Objects of Intrigue: 16th Century Rocket Cats
Why are these animals in a 16th century manuscript wearing jet packs? That's the mystery Mitch Fraas, Scholar in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries' Kislak Center for Special Collections, set out to decipher. It turns out the truth is a bit macabre, but the illustrators obviously took some whimsical joy in depicting these rocket cats and birds. Fraas told Atlas Obscura more about these fire-fueled cats:
Just about a year ago, a friend sent me a link with a picture from one of our manuscripts here at Penn. I gaped… was that really a picture of a cat and a bird propelled by rocket packs!? This seemed pretty unlikely for a 16th century manuscript, but within a week I had turned up another half dozen examples of similar illustrations. So, what’s the deal with these rocket creatures?
All of the illustrations here come from early explosives and warfare manuals copied and re-copied with alterations between the 16th and 17th centuries. The immediate originator of the idea behind these cat and bird bombs was Franz Helm of Cologne, an artillery master in the service of various German princes who likely served in campaigns against Turkish forces during the mid-16th century. He wrote a treatise on siege warfare (Buch von den probierten Künsten) and artillery that circulated widely in manuscript, but was not published in print until 1625.
Detail from Folger Shakespeare Library, V.b.311, f. 129r
So what does Helm actually say about these explosive animals? Are there rockets involved at all? In the text accompanying the images is a section entitled: “To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise,” in which he details how to use doves and cats loaded with flammable devices to set fire to enemy positions. For cats, the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes within a besieged city and set fire to them. In my awkward translation:
“Create a small sack like a fire-arrow … bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it…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.”
There’s no way to know if Helm himself or any early modern armies ever employed this method of pyrotechnic warfare, but strangely enough the idea of using cats and birds in just this way appears in historical texts (not to mention the bible) from many disparate regions of the world including Russia, Scandinavia, and ancient South Asia, and as recently as World War II armies plotted to use similar animals as explosive devices.
For more on these 16th century rocket animals,
check out this article by Mitch Fraas on the Penn Libraries' Unique at Penn blog, which explores some of the fascinating objects in the Penn Libraries.
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