Sunday, 16 January 2011

Devilish Cats - how felines got a bad reputation.

In the Middle Ages, any self respecting witch kept a familiar, an animal acting as a link to the devil. The most commonly recognised familiar was a cat, preferably a black one. But have you ever stopped to wonder how such a perfectly adorable animal became linked to black magic and evil?

To answer that question we need to look at the reputation cats had in medieval times. Highly prized as a catcher of mice the 10th century law of Hywel Dda has this to say.

“The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, one legal penny:
And from then until it kills mice, two legal pence:
And after it kills mice, four legal pence,
And that it remains for ever.
Her properties are to see and hear and kill mice.”

But it was this reputation as a mouser that also got cats into trouble, as typified by this quote by Caxton from the ‘Royal Book’ of 1484.

“The devil playeth often with the synnar [sinner] lyke the catte [cat] doth with the mous. [mouse.]”

This symbolism, with the cat as the devil, toying with the human soul was widely popular in churches and depicted in the misericords. These small wooden ledges, designed to rest against during long periods of standing, were often ornately carved with scenes from cautionary tales. Misericords were seen, and the message understood by illiterate ordinary folk at church.

An example of a misericord - a simple wooden ledge for leaning on during lengthy church services.
With this in mind it’s not surprising that as early as 1211 Gervase of Tilbury writes about the cat as a shape shifting manifestation of a witch’s familiar.

“Women have been seen and wounded in the shapes of cat by persons secretly on the watch.”

These same wounds were later identified on the woman….Just a thought but surely having the cat and woman present in the same room at the same time would rapidly discount this argument?


  1. Nice to have the history lesson. (smile) I have a friend who wrote the book, The Familiars, and she introduced me to the fact about witches and their "pets."

    I blogged about my cat, Orca today at Brried Under Books. If I could figure out how to embed a link here, I would. I'm not even sure what embed means. LOL

    Really enjoyed your post and loved the pictures.

  2. What an interesting post. I happen to have a black cat,who was a rescue cat. I bottled feed from a when he was maybe a few days old,his mom was killed by dogs,we think.Anyway,he is so bad.My grandchildren calls him Demon Cat,his name is Sassy,(grandchildren actually named him).But he is also so sweet,he does not care for loving unless he wants it.Actually he is a scary cat,jumps at loud noises.The vet said every black he knows is mean.When he is mad his eyes actually turns red,his hair stands up on this head.He thinks of me as mom,so he often beats me up.Love him just the same.


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