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.
The Comstock Act (passed 1873) was a United States federal law that made sending obscene materials through the mail a criminal offence. Under the Comstock provisions, the definition of ‘obscenity’ was very broad. Some of the prosecutions launched by postal authorities involved sexual health material, marriage handbooks, ‘coming of age’ guides, saucy poetry and love letters. Even the most sacred of books was not sacred under the Comstock law. In 1895 John B. Wise of Clay County, Kansas was arrested and charged with sending obscene materials by mail. The material in question was a postcard containing two quotations from the Bible:
“Wise… sent a quotation of scripture by mail to a preacher friend, with whom he was having a scriptural controversy. As the quotation was obscene, the preacher got angry and caused Wise’s arrest for mailing obscene matter. The case is in the Topeka federal court… if the quotation is adjudged obscene [then] then Bible as a whole is unmailable matter.”
Wise’s case went to trial the following year and he was convicted by jury and fined $50. He declared his intention to appeal, however press archives do not contain any mention of this.
Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was born into a poor but devoutly Anglican farming family in Devon. Southcott left home around her 20th birthday. She spent the next 30 years working in and around Exeter as a farm worker, a housemaid, a lady’s maid and an upholstery seamstress. Sometime around 1792 Southcott claimed to have experienced voices and visions. Some of these voices predicted events that later proved true. They also instructed Southcott to take up writing. In 1801 she spent her meagre life savings on self publishing a book of her divine prophecies. It was picked up by a small but influential group of millenarian Christians and within three years Southcott had become a minor celebrity. In February 1814 Southcott – then 64 years old, never married and still a virgin – shocked her followers by announcing that she was pregnant with the Second Messiah. She described her immaculate conception to a follower, George Turner:
“It is now four months since I felt the powerful visitation working upon my body… to my astonishment, I not only felt a power to shake my whole body, but I felt a sensation that is impossible for me to describe upon my womb… This alarmed me greatly, yet I kept it to myself.”
The news was greeted with comedic interest by the London press, which followed Southcott’s prophecies closely. She certainly developed some of the symptoms of pregnancy, growing “great in size”. But when no baby had appeared by the start of November – the 14th month of Southcott’s ‘pregnancy’ – the sceptics were in uproar. Southcott blamed the child’s non-appearance on her spinsterhood and recruited one of her followers as a token ‘Joseph’, marrying him on November 12th – but even this could not coax out the reluctant Messiah. Southcott, by now very ill, disappeared from sight and died two days after Christmas. Followers kept her body for four days, believing that Southcott might rise again. Instead, they were greatly disappointed when her corpse started to putrefy and stink. An autopsy was conducted on Southcott’s body to find causes for the symptoms of pregnancy, including her greatly swollen belly. One attending doctor put this down to her abdomen, which was:
“…the largest I ever saw, being nearly four times the usual size, and appeared [to be] one lump of fat… this preternatural enlargement, the thickness of fat [and] the flatus of the intestines… satisfactorily accounts for the extraordinary size of the deceased.”
Burchard (c.960-1025) was the Bishop of Worms during the early 11th century. He was a ruthless political leader and administrator, as well as an influential theologian and prolific writer. Burchard’s best known work was the Decretum, a 20-book treatise on canon law that took him a decade to complete. The 19th volume of the Decretum is a penitential, a fairly standard guide for churchgoers on what they should do to make peace with God if they have sinned. Three of the more bizarre penitentials listed by Burchard are for women who go to extreme lengths to win the love of their husbands:
“Have you done as some women are accustomed to do? They lie with their face to the floor, bare their buttocks and order that bread be kneaded on their buttocks. The baked bread they then give to their husbands; this they do so that they will burn the more with love of them. If you have done this, you shall do penance for two years on approved holy days.”
Burchard also warns against a more common form of love potion: the use of menstrual blood in food:
“Have you done as some women are accustomed to do? They take their menstrual blood and mix it with food or drink, and give this to their husbands to eat or drink, so that they might be more loving and attentive with them. If you have done this, you shall do penance for five years on approved holy days.”
Arguably the coup de grace was Burchard’s penitential for serving your husband a fish drowned in your own placenta:
“Have you done as some women are accustomed to do? They take a live fish and place it into their afterbirth, holding it there until it dies. Then, after boiling and roasting it, they give it to their husbands to eat, in the hope they will burn more with love for them. If you have done this, you shall do penance for two years on approved holy days.”