In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, whose fleas would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others. High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.
In some cases, bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood system as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran as high as 98%-100%.
Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas which came with them.
The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”
This was the experience of individual sufferers. So, what allowed the pandemic to spread with such rapidity?
The story begins one-hundred years earlier. On this day in 1227, eighty-year-old Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was elected Supreme Pontiff, taking the name Pope Gregory IX. Gregory’s papal ordination came at a time of spreading heresy, the earliest reverberations of what came to be known some three hundred years late, as the Protestant Reformation.
The Waldenses, founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, claimed that individuals could commune with directly with God. Other sects such as the Cathars followed similar beliefs. Such heresies challenged the authority of the One True Church, and could not be left unchecked.
Today, Gregory is best remembered for his organization of Canon law, the formalization of practices later forming the basis of the medieval inquisition. At the time, a more immediate problem was the rise of what were seen as satanic cults.
The German priest and nobleman Conrad of Marburg was an early leader in the persecution of heretics, claiming to have rooted out a number of Luciferian cults around the cities of Mainz and Hildesheim. The first Bull of the new papacy, the Vox in Rama, beseeched the bishops to come to Conrad’s aid, and went on to describe in some detail, the depraved rituals of such cults.
The devil at the center of it all was a shadowy figure, half man and half cat.
From the mists of antiquity, the cat was worshiped as some kind of deity. The Vox reshaped the European view to where cats were now seen, as agents of hell. The French theologian Alain de Lille piled on, falsely claiming the Cathar sect took its name from the animal and not the real source, the Greek katharoi or ‘pious ones’.
The effect was as a commandment. “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live“.
The orgy of cruelty which followed, makes for some tough reading. Cats were hurled from high cathedrals and set on fire, ritually tortured or summarily stomped or clubbed, to death.
In Denmark, the festival of Fastelavn held at the start of Lent, held that Spring would not come until evil, was banished from the land. Black cats were ritually beaten to death, to purge evil spirits. Cat killing became a folk practice all over Europe. During the festival of cats or Kattenstoet held in the Belgian city of Ypres, the custom was to hurl cats from the belfry of local churches, before setting them on fire. The hideous practice carried on until 1817 with live cats and continues to this day, only now, they’re stuffed.
So it is that nature’s most efficient hunter of rodents was all but exterminated from the land, paving the way for the rat-borne apocalypse, to come.
One-third of the world’s population died in the rat-borne plague of 1347-’52. It’s as if over two billion were to sicken and die, today.
Feature image, top of page: Hat tip historythings.com