Cats, the Black Death and a Pope

Cats, the Black Death and a Pope

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.

Burying the Dead in Germany, 1349

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.

A procession of Flagellants

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”.

Seventeenth Century Witches and Cats

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.

So not only do we have repeated references to cats being kept as pets – especially by nuns, showing that unmarried “cat ladies” have a long history – but, as the illuminations above show, cats were actually prized because they were good at controlling rodents.  Medieval bestiaries talk about how useful cats are for catching mice and rats.  Isidore of Seville thought the Latin name for the cat – cattus – came from the verb “to catch (mice)”.  Most households kept cats both as mousers or simply as pets and etiquette books on how formal meals and feats should be conducted talk about how “dogs and cats” should be driven out of the hall before food was served.  The thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse – a guide for female hermits – advises “[you] shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat”.  Far from being “virtually eliminated”, medieval people rather liked cats.
The Origin of the Myth?
Despite his confident assertions about medieval cat massacres, elsewhere in his book Engels lets it slip that this is only an “assumption”:

“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.”

So it seems his confidence is actually not solidly based at all.  There may well be “depictions of cats being killed in medieval art” (though I can’t find any at all), but there are also depictions of cats as pampered pets and valued mousers, so that is a flimsy basis for this “assumption” that this massacre “probably” happened.
Engels seems to have happily accepted the myth of a massacre of cats after Vox in Rama without bothering to check it.  Not surprisingly, the rest of his account of how this supposed lack of cats caused the plague is full of other popular but baseless ideas and his conception of medieval people as unwashed idiots who lived in piles of garbage and actually liked rats while killing cats is as bizarre as it is baseless.  He repeats the myth that European Jews were spared the plague because they were cleaner than their neighbours.  Importantly, he does not explain why the death rate in central Asia and the Middle East was just as high as in Christian Europe, even though those regions were well-beyond the reach of any papally-ordained cat massacres.  And his reference in the quote above to cats being “massacred with their female owners in large numbers” indicates that he thinks the witch craze happened in the medieval period and that he has a general ignorance of the period.  Perhaps Engels should stick to ancient Macedonian military logistics.
So where did this idea of a medieval cat massacre come from?  Like many myths that are projected back onto “the Middle Ages” (witch burning, an aversion to bathing), it seems loosely based on some much later incidents of killing animals as a reaction to other outbreaks of epidemics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  And the targets of these examples seem to have been dogs more than cats, though they could include both.
One thing that was notable about the Black Death and later European manifestations of the plague is that it seems to have affected many animals and livestock as well as humans.  This means it killed rats in large numbers (possibly causing their fleas to seek human hosts), but we also have descriptions of dogs, cats and cattle dying.  As a result, the main mentions of cats and dogs in accounts has them as victims of the epidemic, not as its cause.
Despite this, we do have some evidence that dogs and, sometimes, cats were killed in reaction to later outbreaks.  In Edinburgh in 1499 a city ordinance required stray dogs, cats and pigs be killed in reaction to an outbreak of disease, and this law was repeated in 1505 and 1585.  We find a similar reaction in Seville in 1581 and in London in 1563 and again in 1665, where the victims were again mainly stray dogs rather than cats.  The reason seems to have been the medical belief that stray animals spread the plague:

“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)

The fact that stray animals were blamed seems to indicate that animals that molested the corpses of victims or stirred up “bad air” in garbage were seen as the problem.  But this evidence all dates to well after the late 1340s, was aimed largely at dogs rather than cats, had nothing to do with “witches” and was not due to anything done by the Church.
So it seems the whole myth is the usual tangle of prejudices about the medieval Church, popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the general tendency for people to accept weird-sounding “true facts” about the past that perpetuate the idea that our ancestors were not as clever as us.  Add a heavy dollop of anti-Christian bias and we can see why New Atheists like whoever is behind “No More Make Believe” on Facebook didn’t bother to check their facts.  Militant online “rationalism” fails again.
Edit 07.05.17: Not to be outdone, the “Philosophical Atheism” group on Facebook posted this version of the same nonsense today.  What is it with these idiots?
Edit 23.05.17:  After making detailed critical comments on this and other pseudo historical memes on the so-called “Philosophical Atheism” Facebook group I have now been banned from the group, blocked from commenting and all my many detailed comments have been erased.  Thus another great victory has been won for “rationalism” and “free thought”.

