Cat burning was a form of entertainment throughout medieval Europe, in particular France, 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.
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.
Jean Meslier, a French Catholic priest who privately held atheist views, briefly mentioned the practice of cat burning in his Testament as follows:
Among other things, these mischievous, brutal madmen make [the cats] cruelly suffer harsh and violent tortures in their entertainments and even in public celebrations; they tie up nipping cats to the end of some pole they set up and at the bottom of which they light the fires of joy where they burn them alive to have the pleasure of seeing the violent movements and hearing the frightening cries that these poor unfortunate beasts are forced to make because of the harshness and violence of the tortures.
Meslier largely attributed these customs to Cartesian philosophy, wherein non-human animals were viewed as possessing no soul, and thus, no sentience. He posited that this "tends to stifle in the heart of man all feelings of gentleness, kindness, and compassion that they may have for beasts ..."
- Benton, Janetta Rebold (1 April 1997). Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. Abbeville Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-7892-0182-9.
- Davies, Norman (1996). Europe: a History. Oxford University Press. p. 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 0-465-01274-4.
- 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.
- Meslier, Jean (2009). Testament: Memoir of the thoughts and sentiments of Jean Meslier. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. pp. 562–563. ISBN 978-1-59102-749-2.
- Kemerling, Garth. "Descartes: A New Approach". Philosophy Pages. Retrieved 16 September 2012.
- 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