March 7, 2014

16th century warfare manual reveals readers were just as interested in cats as we are…but as weapons


A 16th century warfare manual has been causing some alarm among the reading and pet-lover communities (you don’t need me to tell you the crossover is huge) because it appears to show cats and doves being used as rockets.

The illustrations, which feature in a manual on artillery and siege warfare that was written in Germany around 1530, show animals, and most prominently cats, with what looks like jetpacks attached to their backs, “with the German text helpfully advising military commanders to use them to “set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise”, the Guardian reports.

One of the rocket cats that features in Helm's manual

One of the rocket cats that features in Helm’s manual

Bird lovers look away; doves are also suggested for the same purpose

Bird lovers look away: doves are also suggested for the same purpose

The book was written by Franz Helm of Cologne, an artillery master who had experience as a soldier and witnessed contemporary warfare first-hand, including the introduction of gunpowder to the battlefield. But images from the book only surfaced recently when the University of Pennsylvania digitized them, and they understandably attracted attention. Was it possible that a 16th century war expert was advocating the use of “rocket cats” and that they were actually used in warfare?

No, thank goodness. Mitch Fraas, a historian and digital humanities expert at Penn library has now got to the bottom of this early example of animal cruelty, but will admit that “It clearly looks like there’s some sort of jet of fire coming out of a device strapped to these animals.” Actually, Helm had a different, though perhaps more torturous, idea for how cats should be used as weapons. Fraas translated the original text to reveal these instructions:

“Create a small sack like a fire-arrow. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.”

Fraas added that it seemed like a “sort of a harebrained scheme”, and that he could find no evidence that such tactics had ever been used.

Pet lovers everywhere are breathing a collective sigh of relief, but know for the future that cats should be kept indoors in the case of siege.

Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.