Cat torturing in the Middle Ages

Although Ypres is not the only place where cats were used as victims in numerous folkloristic games, it is one of the few cities where the ritual still happens - albeit with stuffed toys instead of real cats. In medieval times cats were tortured and killed during the 'Cat fair' in many West European places. When the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Anjou visited Bruges in July 1582 they were 'very fittingly welcomed with a beautiful device' according to an old text.' This 'beautiful device' consisted of a ship with a high mast that was placed in the centre of the Market Square.  Fireworks were placed on the ship at different places and when they were lit a mix of crackling powder and cats meowing resounded. When the ship finally was set alight, the animals perished in the flames.

Giving a reason for the torturing and killing of cats as mass entertainment is not easy. There are several explanations, but it is not clear which is the correct one. The history of the Cat festivals is a mix of reality and fantasy, of legends and historical facts. A widely spread image is the cat as a faithful companion of witches and helper of the devil.

The Kattige kat from 1986, number 205 of the comic strip series Suske en Wiske, partially happens in Ypres. The witch Tuttebel wants revenge on the city because she was thrown off the Hall tower as a cat in the Middle Ages. When her plan to destruct the Menin gate fails, she tries to make the Hall tower collapse. Lambik, disguised as the city fool, lures her inside the tower. Once at the top Tuttebel transforms into a cat and attacks Lambik. He falls from the tower but saves himself and makes sure that Tuttebel crashes down from the Hall tower for the second time in her life. She is not fazed however and says: "Nothing can happen to me. I am a cat and invulnerable." During her fall a dark cloud appears next to her with the devil in it. He tells her that it is the ninth time she has transformed into a cat and that he comes to get her.

This type of representations of cats in contemporary culture contributes to the fact that many people think that the cats' torture was a consequence of the association of cats with dark powers. The custom was rooted in superstition however. The exorcism of evil spirits would be the reason why the animals were used to force the devil to grant some favour. At the time people thought the devil could not see a cat suffer and would therefore show leniency. Ritual acts led to folk festivals that continued to exist while the original reason was forgotten.

The reason for this association with evil must be searched in the church. Cats were linked to witchcraft and paganism. This occurred because the Christian Church considered all those who thought differently as heathens and prosecuted them. Also because those people were often associated with cats by the church. In the early 15th century the Knight Templars were accused of worshipping the devil in the shape of a black cat.

We should not generalise the prosecution of cats however: in all times cats were both pampered and killed by different groups of humans. We clearly have to place a question mark at the origin of the cats' massacre. The reason we still associate a witch with a cat is simply due to the fact that the image of old women (who mostly were accused of witchcraft) with a pet cat is a lot more plausible than old women with a pig or a goat for example. The mystery that surrounds cats also plays a part. With the soft pads under their paws they can move silently and then suddenly appear from nowhere with glowing eyes. In the Middle Ages, when people were very superstitious, these animals made a terrifying and mysterious impression.

What was the reason for abusing cats in numerous folk festivals? A plausible reason is that there simply were too many cats. The animals were so numerous that they were a pest.