Aid to the

Black cats and the Catholic Church

It's Halloween, which means there’s a good reason to think about black cats and the Catholic Church.

A long-standing internet tale claims that the Pope, through the “Vox in Rama” bull, proclaimed black cats as the embodiment of Satan, leading to widespread cat massacres by both inquisitors and the general populace. We provide an example of this narrative in full: 

 “In the Middle Ages, amidst widespread fear of magic and witchcraft, the belief emerged that black cats aided witches and sorcerers in rituals of black magic, with some particularly evil witches supposedly capable of transforming into these animals. Pope Gregory IX (1145-1241) disliked cats, particularly black cats, so he issued the ‘Vox in Rama’ bull in 1233, demonizing heretics and specifically designating black cat as the embodiment of Satan. The Inquisition orchestrated the extermination of cats, lasting until around 1700. This extermination led to a surge in the European rat population, contributing to the spread of the plague. By 1352, the plague had claimed 25 million lives in Europe.” [1]

It’s reasonable to consider the Middle Ages as a highly mythologized era in our history. Often misconstrued with notions of filth, ignorance, superstition, and poverty, it’s not surprising that tales of church-sponsored cat killings propagate easily without scrutiny or skepticism from internet users. Primary sources in such narratives are typically not attributed, but we’ll try to discern any kernel of truth in this account. 

To begin, let’s focus on the central detail - the papal bull - “Vox in Rama” [2]. This document was indeed issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 and was addressed to German King Henry (VII) and Archbishop Siegfried III of Mainz. It referred to a sect of Luciferians in a specific region of Germany who worshiped a statue of a black cat during a ritual. 

 According to the inquisitor reporting to Gregory IX, the statue supposedly came to life during the ritual, and the cultists kissed the cat on the back of its body. The document, however, does not go further into details about cats, such as associating the sectarian statue with real cats, declaring cats to be the incarnation of Satan, or advocating for their murder. If there was a call to action, it was against representatives of the devil’s cult. An English translation of the “Vox in Rama” can be found in the book Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, on page 115.


Historian Spencer Alexander McDaniel [3] asserts that only five people received copies of the papal bull, suggesting that the general public likely never even knew about this document. Furthermore, its scope was limited to a specific part of Germany, not all of Europe. There is no information regarding the Inquisition engaging in mass extermination of cats by these heresy fighters.

Of course, there is some evidence of cat hunting in the Middle Ages, such as a 15th-century illustration depicting hunters armed with a bow and crossbow pursuing a wild cat. Additionally, historical records indicate instances of cats being killed for meat, skinned, or simple harmed by mad individuals. It’s not surprising that somewhere someone could have acted so cruelly towards these animals. Unfortunately, cruelty towards animals persists even today. 

The widespread notion of church-initiated mass cat killings likely originated from the 2001 book - Classical Cats: The rise and fall of the sacred cat - by Donald Engels. Citing “Vox in Rama,” the author argued that people in the Middle Ages hated cats, leading to the destruction of their population, sometimes alongside their owners, and subsequently contributing to the spread of the plague. Rats, unhindered by the presence of cats, were said to be parasitized by fleas, acting as carriers of the plague bacteria. However, this assertion does not withstand scrutiny.

 Firstly, the Black Death began to spread in Europe in 1347, a century after the issuance of the papal bull in 1233. 

 Secondly, cats are not particularly good at killing rats; weasels, birds of prey, and snakes are better at this task. 

However, medieval sources contain a lot of information indicating that cats are good at catching small rodents in households. Additionally, Catholic nuns were known to keep these animals, although pets were not as commonplace in those days as they are today.

 Thirdly, cats themselves are also carriers of fleas. The Black Death spread very quickly among humans. Presumably, cats and rats couldn’t have had much of an impact on the deadly pandemic of 1347-1353. 

 So, to summarize the aforesaid, we can be sure that we’re dealing with a common legend. Its elements (church, cruelty, ignorance) fit well into the distorted view of the Middle Ages, which is unfairly called the “Dark Ages.” There’s no evidence of mass killing of cats initiated by the Catholic Church, which contributed to the spread of the plague.”

Prepared by Dmytro Filipchuk.


Halyna Dolynna
Halyna Dolynna
editor of the English texts
Dmytro Filipchuk
Dmytro Filipchuk
author Behind the news
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