39 thoughts on “Cats, the Black Death and a Pope

  1. To be fair to these atheist groups, sharing memes and unverified truths on the internets is not unique to them in the slightest. It seems to be the modus operandi these days, especially when it comes to "soft" sciences.


  2. That's fair. But would they hold Christians to that very low standard of bullshit? If we atheists are going to preach fact checking and rational analysis, we need to practice it.


    1. Well, as a Christian I can really only hope that you all keep making foolish unsubstatiated claims. That way I won’t be too embarassed by my creationist brethren…

      Oh, who am I kidding. Atheist myths are nowhere near the level of creationism. Alas, and weylawey…


  3. Good article as always. But Hans is right. Everybody is a genius, who knows everything, who doesn't need to check facts or do any research and a declarative statement is the same as debate. Ignorance abounds because nobody feels the need to learn anything.
    These days, I find the most refreshing words in the English language "I don't know".


  4. Thank you for an excellent article.

    I had only just recently read some throw-away comment about the Massacre of the Cats and wondered just how accurate this was. It seems to be up there with the Galileo Gambit.


    1. Yes, but could a cat kill an infected rat? Seems to me that might be fatal to him. Not that I’m any biologist, just seems to be common sense.


  5. Down in Australia,Tim O'Neil, a professional headhunter or executive recruiter, has declared himself to be the objective voice on what "real" historians say about problems with the Church. As opposed to what "atheist memes" claim.

    But are Tim and his "real historians" right, when they claim the Church was never as bad or foolish as atheists have claimed?

    Most recently, Tim implies that much serious historical literature proves that, among other things, the Church never persecuted say, witches. And never even believed they existed. But?

    But the Church claims to believe in the Bible. And the Bible constantly mentions witches, fortune tellers, magicians, freelancers, and the like.

    So what should we say here?

    Many historians of Medieval history have necessarily relied heavily on Church records, to form their ideas. This is partly necessary, because the churches were the primary record keepers of the time. And churches own and control that data, to this vert very day. But? Clearly, the churches are biased: they do not like to admit they made mistakes in the past. So they present to historians .. only those elements of their checkered past, that seem acceptable today

    Since we find belief in many things like witches in the Bible, almost certainly our pederastical Church is lying, when it declared that it did not ever believe even in the existence of such things.

    And if many "real" historians report that the Church was innocent of such misdeeds? Then those historians are probably relying far too much on clearly unreliable reports, from the Church and its apologists.


    1. I’ve read the Bible more than once, but don’t seem to recall anything about witches. Magicians, fortune tellers, etc., yes, but they are not the good guys. And witches are a Protestant thing. That’s why some many Protestants are so hung up about Halloween. You’ll never find a Catholic–and few mainstream Protestants–fretting about his kid running around in a witch’s costume. It’s nothing to seriously believe in.


      1. There are a couple of Old Testament passages about “spirit mediums” and “seers” which some older English editions translate with the word “witches”. As I explain in some other comments here, these figures were both male and female and the Latin words used in these passages were not gender-specific. Paranoia about “witches” persists in some Protestant circles today, but in the Early Modern Era both Catholic and Protestant regions could be swept up in the “Witch Craze”. The belief in “witches” was not exclusively Protestant then. It seems to be a mainly conservative Protestant thing now, though at least these days they don’t usually burn those they accuse. Not literally, anyway.


  6. The ever reliable Bretton Garcia has provided us with some of his usual comedy gold.

    … a professional headhunter or executive recruiter …

    Try "head of academic recruitment for one of the world's leading universities".

    "But are Tim and his "real historians" right, when they claim the Church was never as bad or foolish as atheists have claimed?

    Tim has never said they were "never" as foolish as atheists have claimed. Just not as foolish as is claimed in the specific topics addressed on this blog.

    "Tim implies that much serious historical literature proves that, among other things, the Church never persecuted say, witches. And never even believed they existed. "

    I said no such thing.

