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I’m assuming that most people in our culture have favorable opinions of common house cats, Felis silvestris catus. Maybe they love the black variety. Cat-lovers have strong affection for the little rascals who curl up on their couches, sleep in their beds, and play silly games with them. Cats can be cute, cuddly, and endlessly entertaining.

But not all people have appreciated cats. Maybe it’s their eyes, or the way they hunt in the dark, or the way they scratch and bite if they don’t want to be handled.

The voice of Ramah

In 1233, soon after Pope Gregory IX became the head of the Roman Catholic Church, his first bull (decree or bulletin) had to do with cats. The bull was named Vox in Rama, meaning the “Voice of Ramah”, Ramah being a Judean town mentioned in the Bible.

Church inquisitions were relatively new, only beginning in 1184. Before Gregory issued the bull, Conrad, the grand inquisitor of Marburg, Germany, had asked his assistance. Conrad had evidence of what he believed were satanic cults and he needed the pope’s direction on how to proceed. Gregory sent his response to the archbishops in the vicinity of Marburg, informing them of Conrad’s suspicions.

In the decree, the pope referred to cult rituals that Christians had supposedly observed around Marburg. In those days, an accusation could be made based on as little evidence as a rumor or a dream. People were so superstitious that many thought dreams were messages from God. Following is a quote from the bull.

“a black cat descends backwards, with its tail erect. First the novice, then the master, then each one of the Order who are worthy and perfect, kiss the cat on its buttocks. Then each [returns] to his place and, speaking certain responses, they incline their heads toward to cat. “Forgive us!” says the master, and the one next to him repeats this…”

Interpretation of “The Voice”

There is nothing at all coherent or believable about that quote, but in those days, since superstition reigned supreme, cats, and especially black cats, became associated with Satan and his suspected cults. Who really knows what those who made the accusations heard or saw? It could have been an innocent meeting they didn’t understand, or people they disliked and wanted to see punished. Anything could be seen as threatening in an age of paranoia and Christians were trained to report odd behavior to Church authorities. It was an early version of “see something, say something”.

In the bull, the pope didn’t come right out and say “go kill every cat you encounter”, but who knows what message filtered down to priests and lay people. By associating cats with Satan, the pope had opened the door for their demise.

Ramah in the Bible

The Voice of Ramah refers to a verse in the Old Testament, Jeremiah 31:15. When the Assyrians conquered Israel in 721 BC, they took many of the Israelites into captivity. One of the deportation centers was Ramah. In the New Testament, Ramah was again mentioned in Matthew 2:18. That’s when Herod ordered the “massacre of the innocents”—babies born at the time of Jesus’s nativity.

The text reads, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not”. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t see the connection between that verse and the pope’s decree, but that’s not important. The pope knew the connection and that’s what counts.

Cats never seemed to be a problem with the Egyptians. Even the Eastern Orthodox church didn’t seem to concern itself with cats, and that church didn’t care about what the pope decreed. However, in Western Europe, as cats became associated with Satan, they became feared and Christians began to be exterminate them. Cats had basically become disposable, like human heretics. In fact, from the time of the Vox in Rama until the 18th century, cats were often burned along with suspected witches or just for entertainment.

The arrival of the Black Death

In 1346 the bubonic plague arrived in the Ukraine and Greece from the Black Sea region. The disease was spread by infected fleas. In Western Europe it’s theorized that a deficiency of cats allowed the rats that harbored the fleas to run rampant. The plague became known as the “Black Death” because of the black color the skin turned when gangrene set in.

By connecting cats with Satan, the Catholic Church may have inadvertently consigned millions of people to their deaths. It’s estimated that half the population of Europe died during the plague years of 1346 to 1353.

The pagans

Studying a map of the spread of the epidemic, it’s apparent that the areas least affected were those that had not yet converted to Christianity. It may be just a coincidence, but the Balkan countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and northwestern Russia were the last to be afflicted. That region was at that time still inhabited by pagans who had not killed their cats. There are many factors to consider in the spread of an epidemic and the cat population is only one of them. No one kept statistics so no one knew how many cats had been killed.

The Jews

Also, the Jewish population of Europe had been most segregated from the Christians, and they didn’t kill their cats either. Certain Jewish populations didn’t suffer as much from the plague as their Christian “neighbors” and that gave some Christians the idea that the Jews were somehow protected. That thinking led some to the conclusion that maybe the Jews had even started the plague to kill Christians who persecuted them.

