil worship in Germany. This bull gives a description of the ceremonies of this group of “Luciferians”, which includes many standard tropes found in lurid medieval ideas about heretical practices. This involved visions of a giant toad, initiates kissing an emaciated pale man and finally a statue of a black cat coming to life and speaking with the initiates. Nowhere does the bull associate this diabolical cat with cats generally, condemn all cats or call for their slaughter. Yet the claim that this bull somehow did cause massacres of cats continues to be made, usually with no reference to any supporting evidence at all.
Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entries for both Pope Gregory IX and the bull Vox in Rama perpetuate the idea that this pope and his bull caused a massacre of cats. And these claims and many of the ones in the articles noted above about the alleged cat massacre and the Black Death all reference one book as their support – Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat (Routledge, 2001) by Donald W. Engels. As far as I can tell, Engels is or was an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas and the author of a book on the logistics of Alexander the Great’s army. He certainly seems to like both Classical history and cats a lot. And he also seems to heartily dislike the Middle Ages.
The section in his book on the Black Death (pp. 160-162) is heavy on outdated cliches about medieval hygiene and the medieval Church but light on any substantiation about cat massacres. Engels declares confidently:
“For many years historians of medicine have understood that the virtual elimination of cats in medieval towns, beginning in the thirteenth century, led to an explosion in the black rat population. This in turn increased the virulence of the disease.”
This sounds all very authoritative and assured, but Engels doesn’t bother to actually give us any basis for this supposed understanding by “historians of medicine”. Or give any evidence that this “virtual elimination of cats” in medieval towns ever took place. I certainly don’t know of any sources that mention any such “elimination” and for animals that were virtually eliminated, cats sure as hell show up a lot in passing mentions, illuminations and marginalia from the period.
“There are depictions of cats being killed in medieval art, and this evidence remains to be collected and analyzed. The assumption is made, correctly in my opinion, based on artistic representations, folk traditions, and contemporary documents such as the Vox in Rama, that the cats were massacred with their female owners in large numbers. The cat population of the continent was probably decimated, especially in the towns where the culprits could be more easily rounded up.”
“From the later 15th century, such observers as Marsiglio Ficino began blaming animals – dogs that molested corpses made the most sense – for spreading plague, probably through miasma in their fur.” (Joseph P. Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, ABC-Clio, 2012, p. 13)