Thanks to medievalists.net for posting an abbreviated version of my article on medieval “heretical” cats, which has generated a lot of interest. For anyone wanting to know more about cats in general during the medieval period I can recommend an excellent little book in the British Library series on themes in illuminated manuscripts, called Medieval Cats, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (2011). But because I’ve been trawling through the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, also known under the surname Institoris, the Latin version of his name, and first published at Speyer in 1486, for the purpose of laying to rest some myths about disability and witches (see previous post) I’ve come across a rare reference to cats in this text, which may interest the ailurophiles.
Kramer retold an older story concerning cats and witches. In fact, this is the only time cats are mentioned at all by Kramer, so that the (modern) popular connection between cats and witches in the Middle Ages (as opposed to the connection between cats and heretics) really needs to be placed in its proper context. In the Middle Ages as such (i.e. before 1500) cats were primarily associated with heretics and only rarely with witches. The pairing cat-witch is mainly a postmedieval phenomenon, as indeed the whole witch-craze and persecution of witches is an early modern rather than medieval episode.
Kramer tells the story, in Book II, part 1, chapter 9 on how demons escape the bodies they possess without injury, repeating a version of this topic first narrated by Gervase of Tilbury in the early thirteenth century (Otia imperialia, I, c. 93, who wrote on so-called witches who flew by night and who could change their shape, preferably into that of a cat, during which “women have been seen and wounded in the shape of cats by persons who were secretly on watch”). In Kramer’s version, a labourer in the diocese of Strasbourg was chopping firewood when he was molested by a large cat which tried to pounce on him. When he tried to scare off this cat, a second even larger cat joined the first and attacked him even more ferociously. Trying to remove these two only brought a third cat on the scene, the trio jumping into the labourer’s face, and biting his legs or throat. With much effort the man finally beat the cats off with a piece of the wood he had been chopping, hitting one cat on the head, another on the feet, the third on the back. Peace returned. But an hour later the labourer was arrested and imprisoned for three days, not knowing why. When brought before the judge on the third day, he was accused of having attacked and wounded three honourable women of the town, who were now lying immobilised in their sick-beds. Once given a chance to explain that he was actually beating cats and not women, the labourer’s story is immediately believed and he is released. Kramer reinforces his point by stating that “nobody doubted” that the demons could cause women to be transported through the air, be changed into cats, and transfer the wounds inflicted on the animal shape onto their human hosts.
And the final thing he has to say in this episode about cats (in over 120 folio pages, mind you) is that the cat is the signifier of the faithless, as according to Scripture the sign of the preacher is the dog, for which reason both animals pursue each other. In other words, despite narrating a two-hundred-year-old tale of witches and cats, Kramer ultimately associates cats with heresy (the “faithless”) rather than with witches. Witches are more likely to transform into wolves, horses and even donkeys in Kramer’s text.