Our European ancestors really had it in for cats, chiefly because of their association with the devil or witchcraft. Many cats have paid the ultimate price for this superstition. Documents from medieval and early modern Europe describe dozens of cases of cats being burned alive, either for entertainment or religious point scoring. Cat burning was particularly common in France, where a dozen live cats were routinely torched in Paris every Midsummer’s Day (late June). English courtier Philip Sidney attended one of these feline infernos in 1572. In his chronicle Sidney noted that King Charles IX also threw a live fox onto the fire, for added interest. In 1648 France’s King Louis XIV, then aged just 10, lit the tinder on a large bonfire in central Paris, then watched and danced with glee as a basket of stray cats was lowered into the flames. Live cats were frequently burned alive elsewhere in Europe, particularly at Easter or the period around Halloween.
Cat burning was less common in Britain, however a few examples are recorded. One comes from the letters of Englishman Charles Hatton. In November 1677 Hatton wrote to his brother, chiefly about who might be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He closed his letter by describing a recent celebration to mark the 119th anniversary of Elizabeth I taking the throne. At the centre of this pageantry, Hatton wrote, was a large wickerwork figure of Pope Innocent XI, an effigy that reportedly cost £40 to make. The wicker pope was paraded through London, then erected in Smithfield and set alight. Inside its baskety innards was a number of live cats:
“Last Saturday the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was solemnised in the city with mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in diverse clothing, and the effigies of devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled full of live cats, who squawled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire. The common saying all the while was [the cats’ screeching] was the language of the Pope and the Devil in a dialogue between them.”
According to Charles Hatton, these perverse celebrations were concluded with the opening and distribution of a free barrel of claret.
In 1637 an order from Charles I required members of the Norwich municipal corporation to attend cathedral services, if they weren’t doing so already. The order posed problems for the mayor and aldermen, who petitioned the king for an exemption from attending services in the city’s cathedral. Their “Humble Petition” cited “inconveniences thereof [that were] many and intolerable”. According to members of the corporation, their low seats in the cathedral were subject to gusts of freezing wind. Not only that, the ordinary folk of Norwich, who were none too fond of the corporation, occupied the seats in the upper galleries. This gave them a vantage point for pelting city officials with anything they could find, from shoes to excreta:
“There be many seats over our heads and are oftentimes exposed to much danger… In the mayoralty of Mr Christopher Barrett a great Bible was let fall from above and hitting him upon the head, broke his spectacles… Some made water in the gallery on the aldermen’s heads and it dropped down into their wives’ seats… In October last Alderman Shipdham, somebody most beastly did conspurcate and shit upon his gown from the galleries above… some from the galleries let fall a shoe which narrowly missed the mayor’s head… another time one from the gallery did spit upon Alderman Barrett’s head…”
The king denied their request for exemption. It is not known if the Norwich elders followed the order and braved the masses in the cathedral.
In 1625 two English military commanders (George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Sir Edward Cecil) sought royal approval for a war against Spain. A successful campaign, they told Charles I, would weaken the Spanish Empire and revive the glory of 1588, when the English repelled the Armada. Villiers and Cecil also hoped to line their pockets by plundering Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with cash and cargo. Their plan was backed by Charles I but not parliament, which was unwilling and probably unable to provide financial support. In the summer of 1625 Cecil moved to Devon to assemble his invasion force but he was plagued by a shortage of funds and other difficulties. He secured almost 120 English and Dutch ships but many were poorly maintained. Cecil’s land force consisted of 15,000 men, most of whom were pressed into service in and around Plymouth. Cecil’s expedition was also poorly stocked: he was able to obtain provisions for scarcely a fortnight abroad.
The fleet sailed on October 5th 1625 but returned the following day after striking bad weather. It sailed again two days later but suffered damage in heavy weather off the Spanish coast. The English encountered several Spanish ships filled with cargo but dithering allowed them to escape. The expedition landed near Cadiz on October 24th but Cecil, having noticed the city’s fortifications, abandoned his plans to attack it. Instead, Cecil marched his men in the opposite direction. With night approaching he allowed his invasion to stop at village in the wine-producing region of Andalusia. Unfortunately for Cecil, this village housed a large quantity of the local product. His ‘army’ quickly fell apart, thanks to:
“…the misgovernment of the soldiers who, by the avarice or negligence of their commanders, were permitted to fill themselves so much with the wine they found in the cellars and other places they plundered, that they became more like beasts than men… if the Spaniards had had good intelligence they might have all been cut off.”
Cecil’s men were so hopelessly drunk that their officers abandoned plans for capturing major cities – or indeed smaller ones. The soldiers were herded back onto the ships. For a time they sailed aimlessly along the Spanish coast, looking for treasure ships to plunder. But poor hygiene and lack of supplies soon took their toll on the men, who began to die, “many each hour”. In mid November the expedition was abandoned and the ships, scattered at sea, began to limp back to England. Cecil was the last to return: his own ship was blown off course and became lost, landing on the south coast of Ireland in mid December. His return ended one of the worst executed military campaigns in English history.
In 1691 Joseph de Arostegui of Calahorra, northern Spain, petitioned for divorce from his wife, Antonia Garrido, based on her alleged impotence. According to his testimony, there had been no consummation of their four-year marriage because his wife “does not have her parts like other women”. Antonia contested her husband’s claim for divorce, her lawyer asserting that Antonia’s genitals were fully functional but had been affected by “evil spells and witchcraft”. As was usual in early modern trials where impotence was alleged, Antonia was ordered to submit to at least two examinations by doctors and midwives. At the second of these examinations:
“…the [surgeon] Francisco Velez inserted into the said parts of the said Antonia Garrido a stem of cabbage in a shape similar to a virile member… and seeing that it entered with liberty…”
The examiners, content that penetration had been achieved, ruled that Antonia was capable of intercourse, and the church court turned down Joseph’s petition for divorce. The fate of their marriage after this is unknown.
On the day when the people of Scotland vote on independence from Britain, some might like to reflect on a piece of literature from the mid 17th century. A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland was first published in London in 1649 and reappeared in various forms over the next decade. Its authorship is open to question. Some historians attribute it to Oxford graduate and minor writer James Howell, better known for coining the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Others believe it was written by Anthony Weldon, a scheming courtier to Charles I. Whoever was responsible for its creation, A Perfect Description is unabashed propaganda, filled with anti-Scottish jibes and stereotypes. The people of Scotland, it claims, are lazy and incompetent farmers; they would “rather go to taverns” than cultivate the land around them. They are also coarse and uncultured and will “stop their ears if you speak of a play”. They fornicate as a “pastime”, laugh at blasphemy and wink at murder.
The writer reserves particular acrimony for Scottish women, of whom it claims “there are none greater [fatter] in the whole world”. Further, they have appalling personal hygiene and make terrible wives:
“Their flesh abhors cleanliness, their breath commonly stinks of pottage, their linen of piss, their hands of pigs’ turds, their body of sweat [while] their splay feet never offend socks. To be chained in marriage with one of them [is] to be tied to a dead carcass and cast into a stinking ditch.”