September 26, 2023

Household pets, we loved them and we hated them!

How the culling of cats helped decimate the human population in the Middle Ages


By Ismail Veli…….

Household animals are accepted as way of life in practically every corner of the world.   Cats, dogs, and caged birds are loved by children and adults in equal measure. Very often the death of a loved pet is a cause for mourning.  This was not always the case however.  Different animals won the human affection at different times in history. Some are practically as ancient as settled areas which finally became urbanized. Though admittedly the Ancient Egyptians adored and painted exotic birds as a way of life the addition of Budgerigars, are more recent to the family household list of pets.

Pets old and new

Let’s start with ”Man’s best friend”. practically every species started from the wolves. The ancestor of the wolf was a tree climbing mammal named as Miacis which lived around 40 million years ago. It’s estimated that they made their first appearance in North America about 35 million years ago. As humans progressed and needed to hunt with much more sophistication they realized the value of canines, possibly about 130-40 thousand years ago. Strangely the archaeological evidence only goes back 14.000 years. These amazing creatures were trained to chase, bring down and retrieve other animals. But their ability to act as guard dogs is what really stands them out as unique. Pottery finds in Mesopotamia  depict greyhound dogs chasing gazelles. The Romans went as far as to import dogs for special breeding. Their courage and loyalty was much recognized.  In fact the Romans were the first people to issue the warning ‘beware of the dog’ (cave canem). When visiting Pompeii I was astonished to see a fierce looking dog with this warning on a mosaic. In ancient China cross breeding was so common that they often used strict diets to impair the natural growth of dogs so they would grow with short and bent legs. This type of dog called the ‘Pekingese’ were very popular and originally the exclusive property of the Chinese Imperial court.

Dogs through the ages

Today dogs in many countries are very coveted as family pets and their infinite variety, loyalty and courage are used  not just as pets but,  for an immense variety of reasons.

Exotic birds like parrots and budgies are a much more recent phenomenon to the household pet list,  although the Ancient Egyptians, do seem to have kept many varieties caged in their homes. This is very clear from the immense variety of exotic birds drawn in cartouches. In fact they also used birds in their hieroglyphs. The bird symbolized many letters for example the A, U, W, SA, (son) THOTH, HORUS, ANUBIS and HAT-TOR .

Talking budgerigars

Probably the most recent and common bird is the budgerigar. These amazing little birds with their infinite variety of colours were brought to the UK from Australia in 1840. The name is actually an old Aboriginal word ‘Budgeri’, ‘GOOD’, and ‘Gar’ ‘COKATOO’. The importer was originally John Gould the naturalist who adored these little birds. It was not until the 1920’s however that cross breeding expanded and people began to use the affectionate shorter name of ‘budgie’.

Fish have been used in many countries for thousands of years. Mostly for food but in some instances like ancient Rome some senators kept them in their pond simply for their beauty. Marine fish like mullets  in particular were popular. Cicero once wrote that an advocate Guintus Hortensius wept profusely when one of his favorite specimens died. So prized were these mullet that a gentleman named Asinius Celer paid 8000 sesterces for a single healthy looking mullet. The Chinese and Japanese are well known for their immense collection of tropical and gold  fishes. The Chinese kept many indoors in massive ceramic vases. Perhaps the oldest known keepers of fish however were the Sumerians, who often kept ponds and bred fish for food as long as 4,500 years ago. Today tropical, koi, marine and goldfish are immensely popular with young and old alike. Fish tanks and fish ponds are a common feature of many modern households.

Perhaps the most enigmatic of all pets through human eyes has been the cat. The earliest known domestic cat was in Cyprus. The remains of a tamed species was found in Khirokitia. The formation of its teeth being different from those of wild cats. The remains date to about 7000 B.C. or more.

Fish and Man

Cats were also valued in ancient Egypt as they protected the granaries from rats and mice. For some reason however  by the 12th century AD. cats came to be associated as devils. French ‘heretical sects’ worshiped the devil in the form of a black cat. The Catholic church being the most powerful  institution at the time and the Church was so incensed with this kind of cat worship that it began a campaign to kill as many as possible.  In fact Pope Gregory the IX  wrote to  Prince Henry son of Emperor Frederick that many heretics manifested themselves in the images of toads, geese and in particular cats. The effect of this belief took on such a hold that by the 14th century  the destruction of cats was so great it had a profound  effect  on the rat population which  grew to an astronomical level.

Ypres Festival of the Cats (Kattenstoet) in Belgium which commemorates when mass killing of cats occurred in the mid 13th century plus the burning of witches.

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The diseases they spread had a direct effect in helping to spread the bubonic plague (otherwise known as the black death)  in the 14th century. It was not just the cats and witches that were blamed for the human disaster that befell Europe at the time. The Jewish were targeted and persecuted beyond endurance, even accusing them of cannibalism. Flagellism, (from the Latin word  flagellare, to whip) a fanatical sect marched in the streets flaying themselves in the belief that self punishment would rid humanity of its sins. They accused Jews and priests alike. Sadly the root of the problem which involved the containment of rodents by simply allowing millions of cats to roam around never occurred to the leaders of the period.

Directly or indirectly the lack of cats in Europe exacerbated the disease which spread like wildfire. The British Isles themselves lost at least 50% of its population. France was particularly hit with some towns losing almost 90% of its population.  Other plagues were to follow right through to the 17th century. The religious and superstitious beliefs of the period were no doubt self defeating. After the 17th century people began to recognize the value of having large numbers of cats as this in effect kept the rodents at bay. It may be true to say that the order that led to the destruction of millions of cats had their final revenge in that humans suffered an even worse fate. It may also be true that the bubonic plagues was fated to happen anyway, but the level of human cost may have been reduced had the cats had the opportunity to kill millions of rats that were the primary source of the original disease.

The demise of the cat and plagues that followed

The bubonic plagues on and off for 3-400 years changed the social structure of Europe, and created a much more powerful peasant class. The decimation of Europe’s population simply meant that there were not enough peasants to work the land, therefore the wage costs increased and the poorer people began to appreciate their own value.  The last great plague of 1665 which for London ended with the Great Fire of London in 1666, finally woke the authorities to the fact that cleaner and a much more organised urban system would reduce any likelihood of the plagues coming back with the same degree of vengeance. The story of Dick Whittington (based on  a real life character named Richard Whittington who lived around 1354-1423 A.D.) and his cat were perhaps an acknowledgement that the cats were an essential part of human life, not just as pets but as a safeguard against disease and pestilence spread by rats.

Dick Whittington and the cats

Fortunately today the cats are on the whole appreciated as a family pet. Kittens are equally adored by adults and children alike.  In the final analysis no one can deny the part played by pets in the modern world. It gives us an appreciation of how humans and animals lives to some extent are intertwined. Pet animals have the capacity to give immense joy and happiness to the families as a whole. No doubt  we are destined to share this planet together, sharing it with love and affection is of course a much preferable option.

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