    "Many historians of Medieval history have necessarily relied heavily on Church records, to form their ideas. This is partly necessary, because the churches were the primary record keepers of the time. And churches own and control that data, to this vert very day. But? Clearly, the churches are biased: they do not like to admit they made mistakes in the past. So they present to historians .. only those elements of their checkered past, that seem acceptable today "

    Gosh. And you must be the first person in the world to notice that some sources can be biased! Why didn't those stupid professional historians, with all their training in how to interpret source material, realise this simple thing? You must rush to tell them at once!

    "Since we find belief in many things like witches in the Bible, almost certainly our pederastical Church is lying, when it declared that it did not ever believe even in the existence of such things."

    So, if I've got this straight, when in 785, the Council of Paderborn enacted legislation making it illegal to believe in the existence of witches, they were only doing this to throw future historians off the scent and cover up the fact that they actually believed in witches themselves, were persecuting people for witchcraft but were also a bit ashamed about it and so wanted to make people think they didn't even believe witches existed? And when Boniface of Lyon stated that said that belief in the existence in witches was un-Christian, he actually meant the opposite, but was just trying to fool future historians? And when Charlemagne passed laws saying that anyone who burned a supposed witch was guilty of a crime and were themselves to be executed, he was just helping the Church cover up the fact that they were actually the ones doing the burning, but were embarassed about it?

    "And if many "real" historians report that the Church was innocent of such misdeeds? Then those historians are probably relying far too much on clearly unreliable reports, from the Church and its apologists."

    You are such an idiot it makes my head hurt.


  7. I invite anyone who is interested in this subject, to simply go to a Biblical concordance, and look to see the dozens of times the Bible speaks of "witches."

    So why does the Church say at times that it 1) follows the Bible, but then 2)some in the Church freely contradicts many parts of it?

    The answer is that the Church's voice is often inconsistent.

    Yes, some sources in the Church opposed the existence of witches. But plenty of others support their existence.


  8. I generally don't let Bretton Garcia out of the Troll Box unless his boneheaded ranting provides a learning opportunity for others. Given that he is one of a couple of classic examples of New Atheist ignorance and bias we get commenting here, some of his weird blurts certainly do give us a chance to see how a combination of lack of knowledge of the relevant periods, blind irrational prejudice and pig-headed wilful ignorance combine into a perfect storm of distorted pseudo history.

    "I invite anyone who is interested in this subject, to simply go to a Biblical concordance, and look to see the dozens of times the Bible speaks of "witches.""

    "Dozens"? The Bible in its modern translations rarely uses the word "witches", though older translations like the King James Version do. Not surprisingly, the KJV was produced at the height of the early modern Witch Craze and produced for an English king who had an obsession with witches. The two key places where the KJV refers directly to "witches" are Exodus 22:18 and Deut 18:10, though in other places a number of different words were translated as "witchcraft".

    So what Bretton Garcia seems to be trying to argue is that, if the Bible condemns "witches" and "witchcraft", Christianity must always have persecuted witches – because "it's in the Bible". Therefore he thinks that I must be cherry picking data when I note the condemnations of the belief in the existence of witches in the Council of Paderborn or the writings of Boniface of Lyon and so these must be exceptions, not the rule.

    As usual, Bretton Garcia is wrong.

    The "witches" that the earlier medieval Church said did not exist were remnants of pre-Christian pagan folklore. It was a commonly held belief, especially in the Germanic world, that some people (mainly women) had a special capacity for magic, especially harmful magic, and also had the ability to fly. Writing about the beliefs of his ancient Gothic ancestors, the Ostrogothic historian talks about the Haliurunnae who had been expelled from the original Gothic people for witchcraft. Scandinavian traditions also had a belief in the vǫlva
    seiðkona or spákona who were female seers and magic-workers who would use malicious spells if crossed. When territories that had held these beliefs were converted, the Church's teaching was that these women did not actually have any power at all, that these "witches" did not actually exist and that anyone who claimed they did was committing a sin.

