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  • Cat Murder in Early Modern Ypres July 7, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback









    Beachcombing has a great interest in the barbarous customs of our ancestors that, rather against the canons of good taste, have survived into modern times. A fine example of this is the Kattenstoet festival in Ypres or, as an English-speaker might have it, the cat-killing festival.

    Traditionally the good burghers of the city would gather a representative portion of the town’s cat population together for Ash Wednesday and hurl these cats from the tower of the cloth hall (the Lakenhalle). All his sources – that Beachcombing must note are suspect and sometimes contradictory – state that the last cat killing took place in 1817.

    In 1930, however, in a typical early twentieth-century effort to reclaim the earthy ways of the Middle Ages, the custom was brought back. Twentieth-century Ypres was just not though up to the spitting and scratching of several dozen cats and so an executioner, a jester dressed in red and white, was commissioned to throw toy cats to the Belgians below. In the twenty-first century the festival is celebrated every three years and is the occasion for locals to dress up as cats in a large parade celebrating diversity and felinity through history before the crowds struggle for the falling fluffy ones.

    Not exactly red in tooth and nail is it?

    The psychologist in Beachcombing imagines a fold in time whereby the well-meaning celebrants of the last festival, in 2009, come face to face with their early nineteenth-century forebears carrying sacks of kittens up to the tower for horrid murder…

    Now cat killing took place not only in early modern Ypres. Indeed, several other European centres enjoyed getting rid of kitties. Frazer in The Golden Bough noted cat burning festivals in Paris (Place de Grève): in 1648 Louis the Fourteenth – a king who was fascinated by symbolism – visited the ceremony and himself kindled the fire. Similar customs are referred to by Frazer in the Vosges and Metz. And Beachcombing has other references on file from Semur and Aix-en-Provence and has heard rumours of customs in the Caucusus, while in Prato (Italy) young braves competed to see who could head-butt a hanging cat to death…

    The question of why cats were treated so appallingly has long fascinated scholars. There is the claim that cats were intimately connected to the devil, that they were sexual ciphers (?!), that they were feminine… There have also been claims made that these customs date back to pre-Roman times.

    Beachcombing is a sceptic. He knows of no proof for such customs in Europe from before 1400, though there have been attempts by local antiquarians to predate them. He also suspects that the rather nuanced explanations for cat killing – see for example Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre – are not necessary. The strong bond between humans and horses or between humans and dogs carried over from rural into urban life. But cats – so often aloof, so brazenly independent – were likely victims when hoodlums, of the kind that Europe’s burgeoning cities bred, wanted to have ‘fun’ in the sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

    So much for opinion, now to facts. Beachcombing has been disappointed by the poor quality of proof for the killings in Ypres: as he noted above his sources are contradictory. Does any reader have access to better sources: Beachcombing would have no problem with French and would even limp along with Flemish or Dutch? Was 1817 really the last date of an authentic cat killing in the town?

    Also Ypres was unusual in killing cats by height – if Beachcombing’s calculations are right then cats would have fallen some 50-60 metres to the ground below. What was the logic behind this? Was the point that some survived? Do we have an ‘ordeal’ here? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom

    Beachcombing will end by noting that, in an effort to stay at the cutting edge of the humanities, he spent yesterday afternoon reading a veterinarian report from New York discussing cat falls and survival rates. Apparently cats falling from two to six storeys are more likely to die than cats falling from seven to thirty-two (!) storeys. He cannot resist a quotation: ‘A cat falling from a higher floor, after it stops accelerating, spreads its legs into an umbrella shape, which increases the area against which the air must push and increases the friction, thus slowing the cat’s fall. Through the cats highly developed sense of balance, he buys more time to manoeuvre his body in preparation for landing on all fours. A cat falling from a lower height does not have the opportunity to increase its body’s area, slow its fall, or position his body to land on all four feet.’

    The sentimentalist in Beachcombing likes to think that many Ypres cats survived to fall another year.