Cat-burning was a form of zoosadistic entertainment in Western and Central Europe during from the Middle Ages prior to the 1800s. In this form of entertainment, people would gather dozens of cats in a net and hoist them high into the air from a special bundle onto a bonfire causing death through the effects of combustion, or effects of exposure to extreme heat. In the medieval and early modern periods, cats, which were associated with vanity and witchcraft, were sometimes burned as symbols of the devil. Along with this, other forms of torture and killing of animals were used, often developed directly by the Catholic Inquisition.
Such actions were directly sanctioned by the Catholic Church and personally by the popes. In the 1230s, Pope Gregory IX announced that there was a rise is devil worshipping and that cats were often part of a satanic rituals. The superstition that cats were linked to Satan would stick around in the Catholic Church for centuries. More than 200 years later, Pope Innocent VIII wrote that "the cat was the devil's favorite animal and idol of all witches". So, in the infamous Catholic treatise on demonology Malleus Malificarum (1487), it is explicitly stated that cats are images of unclean spirits in which they appear to people for a tempting them:
The devils make use of any such illusory apparition as in the example we have quoted, when they used the phantasm of a cat, an animal which is, in the Scriptures, an appropriate symbol of the perfidious, just as a dog is the symbol of preachers; for cats are always setting snares for each other.
The mass extermination of cats by Catholics was one of the causes of the devastating plague epidemics in Western Europe.
James Frazer wrote: "It was the custom to burn a basket, barrel, or sack full of live cats, which was hung from a tall mast in the midst of the bonfire; sometimes a fox was burned. The people collected the embers and ashes of the fire and took them home, believing that they brought good luck. The French kings often witnessed these spectacles and even lit the bonfire with their own hands. In 1648 Louis XIV, crowned with a wreath of roses and carrying a bunch of roses in his hand, kindled the fire, danced at it and partook of the banquet afterwards in the town hall. But this was the last occasion when a monarch presided at the midsummer bonfire in Paris. At Metz, midsummer fires were lighted with great pomp on the esplanade, and a dozen cats, enclosed in wicker cages, were burned alive in them, to the amusement of the people. Similarly at Gap, in the department of the Hautes-Alpes, cats used to be roasted over the midsummer bonfire."
Cats also figured in the cycle of Saint John the Baptist, which took place on June 24, at the time of summer solstice. Crowds made bonfires, jumped over them, danced around them, and threw into them objects with magical power, hoping to avoid disaster and obtain good fortune during the rest of the year. A favorite object was cats—cats tied up in bags, cats suspended from ropes, or cats burned at stake. Parisians liked to incinerate cats by the sackful, while the Courimauds (or "cour à miaud" or cat chasers) of Saint Chamond preferred to chase a flaming cat through the streets. In parts of Burgundy and Lorraine they danced around a kind of burning May pole with a cat tied to it. In the Metz region they burned a dozen cats at a time in a basket on top of a bonfire. The ceremony took place with great pomp in Metz itself, until it was abolished in 1765. ... Although the practice varied from place to place, the ingredients were everywhere the same: a "feu de joie" (bonfire), cats, and an aura of hilarious witch-hunting. Wherever the scent of burning felines could be found, a smile was sure to follow.
Cat-burning was the subject of a 1758 text from the Benedictine Dom Jean François, Dissertation sur l’ancien usage des feux de la Saint-Jean, et d’y brûler les chats à Metz, recently published.
In the Middle Ages in Western Europe, cats were considered companions of sorcerers and witches. The Catholic Church took up these superstitions and supported them in every possible way. For this reason, the animals were tortured and mass-burned. Especially in this, France and Spain distinguished themselves. In his book "Ivan the Terrible: The Bloody Poet", in response to accusations of Western European authors and ideologists against Russia of savagery and barbarism, the famous historian Alexander Bushkov writes:
The French had a "nice" habit of burning and hanging cats on the day of John the Baptist. How they annoyed the French so much remains a mystery. The differences between the regions are solely in the specifics of the process: in Paris, cats were stuffed into a bag, hung it higher, and then set on fire. In Saint-Chamond, cats were doused with resin, set on fire, and then chased through the streets. In Burgundy and Lorraine, before setting fire to the "May pole", a cat was bound to it.
