The Burning Times, usually accepted as being between the 1400s to the mid 1700s CE, was the peak of witch hunts, persecutions and executions, according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft – although ill will towards cats occurred early in the Dark Ages.
If this historical era had a color, it would be black, like The Black Death – the Bubonic Plague that killed about 1/3 of Europe’s population, evil magick and the color of mourning.
St. Augustine advocated burning Pagans who would roast in the everlasting fire of Hell with the devil unless the Catholic Church saved them. Later, Protestants preferred hanging in England and the New World. In Scotland, Germany, and France, the churches strangled witches by garroting or hanging; however, they burned many alive, including, famously, Joan of Arc.
People in the Dark Ages and the Renaissance believed that some animals, especially cats, were witches’ familiars, or devils in disguise, who suffered the same fate. They considered black cats as the most evil and, at times, the devil himself.
Church Condemns Cats as Familiars
Roni Jay notes in The Kingdom of the Cat that people associated cats with female saints who fell into ill repute. The Pagan goddesses were the first targets of the church, along with women who could not retaliate. The authorities associated the cats with goddesses and so they became a target as familiars.
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Familiars, according to the witch hunters, were minor demons that the devil sent to help the witches in their evil work. These demons appeared in the form of the witch’s pet or another animal such as toads, dogs or owls, and adopt animal behavior so as remain undetected. As the story goes, familiars could go to places where the witch couldn’t without revealing her identity. Often, when a witch suffered imprisonment, her persecutors would watch to see if her familiar appeared to help her.
Own a Cat? You Might Be a Witch
Jay wrote that there were new fabricated tales about cats being demons in the guise of these animals. The church taught people that the devil invented cats. Furthermore, they added that the devil himself would appear in the guise of a cat.
In the 1100s, soldiers created the Knights Templar, a group regarded as noble and brave, to guard people making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These knights began to garner wealth and power. They became corrupt, abused their power and were disliked, feared and no longer trusted.
In the 1300s, the Inquisition accused the Templars of heresy. They arrested, jailed and brought all of those living in France to trial for heresy. Under torture or its threat, many knights confessed to devil worship and said the devil appeared as a black cat. The knights even confessed to sacrificing young girls and babies to him. Other groups of people confessed to the same sins under torture.
Authorities deemed that even owning a cat served as evidence that one was a witch. People believed that witches could shapeshift into cats and cats, into witches. The last witchcraft trial in England took place in the 1700s. The woman was convicted only because she confessed that she talked to the devil in feline form. As “witches” were being persecuted, so were their familiars, usually, their cats – often before the witches’ trials started.
Then the church declared an open “war” of persecution of cats, not just as familiars, but, in and for themselves. According to Donald Engels, Pope Gregory IX stated that a link existed between cats and the devil in his papal bull, ‘Vox in Rama,’ resulting in persecution such as the burning of 962 cats in Metz, France.
According to Jay, people in Ypres, Belgium, threw cats from the Cloth Tower until authorities outlawed it in 1837. People speculated that this began as a rejection of Paganism and worshiping Freyja, resulting in Ypres becoming a center for cat persecution during the Burning Times. The tradition started again in 1938 when people threw velvet toy cats from the tower, now honoring cats instead of hurting them.
There’s a parade that includes statues of Bast and Freyja in a carriage drawn by two cats, and a huge Knight Templar. The people wear cat costumes and choose a Cat Queen. The queen and her jester climb up the Cloth Tower. He throws toy cats to the audience.
The Dark Ages and Renaissance eras were both known for silencing some scientific discoveries. Paganism and other religions were persecuted, and devastating episodes of the Black Plague decimated populations. The safety and reputation of both women and cats remained dark whenever authorities needed scapegoats for political and leadership problems.