    Given that the Bible passages mentioned above were not written in English, none of them mentioned "witches". The western Church used the Vulgate Latin version of the Bible and it used a number of words for what later English translations called "witches". For example:

    "maleficos non patieris vivere" (Exodus 22:18) – "You shall not allow a user of bad magic to live"


    "nec inveniatur in te qui lustret filium suum aut filiam ducens per ignem aut qui ariolos sciscitetur et observet somnia atque auguria ne sit maleficus" (Deut 18:10) –
    Neither let there be found among you any one that shall expiate his son or daughter, making them to pass through the fire: or that consulteth soothsayers, or observe dreams and omens, neither let there be any user of bad magic.

    The key word here is "bad magic". Because in the Middle Ages, belief in natural magic was accepted and its use was regarded as normal. In fact, as Richard Kieckhefer details in Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989), the line between good natural magic, charms, prayers, invocations of saints was blurred and unclear. Priests did magic. Lay people did magic. Magic was an accepted part of life and unquestioned. What people used magic FOR was the issue.
    (Cont. below)


  9. So someone who used magic to do things that were harmful, or to try to consult with the dead or, worse, demons were definitely doing something wrong. It's just that there was no widespread belief in a group of such people who did this all the time. Or who did this because of some pact with Satan.

    THAT was the new idea that arose in the fourteenth century and came to be accepted by the Church in the fifteenth century. Which in turn led to the Witch Craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before that new conception of a category of people who were, their nature, practioners of a particular diabolical magic, prosecution of anyone for using magic for evil purposes was rare.

    If Bretton Garcia bothered to crack a book occasionally and educate himself, or even just bothered to read the Wikipedia article on "European Witchcraft" he'd find all this information readily to hand. But like all brainless fanatics, he thinks he doesn't need to do this because he already "knows" what he wants to believe.


  10. Women who practice forbidden magic,were not witches? That's a distinction without a significant difference.

    The general concept of witches can be seen in many similar figures. And it was used obviously in Judaism, in the roots of Christianity. And in say the Witches of Endor.

    There were minor differences in these persons from one era to the next. But we should not seize on them, and fail to see underlying structural commonalities; as the social sciences, anthropology, do.

    And of course, some modern Bibles DO continue to use the word "which." According to the basic principles of dynamic and other kinds of translation. Which seek to translate old concepts by way of related terms more familiar to modern readers.


  11. "Women who practice forbidden magic,were not witches? That's a distinction without a significant difference. "

    Did you actually read what I said? There was no Church belief in a category of women who did this all the time as part of a pact with Satan. And the folk belief that there was a group of woman who had maleficent magical powers was considered nonsense by the Church. Thus there were few cases of anyone being prosecuted for using natural magic for evil purposes. Until thinking changed in the later fourteenth century and a belief in organised groups of people, mainly women, acting on a pact with Satan arose. Try to fucking understand.


  12. I'm arguing that requiring every specific element of say 1600's European witchcraft – e.g. a pact with specifically "Satan" – to be condemned, would be asking for too many identical elements. And would overlook general, similar, related condemnations.

    The general class was considered nonsense? So how was the concept of women with malevolent powers considered nonsense by the Church … when the Bible and other traditions had long mentioned them? Some of these seem closely enough identified with specifically females.

    In ancient times in most cultures, there were normally very firm gender distinctions. In language, even most nouns had individual genders. And the role of women was extremely circumscribed. In that environment, the mention of specifically a woman in this or that profession, would normally attract very considerable attention. As distinctive, or a violation of normative gender distinctions.

    In any case, even without a firm gender distinction, the churchs' general biblical distaste for practitioners of all kinds of magical arts, would have been directed at … the female practitioners as well.

    So for example, sorcerers … and sorceress. Or necromancers say, of either gender.

    So the Churchs' formal disavowals of any pre Medieval distaste for witches, might conform to the letter but not the spirit of early Christianity. Clearly the Church would have had to follow the Bible to some extent. And it – if not a certain class of writers in the Church – regularly proscribed all manner of magiks. Including women. Whom they must have known existed. Since the Bible among other sources, mentioned them.


  13. One more time out of the Troll Box for our resident village idiot, because it seems he still doesn't quite get it. A few comments on his meandering burble above:

    " So how was the concept of women with malevolent powers considered nonsense by the Church … when the Bible and other traditions had long mentioned them?"

