The Internet’s favorite pet has come a long way:
Cats in medieval Europe mostly had a bad reputation – they were associated with witches and heretics, and it was believed that the devil could transform himself into a black cat. … Heretical religious groups, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, were accused by Catholic churchmen of associating and even worshipping cats. When the Templars were put on trial in the early fourteenth-century, one of the accusations against them was allowing cats to be part of the services and even praying to the cats. Witches too, were said to be able to shape-shift into cats, which led to Pope Innocent VIII declaring in 1484 that “the cat was the devil’s favourite animal and idol of all witches.”
Medievalist Irina Metzler theorizes about the longstanding link between cats and heretics:
Medieval people may have wanted to restrict cats to the function of animated mousetraps, for the very reason that the cat “stands at the threshold between the familiar and the wild.”… This causes a kind of conceptual tension. While the cat possesses the characteristics of a good hunter it is useful, “but as long as it does, it remains incompletely domesticated.”
Heretics, too, in a transferred sense, are not completely domesticated, since by challenging orthodox thought and roaming freely hither and thither in their interpretation of religious beliefs they resemble the bestiary definition of wildness. As symbolic animals, then, cats may be the heretical animal par excellence.
(Image: The devil appears in the form of a cat to St. Dominic of Calerueja. From Le Miroir Historial, 1400-1410.)