Malta, St Paul, Cats, and the Great Plague

Did the ship’s cat swim for it and struggle ashore when St Paul’s lumbering Roman cargo ship foundered on the coast of Malta in AD 60? It’s more than likely, for if contemporary chronicles are correct, the storm drove the ship aground on a sandbank, and the vessel didn’t break apart immediately. Rather, It disintegrated only slowly as the waves pounded the stern, and passengers and crew were able to walk or swim ashore. There was no loss of life. (A model of this ship, by Joseph Abela, can be seen in the Malta Maritime Museum in Birgu, Malta.)


St Paul shipwrecked.  Wood engraving by Gustave Dore. Image in Public Domain


St Paul’s island with monument and St Paul’s Bay, Malta, where St Paul’s ship was driven ashore in AD60. (Image held in the British Library – no known Copyright restrictions.)

Most ships of the time had a Ship’s Cat or cats, for seamen knew the worth of these canny animals. They kept the ships’ rat populations down; – limiting damage to the cargoes of grain while checking the spread of diseases spread by rats. Ships overrun with rats were death traps for seamen.

The Greeks and Romans had learned about cats from the Egyptians who so revered and loved their cats that they were seen as the embodiment of Bast (Bastet) – the lioness or cat-headed Goddess’ – and the temples’ cats were believed to be the embodiment of the Goddess. Cats were favoured pets amongst the people; they kept the homes and farms free of rats and mice and the diseases the rodents were known to spread, and were often mummified and buried, – sometimes with their owners or in their owners’ tombs. The Egyptian name for cat is Mau – and yes, pretty much like Meow.

DNA research tells us that the Wild Cat of central and south-western Asia and Asia Minor was domesticated some ten thousand years ago, so it’s likely that cats had spread to Europe before the Greeks and Romans took them home from Egypt. Only later, as Christianity spread throughout Europe – hand-in-hand with the ever-gloomier Dark Ages and the contagion of superstition – did the cats become the butt of persecution. Witches and the Devil were seen everywhere, and a populace kept largely in ignorance, and fed a diet of diabolical fear and superstition, was easily subdued and perverted. In their thousands, witches were burned at the stake across Europe; sent to the Fires of Hell – and their cats with them. The cats were vilified as the Familiars of Witches – the embodiments of Satan and his demons. Cats – all cats – were to be feared; – but a black cat was the worst abomination – especially if it crossed one’s path. At best it brought bad luck; at worst – death and damnation.

In 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued the Bull – Vox in Rama – ordering the extermination of all cats; – and the madness began. Cats were burned alive, skinned, beaten, crucified and thrown from church towers during religious feasts. Only the powerful Republic of VeniceLa Serenisima – defied the Pope’ s Bull, for the Venetians, with their large fleet of ships, knew that cats controlled the rat infestations on their ships, and in their cities’ houses. In an effort to stop the frenzy of cat extermination by the ignorant, the churches of Venice began to spread the belief of the “Gat de la Madona”: Cats of the Madonna. In this, all cats with the marking of an “m” in the fur on their heads were descended from one kept by the Virgin in Nazareth, and – therefore – mistreating them in any way brought everlasting misfortune.

Countering this effort to save the cats, however, The Church then spread the lie that the Cathars worshipped the Devil in the guise of a cat, – and claimed that this was proved by the term Cathar – the name given to their heretical belief, and derived from the Latin word for cat – Catus.

And so, with the cities’ populations growing apace, and ignorant superstition responsible for a paranoid fear of cats as the servants of Satan, the Black Rat population of Europe’s cities grew to an horrific infestation out of control. Thus the conditions were perfect for the spread of a disease that decimated the population of Europe in three great waves, and also intermittently, for hundreds of years. It was The Plague known as The Black Death caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium pathogen: the pestilence spread by the fleas of the arch-enemy of the domesticated cat.: The Black Rat.

The Great Plague, (The Black Death) as it was known, raged in Europe from 1346 until 1353, and those infected by it usually died within a week. It was one of the worst pandemics in history and is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people in Europe, and – in the 14th century – reduced the world population from around 450 million to between 350 and 375 million. This outbreak of the The Great Plague – Bubonic Plague – is thought to have spread west from China or Central Asia along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea in 1346.

It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover from this devastating pandemic, and smaller outbreaks occurred in Europe until the 19th century. The Great Plague in London, for instance, in 1666, was caused by the pathogen carried by fleas of the same species of black rat, and was probably only stopped because The Great Fire of London broke out during the plague, and burned and destroyed most of the central Medieval part of the city – and its rats.