    The words the Latin Bible uses are not gender specific. "Maleficos" in Exodus 22:18 is the masculine accusative plural of the masculine nominative singluar "maleficus" (wrong-doer, using magic) used in Deut 18:10. The feminine forms would be "maleficās" and "malefica" respectively. The word could be used in masculine, feminine or neuter forms. Other words were used in other parts of the Bible, so the story of the so-called "witch of Endor" in 1Samuel 28:3-28 uses the words "ariolos" (fortune tellers) and "pythonem" (soothsayer), also both gender neutral.

    So I'm afraid there is nothing in the Bible to support the idea of a specifically female class of maleficent magic users – that's just in your head when you read English translations of those Latin words that use the word "witch".

    "So the Churchs' formal disavowals of any pre Medieval distaste for witches, might conform to the letter but not the spirit of early Christianity. Clearly the Church would have had to follow the Bible to some extent. "

    See above. The Bible didn't support the idea of any specifically female class of maleficent magic users. You just don't have the linguistic skill, the rational objectivity or the brains to interpret the evidence.

    "And it – if not a certain class of writers in the Church – regularly proscribed all manner of magiks. Including women. Whom they must have known existed. Since the Bible among other sources, mentioned them."

    Wrong. The Bible condemns the misuse of natural magic. As I've already explained, medieval people used forms of natural magic all the time. Malicious use of magic could and sometimes was prosecuted, though usually by secular authorities as a normal crime, not by the Church. And this was fairly rare. Again, as I've explained, this began to change in the fourteenth century when thinking about the origin of magic was influenced by ideas of diabolical sects, which in turn gave rise to the idea of "witches". But that did not get Church support until the later fifteenth century.

    I know you desperately WANT the Church to have been persecuting women as witches throughout its history but the historical facts don't care about your crazy fantasies and insane prejudices. Try thinking rationally for once.


  14. Just to clarify a possible confusion, "witchcraft" in modern usage doesn't necessarily specify a "female class of maleficent magic users." The United Nations and Human Rights Watch, among others, have published reports on the problem of witch-hunting in modern sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the accused witches are both male and female, young and old.

    Using the word in that more general sense, it's not hard to find examples of analogous beliefs and practices in medieval Europe.


  15. True. It didn't even exclusively refer to a "female class of maleficent magic users" during the European witch hunt period either. About 20% of supposed "witches" prosecuted were men. In some places the victims of the hysteria were almost exclusively women. But in others, such as Finland, they were almost entirely men.


  16. I think that this is because schismatic sects are prone to fantasies of history. The Catholics of course have their legends of the Fathers’ dominance and the heretics’ unpopularity, of eternal Papal primacy and various Spanish White Legends. But founding a new movement always tends towards a wholly-invented past.

    Many Baptists fully believe that the 12 Apostles were all Baptists, and that their novel sect IS Christianity. It was the original ekklesia from 2,000 years old, but the Constantine and his successors drowned it in blood and flame.

    Comte and the “Secular Humanists” thought they were making new religions, taking as their basis the notion that “religion” had started as misinterpretation of natural phenomena. Naturally science would replace religion—because it was the perfection of religion. That’s where a lot of motives for the like of Ingersoll and Huxley come in. They're not too separate from these Baptists in taking “the Church” as their foil, either.

    And of course you have this turn-of-the-century atmosphere characterized by revivalists of the likes of Gimbutas, Charles Godfrey Leland, Gerald Gardner, and Robert Graves—historically speaking, all inveterate forgeries on the same level as the Oera Linda Book or fantasies about how the Vedic Indo-Europeans invented airplanes in 1600 BC.

    So all of these strange intermediaries combine in this strange image of r/atheists buying into some strange pseudo-Wiccan fantasy. It sheds light on why Letronne, Draper, White, Massey, and Kersey graves have such persistence. I've even seen "The Two Babylons" and “The Trail of Blood” have jumped ship from the Baptists to the Nutheists. They fall for these things, in other words, because they’re trying to construct a synthetic historical/theological identity for themselves without realizing that they’re brain-slaves to the “woo” and fundamentalism they rail against.