The bottom line is that the epidemic was not only influenced by the rats that carried the fleas, but by the overall ignorance of the population. They didn’t know that microorganisms were responsible, so they didn’t know how to prevent the disease. As an aside, it’s possible that if the Christians hadn’t ended scientific advancement in the fifth century researchers may have discovered the cause of diseases by the 14th century and drastically limited their spread.

Why the Jews were still allowed to live in Europe

Neither pagans nor heretics were welcome in Europe, but Christians allowed Jews to live there. Why was that? Like so many other Christian traditions, it’s very complicated. In the fourth century, Saint Augustine theorized that since the Gospels implicated Jews, not Romans, in the crucifixion of Jesus, they should be punished forever. He thought Jews should be kept around as examples of what happened to people who broke their covenant with God. They no longer had a temple or even a homeland because of the Romans, and the more retched their lives appeared, the more Christians could look down on them and feel superior.

Augustine was in my humble opinion the worst influence Christianity ever had.  But, in his time he was incredibly influential in establishing Christian doctrines that are still adhered to today. Concerning the Jews, he wrote, “God was allowing them [the Jews] to survive as a punishment because they “bear the guilt for the death of the Savior for through their fathers they have killed Christ”. According to Augustine and others like him, every Jew throughout history was guilty of Jesus’s death. Because of that, Jews were never accepted into European society. They would never have equal rights comparable to Christians until the 19th century, and then only in limited regions.

Blame for the Plague

Back to the 14th century plague. Since Jews in certain regions didn’t suffer as much from the plague as Christians, some people began to assume the Jews had started the plague by poisoning the wells where Christians got their drinking water. Acting on that suspicion, from 1348 until 1351, Christians mounted violent retaliatory attacks on the Jews.

The accusation of starting the plague was only the latest in a long list of anti-Semitic accusations and related persecutions. Other unfounded accusations in the Middle Ages were ritual murder and desecrating the host.

Torturing people to obtain confessions was perfectly acceptable with the Catholic Church. Therefore, many Jews were tortured into confessing the crimes they were accused of even if they were completely innocent. Their confessions reinforced the myths that they were trying to kill Christians, and that continued the violent cycle of retribution.

The first massacre of Jews accused of starting the plague was in Toulon, France in 1348. From there the violence spread to Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium. Inconceivable as it is to us today, in 1349, in Strasbourg, Christians burned around 2,000 Jews on Saint Valentine’s Day because of this allegation. The next year, 330 Jews were burned near Zurich. In Frankfurt, the entire Jewish population was driven out or killed and their homes burned. In total, Christian mobs destroyed 510 European Jewish communities in three years. Just as the violence ran its course in one region, it would begin in another.

The pope tries to inject reason into mob violence

Pope Clement VI tried to protect the Jewish communities by issuing bulls. One read that those who blamed the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil”. He rationalized that if the Jews had caused the plague, some Jewish communities wouldn’t have suffered as badly as Christians did. Just because European Jewish communities had cats didn’t mean they were protected from the disease. Tragically, the pope’s efforts were sabotaged by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who allowed villages to keep Jewish property after they killed or drove out the occupants.

The Jews who escaped the madness in Western Europe found asylum in the adjacent countries of Poland and Lithuania. Six hundred years later, at the beginning of the Nazi era, Poland and Russia had the largest Jewish populations in Europe. That was one reason why the Nazi’s built their death camps in Poland.

Interconnectedness of events

This dark tale has come almost full circle. It began with the Christian fear of cats being agents of the Devil. The killing of cats helped make the Black Death more devastating. Then, radical Christians came up with the idea that God must have sent the black death due to them tolerating the Jews. In that case, the Jews had to be eliminated.

In the real world, not the delusional world of their paranoid persecutors, the Jews were guilty of nothing. It was a classic case of scapegoating by Christians who followed their emotions and their ignorance. They needed to take their anger out on someone and the clergy had pointed at the Jews. This is the way history unfolds. It’s usually unpredictable, and events are usually caused or exacerbated by ignorance.

Today we look at the current events in Palestine. Why are they so tragic? Because they could have been avoided. It began with the horrendous persecution that caused the Jews to leave Europe and emigrate to Israel. It’s all connected, from the demonizing of black cats in 1233 to the war in the Gaza Strip today.

 

 

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