During medieval times, superstitious beliefs about witchcraft led to the killing of large numbers of cats, which allowed the Bubonic Plague to spread unchecked.
Cats Under Welsh Law
Cats weren’t always persecuted in Europe. In the 900s, the Welsh took the sensible position of assigning value to cats, recognizing their ability to protect human food stores. The Welsh ruler Hywell the Good created laws that set cats’ monetary worth at one penny at birth and four more for each successful rodent kill, as well as imposing strict penalties for stealing or murdering cats. This changed with the adoption of English law several centuries later.
Certain religious leaders had been casting aspersions on cats for quite some time before the Black Plague hit. Pope Gregory IX told people that domestic cats were diabolical in 1232, fueling anti-cat sentiment, and this prejudice worsened over the years. Cats were not subservient and tended to be noisy at night, which caused them to be viewed with suspicion. Many superstitious people began to associate them with the devil.
Large numbers of cats and their owners were executed after being accused of witchcraft in the years leading up to the Black Plague, and for hundreds of years thereafter. Totals vary widely from one historian to the next for both “witches” and cats killed. However, it is safe to say that a large proportion of Europe’s domestic cats were slain, either on suspicion of being Satan’s familiars or as part of the mass animal killings that people undertook in a desperate attempt to control the Plague later on. Dogs were also slain in these mass killings, which removed another of the rat’s natural predators.
Most of those murdered on suspicion of witchcraft were poor peasant women who kept pets for companionship, and thus were easy scapegoats. The impoverished, the elderly, and the eccentric were convenient targets for witchcraft accusations, and they were executed along with their pets. Overall, from 1230 to 1700, starting with the Inquisition, millions of cats were murdered.