Exploring Medieval Beliefs

Brooms, hats, and cats are some of the things we think of when we think of witches. Today we are going to explore just one of them. 

Cats have long been associated with witches. Ever wonder why?  The answer is quite simple really, by today’s standards anyway.  The Yersinia pestis bacteria lived on the fleas that lived on the rats of London. Basically, it’s germs on fleas on rats. 

During Medieval times, it wasn’t common knowledge that cats killed rats. You can see where this is going, right?  Well, the men of that era saw no use for cats. Because they had no idea what cats actually do when they aren’t licking their paws or judging us all.  Women, however, like cats. Not all of us, but for the most part, we do. They’re cute and fluffy.

Cats would go to the women because they would slip them a little milk, or a bite to eat. So the cats became more affectionate with the women, hung around their homes, and scared off the rats. The rats went elsewhere, places where cats were no longer a danger, like the more populated areas of London, and the areas around the palaces. For the rats, this was like hitting the lottery as food and shelter for them were easy to find, and there were very few cats in the city that they would have to avoid.  Not only were the rats happy, but their fleas were also happy too because the better the rats ate, the better fleas ate. Now, this is where the problem started. The bacteria that was carried by the fleas began to pass onto humans, who did not have the immune system to deal with this particular germ, and passed away within days. Approximately 25 million people succumbed to the plague, including Lady Margaret Beauford’s husband Edmund Tudor the 1st Earl of Richmond. This is important because they were the parents of Henry VII, who in turn was the father of Henry VIII, the dude who had six wives. The war of the roses…those guys.

When the aristocracy started dying from this illness, the people became terrified for their families and began looking around for someone or something to blame. 

Well, guess what? They couldn’t find where the plague came from, because it couldn’t be the manure-lined streets or the chamber pots being emptied out the windows, it wasn’t God’s wrath, or even the streets being overrun by rats. It had to be witchcraft!  And who were these witches? The ones who didn’t get the plague – those people surrounded by cats! 

The anger and fear mixed with hatred. Anyone with a cat was arrested for witchcraft, along with their cats. Because as the people of medieval London thought, that was the only way that so many people could die of the same thing. They were cursed by these witches and their familiars: their cats.

And thus started the great witch burnings in London, as well as the executions of 79 of their cats. The more cats they killed, the worse and more far-reaching the plague became. 

That, my friends, is why cats are associated with witches. So now when we look at Halloween decorations, we almost always see a witch accompanied by a cat.

If the people of medieval Europe had only known.

History is so fascinating.


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