  17. Good comments. And the Nutheists certainly do have some strange bedfellows. I recently saw another Facebook atheist group meme that perpetuated the idea that the Crusades were actually "defensive wars" protecting Europe from the wicked Muslims. That's a crackpot Christian apologist idea that the Nutheists (I like that word) have adopted out of their prejudice against Islam. When you have Nutheists parroting Christian bad history we are in a very strange place.


  18. I haven't banned him. But I only let the posts that actually have some usefully stupid content worth refuting through. He posts about a comment a day, but most of them are gibberish. One even began, and I'm not making this up "I'm a post-superstructuralist realist." Which made me think for a moment that perhaps his stuff is actually an elaborate joke. But I suspect it's actually just Poe's Law in action.


  19. Tim,
    What I find so fascinating about this whole thing is the way it provides another instance of how constants in human societies work. In this case, the constant is the basic need not only to be recognised as one of a group who are then deemed peers, but to strive to be recognised by the group which the individual believes the ‘top group’. Once the most popular ‘top group’ has made its agenda clear – regardless of any moral, intellectual or objective criteria which might apply – then that agenda becomes dogma and those rejecting it heretics, and the least noxious of available options is the ‘shunning’.

    So the ‘new atheist’ group – which one might name the Church of Divine Dorkins – has to maintain the orthodox line/dogma. You, of course, are in the position of the believer who doesn’t just believe, but thinks about .. and occasionally differs from … the Dorkins’ list of things-which-may-not-be-doubted.

    It was, at first, as complicated as a theological dispute – all about nice details and logic – but the Cats thing, and the Archimedes thing are core beliefs. You are now a heretic. If Papa Dork should publicly declare you anathema, I expect you might even been banned from every one of the ‘Dorkins church’ sites.

    Not because it’s you; not because it’s atheism. Just because it’s what humans do when they need to belong.


  20. Nice job debunking the myth that Christians helped spread the plague by killing cats who would have eaten the rats infested with fleas infested with plague germs.

    May I ask you to check on some related questions?

    When did cats first become associated with evil? Or with the devil? Or with witches? Probably three separate questions with possibly three separate dates.

    How did such associations develop? On what basis?

    How widespread were such beliefs?

    Are there any instances of cat massacres at all, in isolated regions that you know of?

    Is it true that sometimes animals were put on trial and executed for odd reasons during the Middle Ages or perhaps during the Reformation?

    I ask partly because there are some odd stories in this piece that you might want to debunk:



    1. Cats have only become associated with “evil” and “witches” mainly in modern popular culture. In Early Modern witch trials cats were just one of a whole range of animals that could be a supposed witch’s “familiar”. These tended to be small animals that were either common woodland or country creatures (hedgehogs, toads, weasels) or pets (cats, small dogs, rabbits). For some reason the image of a witch with a black cat has stuck in the modern imagination, but in the period of the witch craze cats were no more likely to be associated with witches as many other animals, including some very odd ones like butterflies and wasps. The idea of a “familiar” who was either a messenger or spy of a witch or their conduit to a (supposedly diabolical) spirit world seems to be a very old folk tradition and something Christian theology inherited from earlier superstitions.

      As I note in the article, there were some massacres of stray dogs and cats for hygiene reasons, but this was well after the Middle Ages and had nothing to do with them being regarded as “evil”. And then there was the “Great Cat Massacre” in Paris in the 1730s, but that was a protest by apprentice printers against their working conditions and had nothing to do with either religion nor disease.

      And yes, animals and even inanimate objects could be put on trial for murder or injury in the medieval and early modern eras, though it’s hard to tell how seriously this was taken or if it was actually just a kind of community joke.


  21. Glad to know that the medieval church spoke out against pograms. But did it also speak out just as strongly against the slanders aimed at Jews as Christ killers and seekers of children’s blood, or speak out strongly against large scale expulsions of Jews from Christian countries (and without protection along the road), or against the Inquisition interrogating conversos?

    I agree that non-Christians could and should come up with accurate criticisms of Christianity, historically speaking.


