Cats initially were regarded as little household gods and goddesses, something to be revered and respected. Ancient Egypt had feline gods, while in Ancient Rome, cats were sacred to Diana and highly regarded for keeping pests at bay. But by the Middle Ages the idea of evil cats was widespread.
From their heyday in ancient times, their reputation sank to a low point in the 13th century. They started to become regarded as companions of witches and harbingers of all things evil. It took centuries for their reputations to recover.
Even today, cats are loosely associated with infidelity and deceitfulness, traits that in ancient times belonged to snakes. In pop culture, cats still remain associated with evil witches and ill omens. In the 19th and 20th centuries, cats represented infidelity and falseness in Central European fortune-telling cards. (These are commonly called by a term for the Romani that many people now find derogatory. There is no evidence that the Romani people ever used these cards.)
Dogs in the meantime have consistently held more positive attributes like fidelity. Going back to Ancient Rome, tombstones of beloved lapdogs can be found while cats seen to have passed unmourned. Statues of faithful dogs waiting for their masters or memorials to their heroic acts can be found around the world. Monuments to cats are more jovial, such as one of a lazy reclining cat in Istanbul.
Cats representing falseness in Central European fortune-telling cards, from the collection of Pavel Langer
The mood began to turn against cats sometime around the 12th century when rumours first began to put cats at the center of supposed devil worship. Black cats were vilified the most, but the mistrust spread to the entire species. Their solitary nocturnal ways and promiscuous nature seemed to run against all the values of medieval society. The philosophy of the time was that people should take lessons from nature, with all manner of plants and animals embodying religious notions.
And these allegedly evil cats in this regard were cast as bad examples that shouldn’t be emulated.
Cats linked to secret heretical ceremonies
Pope Gregory IX fired the first salvo in the War on Cats sometime around 1232. A papal bull called Vox in Rama said heretic factions worshiped the Devil and kissed statues of black cats under their tails in forbidden ceremonies. Kissing giant frogs and toads were also mentioned, but these creatures already were not highly esteemed.
How these bizarre accusations started is unclear, but they may have come from a satirical story that was mistaken for fact. The image of heretics or witches kissing the backside of an animal persisted through the following centuries.
Pope Gregory’s declaration was specifically aimed at Mainz in what is now Germany and intended to put the brakes on the development of cults. Several religious factions of the time including the Cathars, Albigensians and Templars were all accused of worshipping cats among other transgressions.
The effects of the papal declaration are often highly exaggerated. No evidence supports the idea of a mass culling of the allegedly evil cats. They continued to patrol for vermin on farms and in urban areas. Cat illustrations can be found in manuscripts copied in monasteries. Inky pawprints even adorn a few tomes. Cats were not regarded as pets though, like we know them today. They were strictly working animals.
The lack of cats is often cited as a cause for the Black Death, but the first wave of that plague started in 1346, over a century after the papal declaration. Even if there had been a purge of cats, the population would have recovered by then. The link of absent cats to the spread of the plague has no real historical support.
A second shot fired at the allegedly evil cats
The next big attack on evil cats came when Pope Innocent VIII issued another papal bull in 1484 that condemned witchcraft and everything associated with it. People remained wary of being associated too closely with cats, but little seems to have actually changed. Cats still appeared in manuscript illustrations and even in portraits of wealthy people.
The main accounts of violence against cats come from France and Belgium, usually as part of annual festivals to ward against the spread of evil. While these tales are horrific and the actions inexcusable, the actual number of cats affected was small. These cruel anti-cat practices ended around 1765, while the last recorded witch execution in Europe was in Switzerland in 1782.
Dogs take the lead as pampered pets
By the 16th century, the divide between dogs and cats had definitely solidified in portrait paintings. Dogs were depicted as the faithful hunting companions of the master of the house. Cats were seen most often as unwilling props held by young girls and as lazy companions to young women. This trend held for several centuries, but cats also retained their second-class status.
Dogs had graduated into becoming pampered pedigreed house pets while cats were seen as working animals, keeping vermin in check. Cats were still perceived as sly and devious but this is largely because they had to constantly steal food and scrounge for a warm corner to rest in, as it seldom occurred to homeowners to actually feed and look after cats.
By the 19th century, dogs were the subject of popular illustrations and humorous newspaper cartoons. Cats were ignored by the press until illustrator Louis Wain championed their case at the end of the 1800s and the first third of the 1900s. His often whimsical illustrations are often cited as a turning point from evil cats to treasured pets.
Cats finally saw their fortunes rise at the start of the 20th century, with companies beginning to manufacture cat food and offer cat toys. Competitive cat shows began to emerge, based mostly on looks and attitude as no self-respecting cat is going to run an obstacle course.