Medieval artists symbolized souls in purgatory as rodents. And because she prayed for purgatory souls, the Patron Saint of Cats, Gertrude of Nivelles, became a cat lady in a sense, chasing forlorn mice into heaven.

Gertrude and her mother Itta co-led their Catholic nunnery in 7th century Belgium.  Gertrude and Itta were among the elite whose resources and connections influenced the king’s favor and support.  They gave refuge to women; healthcare to the poor; and hospitality to pilgrims and animals alike.

I can imagine a cloistered Saint Gertrude hurrying through a colony of lingering strays as they wait for spilled milk or praise for dead rodents laid at her feet.  Without spay/neuter, there would be more than a few.

Gertrude’s life was described as one of exhaustion, praying for souls in purgatory and not really taking care of herself.  With so many unfixed cats around, I can imagine that, too.

Later in history, the inquisition and superstition paired cats with paganism and witchcraft.  In 1233, Pope Gregory IX’s first Voice of Rome proclaimed black cats as Satan’s incarnations. His “Thou shalt not suffer a cat to live” imperiled cats for 100+ years, setting the table for the Black Death to fill purgatory with 200 million souls.

in 1894, French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered the plague was spread by an airborne germ, Yersina pestis bacillus, which also spreads through infected bites of the Oriental Rat Flea and its host.  Both were plentiful on 14th century trade ships docking at ports depleted of cats.

Comparing the Pope to the Saint, Gertrude was wiser with words:  “Ye shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, save only a cat.”  Bless her.


This article by Head Cat Susan Kumpf appeared in the March 2021 issue of Haywood Vicinitus.