    1. The “blood Libel” allegations about Jews killing Christian children or practising human sacrifice were repeatedly condemned by various popes. Pope Innocent IV condemned this idea in a papal bull in 1247, saying “[The Jews] are wrongly accused of partaking of the heart of a murdered child at the Passover with the charge this is prescribed by their laws, [but] the truth is entirely the opposite”. To existing protections of the Jews under Sicut Judeis he added a clause condemning this libel and forbidding Catholics from its proclamation. A further reissue of Sicut Judeis by Gregory X also included a condemnation of the blood libel, as did Martin V in 1422, and Paul III issued a further bull, Licet Judei, in 1540 addressing the same lie and condemning German pogroms against Jews because of this accusation.

      The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the Spanish Inquisition’s forced conversions of Jews were resisted by Pope Sixtus IV, but King Ferdinand pressured him into allowing them by threatening to withdraw military support against the Turks in the Mediterranean and threatening to separate the Inquisition from all Church authority completely. Contrary to popular ideas about the Papacy in these periods, the Pope did not have some kind of total authority over secular rulers and if a king decided to ignore him, there was usually little most popes could do about it. The pope also ordered that Jews could appeal to Rome if condemned, but Ferdinand found ways to ensure this almost never happened. Conversos were considered Christians by the Church, however, and so pursuit of them as “apostates” was considered fine by the Papacy.

      Sixtus IV was renowned among Jews as a friend to them. He had a great interest in Hebrew literature and was the first pope to employ Hebrew copyists in the Vatican Library. He issued yet another condemnation of the blood libel and refused to canonise Simon of Trent – a boy allegedly murdered by Jews. He and his successors, including the Borgia pope Alexander IV, received thousands of Jewish refugees from Spain into the Papal States. Under Alexander IV the Jewish population doubled thanks to his welcome to them and his offer of official protection.

      The “Christ killer” idea was straight from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 27:24–25). It was mentioned as part of the liturgy of the Mass for centuries though, contrary to common belief, it was never a dogma of the Catholic Church and so it was able to be officially repudiated by Paul VI in 1965.


  22. I found your excellent blog after reading your Amazon review of Nixey’s “The darkening age” – many thanks for helping me to avoid that purchase.

    I have been working through your back catalogue and this was another interesting and well researched article. I recall being taught at school that cats and dogs were killed as a way to try to prevent the spread of plague. While I never studied the Black Death period, we did cover the Great Plague of the 17th Century. At first I thought perhaps the killing of dogs and cats came from the diaries of Samuel Pepys but I can find no mention there.

    However in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year he does make reference to the destruction of animals, including a supposed quote of the primary source, the Lord Mayor’s orders which were published towards the end of June and taking effect from 01 July 1665:

    Page 74:

    ‘That No Hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the city, or any swine to be, or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle, or any other officer, and the owner punished according to the act of common-council, and that the dogs be killed by the dog killers appointed for that purpose.

    Page 160:

    Where we were ordered to kill all the dogs and cats…

    It is incredible, if their account is to be depended upon, what a prodigious number of those creatures were destroyed; I think they talked of forty thousand dogs , and five times as many cats….

    Here is the link to a 19th Century reprint of Defoe’s book on Google:

    There seems to be some debate on whether Defoe’s account is a mostly accurate recount of the plague by his Uncle Henry Foe or historical fiction.
    Irrespective of its actual veracity, I would propose his account as being the ultimate source of the new atheist myth that cats were slaughtered wholesale to stop the spread of the plague, as not only was he an extremely popular author whose writings were widely published, Defoe also wrote extensively on the supernatural, an area where many other new atheist myths have appeared from via 19th century regurgitation by various Victorian writers

    I greatly look forward to reading many more of your articles slaughtering these atheist sacred cows and the eventual book that results.


    1. Feral animals roaming the streets of pre-modern cities were a perennial nuisance and so we find periodic orders for their culling fairly regularly. The fact they were thought to stir up garbage and thus cause the “bad airs” believed to cause disease means that sometimes these culls were in response to epidemics. I had completely forgotten Defoe’s book though, so thanks for that reference.



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