The Black Death in London – collecting the dead, and smoking was believed to stave infection

Earlier in the 17th century a folk tale had been staged in London, telling the story of Dick Whittington and his cat. Dick Whittington, a 14th century character – Richard Whittington in real life – became Lord Mayor of London three times, and achieved it all because of his cat’s ratting successes. This play – apocryphal as it may have been – was staged some 60 years before the Plague struck London. A pantomime version of Dick’s story has him voyaging to Morocco with his cat – Tommy. There Tommy rids the country of rats, and the Sultan rewards him with half his wealth.

Dick’s story, however, was probably based on a much earlier tale found in a Persian manuscript that was translated in the 19th century: a story about a Persian boy who made a fortune with his cat. “In the tenth century, one Keis, the son of a poor widow of Siraf, embarked for India with his cat. There he arrived at a time when the Palace was so infested by mice and rats that they invaded the King’s food, and persons were employed to drive them out from the royal banquet. Keis produced his cat, the noxious animals soon disappeared and magnificent rewards were bestowed on the adventurer of Siraf, who afterwards returned to that city, and – with his mother and brothers – settled on the island which from him has been denominated Keis, or according to the Persians, Keish.”

Thus, despite the ignorance of much of Europe in the 10th century, the Persians understood about cats and rats. A lesson sadly ignored? Not entirely, for in 1442, when London’s Newgate Prison was rebuilt according to Lord Mayor Whittington’s Will, the figure of a cat was carved above one of the gates; – and in 1572 the heirs of Whittington’s estate presented a carriage to the Merchants; Guild of London. On it was a carving of a cat. Today, on Highgate Hill, in front of Whittington Hospital Hospital in London, there is a statue in honour of Whittington’s legendary cat.

In 1676, a year after London’s Plague and Great Fire, the Peste broke out again on Malta. Like all European maritime cities, the ports must have been infested with rats. Another outbreak in 1813 killed 4,500 people, and this time the carriers of the disease were identified as members of the crew of a Maltese ship that arrived in Marsamxett harbour from Alexandria in Egypt. At that time, Malta had been free of the plague for 180 years.

Now, worldwide, we rely on antibiotics to fight these deadly pathogens, even though – in this case – scientists reckon that the original strain of the pathogen that caused Bubonic Plague is all but eradicated.

From statistics, we can see that the incidence and severity of the plagues were in direct relation to the cat population of the Medieval and Renaissance towns and cities. When there were few cats in the cities, the death rates soared; but with lots of cats around – and – as if by magic – the disease almost disappeared. Yet the people did not put two-and-two together, and the perverted witch-hunts and burnings continued. The sick and sadistic Witch-Finders, and the ensuing trials and public burnings, became even more manic. Throughout Europe, Witches, Warlocks – and their animals – were incinerated and condemned to the eternal fires of Hell. Yet it’s easy enough to understand the panic of those hideous plague-ridden years.

Malta’s Renaissance cities now have large and lively populations of cats: street and ferel cats as well as house cats, – but some people are still needlessly afeared of all cats. My two cats are rescued cats: one from drowning as a kitten in the harbour, and the other – also a kitten – after it had ‘fallen’ three floors from a building construction-site to the street. Three of his legs were broken, but he is still here to tell the tale. My neighbour made me a house number plate with a painting of one of my ginger moggies – and now they must be amongst the most photographed cats in the world. They sit proudly and unconcerned in the street outside my door, and watch the tourists walk past – posing to be photographed as they go.

gottfroi on piano smallcopyright

Meet Gottfroi; – without question, he’s my best friend. He’d been thrown into the harbour and was being stoned by children when i ran to his rescue.  The kids scarpered when I turned up, and Gottfroi – his face covered in blood – was struggling to get onto the harbour wall.  I gave him a hand and then he began a long diatribe of what had just happened to him. I sat and listened while he got it off his chest – looking like a drowned rat rather than a cat.  (The vet thought he was 8 or 10 weeks old at the time.) I picked him up, but he scrambled to put down.  The last pick up – and what followed  must have been very traumatic.  So – after about 10 minutes of listening – and trying to calm him down, i stood up and said – “Well, I can can’t stay here all day talking to you, and I have to go home and have my lunch . But, if you want, you can follow me home and tell me more about it”

And that’s exactly what he did – and he’s been with me ever since.  He’s a great cat: a great little person


Not begging – just curious about a friend’s bag-of-tricks. He’s just a street cat – a wonderful ginger Moggie with a devilish sense of humour

helping handgoot smallcopyright

...and he’s very particular about wrong notes – never slow to point them out. He likes Bach -closes his eyes and  listens very intently – is indifferent to Brahms – tends to doze-off  with too much Chopin – and  gets fired-up over jazz. i have to watch it, or I  get the occasional smack round the legs if i spend too much time practising one particular piece..