The rest of the Western European countries were not much inferior in the pace and cruelty of the massacre of animals. As a result, the cat population in Europe has declined by 90%. And this, in turn, allowed a large number of rats to enter human settlements. In addition, a black rat, a carrier of the plague, was brought to Europe. Black rats oppressed the local gray rat and, in the absence of cats, began to breed in incredible numbers. Fleas bred together with black rats, which created a fertile ground for bubonic plague, which is carried by fleas.
In 962, Baldwin III, ruler of Flanders, established a "cat Wednesday" in Ypres. During the second week of fasting, a certain symbolic ceremony arose: two or three live cats were thrown from the high tower of the castle. This custom would be repeated for many years until the beginning of the 19th century. In 1938, the inhabitants of Ypres revived this tradition, with the live cats replaced with a plush one. A similar ceremony took place in the 17th century in various cities and villages in Germany. In Schleswig-Holstein, for example, a cat representing Judas was regularly thrown from a high bell tower on Holy Friday. In Poland, on the first day of fasting, a bag with a live cat and ashes was dropped. Soon, however, they decided that this method was not effective enough: the animal, due to its flexibility, retains a chance to avoid death. Therefore, the most effective method was considered burning. In some parts of Germany, as well as in Turkey, a woman who had violated her marital fidelity was tied up and placed in a sack along with a cat: going into a frenzy from blows from a stick, the cat would scratch and bite the captive; when this was over, the sack was thrown into the fire. Philip II of Habsburg in Spain also distinguished himself with special cruelty towards cats.
On June 23, the day of St. John, bonfires blazed in many cities of France. In Paris, a high pillar was erected on the Place de Grève. A sack or barrel with two dozen cats was hung overhead. Large logs, branches and bundles of hay were laid out around the post. Everything was set on fire, and in front of hundreds of citizens, the animals were roasted. Sometimes the barrel was opened, and then the cats tried to avoid the fire, clinging to the post, but suffocated from the smoke and fell into the fire. The French kings, from Louis XI to Louis XV, as well as the clergy and civil authorities, honored the audience with their presence. The princes themselves often kindled a fire with pleasure. Until the end of the 18th century, the same ceremony was held in the city of Metz once a year as in Paris. According to legend, one witch, sentenced to burning, managed to escape death, as she turned into a cat at the very moment when she was led to execution. And in order to punish the sorceress, they caught a number of cats. Thirteen of them were caged and displayed in the city garden before being tied over a fire, as the inhabitants rejoiced.
In Germany, a cat, planted with a basket, was lifted to the top of a huge spruce, around which they laid straw. The animal spent the night there, and only the next day the villagers gathered around the bright flame. The execution took on other forms and was carried out under a variety of pretexts. In Flanders, to get rid of the ghosts that threatened to fill the castles, many stray cats were collected. They were pelted with stones and then scalded with boiling water. Among the northern peoples, in particular, the Norwegians, there is a legend that cats are devoted servants of the goddess Freya, the patroness of faithful lovers. Such a legend in Northern Germany was enough to accuse white cats of obscene love affairs and anathema. The Puritans believe they should be exterminated. In Germany, England and even in America, women were tortured just because they sheltered and fed a cat.
Hatred of cats has survived in the Western mentality to this day. As an example, cats are practically absent in some countries of Latin America. There are frequent cases of animal abuse by ordinary citizens of Western countries.
- In Christian countries that did not fall under the rule of the Catholic Church (Byzantium before 1453 and Russia), such an attitude towards animals was unthinkable and was considered satanic rituals. On the contrary, the cat in Orthodox Christianity is the only animal that is allowed to enter the temples; the cat is also an integral attribute of Orthodox monasteries.
- "Ritualistic cat torture was once a form of town fun". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 28 December 2019.
- Benton, Janetta Rebold (1 April 1997). Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. Abbeville Press. pp. 82. ISBN 978-0-7892-0182-9.
- "Malleus Maleficarum".
- Davies, Norman (1996). Europe: a History. Oxford University Press. pp. 543. ISBN 0-198-20171-0.
- Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough, (1922). Online version.
- Darnton, Robert (2009). The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. Basic Books. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-0-465-01274-9.
- Mangin, Marie-Claire (1995). Dissertation sur l'ancien usage des feux de la Saint-Jean, et d'y brûler les chats à Metz, un inédit de dom Jean François. Cahiers Élie Fleur. pp. 49–72.
- Link to Google book excerpt describing cat-burning in France
- Jouffroy, Christian La société d'étude des sciences et des arts, Metz, avril 1757
- Dunwich, Gerina Your Magickal Cat: Feline Magick, Lore, and Worship Google Books