Cats have nine lives, or so the saying goes. The origin of the saying has been lost to antiquity, with many explanations from many sources filling the gap. It is most likely based on cats’ ability to escape dangerous situations — they are generally rather swift, quiet, and of course, have an innate ability to land on their feet from a fall of any meaningful height. But don’t tell the French — because in the 1600s and 1700s, some of them took a liking to killing our feline friends.
In “The Golden Bough,” a classic treatise on comparative mythology originally published in 1922 (with earlier versions dating back to 1890), author James George Frazer describes a sadistic tradition from that place and time, typically marking the summer solstice:
In the midsummer fires formerly kindled on the Place de Grève at Paris it was the custom to burn a basket, barrel, or sack full of live cats, which was hung from a tall mast in the midst of the bonfire; sometimes a fox was burned. The people collected the embers and ashes of the fire and took them home, believing that they brought good luck. The French kings often witnessed these spectacles and even lit the bonfire with their own hands. [. . .] At Metz midsummer fires were lighted with great pomp on the esplanade, and a dozen cats, enclosed in wicker cages, were burned alive in them, to the amusement of the people. Similarly at Gap, in the department of the High Alps, cats used to be roasted over the midsummer bonfire.
Thankfully, this horrible practice waned by the mid-1700s. Unfortunately, in the late 1730s, another one took its place. As recounted in “The Great Cat Massacre” by Robert Darton, apprentice printers working in Paris put their masters on trial — mock trials, that is — accusing the masters of subjecting them to unduly hard work and other misdeeds. But obviously, the master printers were not willing participants in these mock trials. So the apprentices looked for stand-ins, and turned toward the apples of their masters’ eyes — cats. The apprentices resented the favorable treatment their master had given to their cats, so the apprentices rounded up as many cats as they could and found them guilty of witchcraft. The cats were hanged.
France has since warmed up to cats; according to Wikipedia, 52% of French households now have pets, with cats (9.7 million) outnumbering dogs (8.8 million).
From the Archives: Kitty City: More about cats, and much, much nicer.
Related: “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer. 37 reviews, 4.5 stars, available on Kindle for free. Also, “The Great Cat Massacre” by Robert Darton, 15 reviews, four stars. Available on Kindle but alas, not for free.