Rob and Gottfroi rehearsingsmallcopyright

,,,,here he listens attentively whilst I rehearse some Bach…

…and here’s Buddy – the guy who had 3 broken legs after he ‘fell’ from the 3rd floor of a building: posing – and sleeping with complete confidence


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Buddy way out of it small.small

Some people speak of a Maltese Cat as a breed, but it is generally any cat with predominately grey or blueish-grey fur, and of indiscriminate breed. There are several recognised breeds that are of this colouration: The Russian Blue, the Chartreux, and the Kroat. Other breeds, such as the British Shorthair also produce ‘blues’. It seems that the mating of any two cats of solid grey or blue colouration should always produce kittens of the same solid colour.


Home: a favourite cardboard box in the CSAFeline  Sanctuary on Malta


Doris Zarb – doing a wonderful job in the CSAFeline Sanctuary on Malta

Here the local people are mostly cat-friendly or cat-tolerant – and a number of them – shop-keepers and householders – work to keep the street cats fed, and organise vets to look after their health. Some people have as many as 20 cats in and around their houses, and there are a number Charities and  Sanctuaries for strays in need of homes and -special care. It is a labour of love, respect – and, perhaps, reparation for the cruelty wrought upon them throughout the long Dark centuries of their persecution.


Below is a piece written by David Hackett, who works for Wellingborough and Rushden CATS PROTECTION in the UK.  It is a poignant story that highlights the plight of older cats that may have lost their owners or been abandoned, and portrays the great respect and the personal relationship we can have with cats that may need and seek our help.


In November last year, Leo came into our garden to die. He was old, and could barely walk or hold his head up. He was starving, just skin and bone, riddled with fleas, and filthy and smelly.

The first thing to do, obviously, was to give him some food; it was obvious that he had not eaten properly for a long time. He was very friendly, and after several good meals we had a good look at him, and noticed that all down his back there was a thick, encrusted layer of flea-dirt, and many fleas – we had never seen so many. We treated him with Advocate, and set about combing out the mess. He did not object at all, and was too weak to do much about it anyway.

He was not microchipped of course. We are not ‘official’ fosterers, but this poor cat needed emergency shelter, so we registered him as a Cats Protection rescue, and took him off to the vet. The visit confirmed that he was old, and his teeth were in poor state. The Advocate (and the combing) seemed to have dealt with the live fleas effectively, but the amount of flea-dirt deposited on the vet’s table was more than she had ever seen. As is standard procedure with an obviously unwell cat, we asked for a blood-test to check for FIV in particular.

He did not have FIV, but the test revealed advanced kidney failure, with readings well into the ‘red’ zone. Because of this, a general anaesthetic for any dental work would have been out of the question, and the vet sadly advised that he had not got long left, and there was little point in putting him up for adoption. However, this was not an issue, because Leo had already decided to stay with us. For the first few days, apart from meal-breaks, he did nothing except sleep on an old woolly on a chair near to the door. The vet had asked for a urine sample: not an easy thing to obtain, but we did manage it. The test on this revealed a kidney infection, for which he had a course of antibiotics. We also had him microchipped, and with no trace of a previous owner, we formally adopted him under his new name.

After this, his condition improved significantly. From having been desperate for any food at all, he started to become picky, and trained us to know that his favourite items were tins of tuna (the proper human sort, not catfood) and smoked mackerel. Perhaps he should have been on a special ‘kidney diet’, but we knew he wouldn’t eat it, and we decided that he might as well be happy for his last days. He was well settled-in by now. The weeks passed by, the days became shorter and the nights colder. If he had been ‘out there’, he would not have survived, but he was now warm and happy. He had been docile and friendly from the start, but he soon developed into the most affectionate cat we have ever owned. Or perhaps it’s better to say that he owns us. When he decides it’s time for a cuddle, he jumps up onto my lap, climbs onto my shoulder, puts his paws round my neck and nuzzles my ear. After a bit of fidgeting to get comfy, he purrs contentedly, and stays there until my arms get tired.

After about six months, we did wonder if there was anything to be done about his mouth, so we returned to the vet for a check. Most cats are stressed at the vet’s, but while she was listening to his heart, I started to stroke him. Immediately, his heart-rate steadied and he calmed down. It was clear that he associated me with safety and security, and there was a deep bond. However, he does now have a heart-murmur to add to his case notes. We did a repeat of the blood-test, but the results which had been in the danger-zone before were now twice as bad. But Leo does not know this; he trots about like a show-pony, and is generally having a grand time.

So what of the future? It’s been a year now, his appetite is good, and he’s put on weight. He is clearly a happy and contented little cat, who has trained his humans well. We know that we will have to say goodbye one day, and when that happens we will be very sad. But we are enjoying the time we have together, and when he’s gone, we will remember the love we have given and received.

We don’t know how Leo fell on hard times, but we will know that for the final chapter in his life he enjoyed comfort and security. And perhaps it was the mutual love that kept him going. So if you have any reservations about adopting an older cat, please ask Leo what he thinks.

Copyright Robert Weatherburn 2016