Explosive Cats Imagined in a Strange, 16th Century Military Manual


Paw prints and feline urine stains on a medieval scribe’s man­u­script, per­haps they weren’t entire­ly out of the ordi­nary in the 15th cen­tu­ry. But cats strapped to mini-pow­der kegs, bound­ing off to burn down a town — now that’s pret­ty unusu­al.

The incen­di­ary feline fea­tured above (and else­where on this page) comes from a dig­i­tized ver­sion of an ear­ly 16th cen­tu­ry mil­i­tary man­u­al writ­ten by Franz Helm. An artillery mas­ter, Helm wrote about a broad and imag­i­na­tive set of destruc­tive ideas for siege war­fare. Although my Ger­man is some­what rusty, I got the sense that he was awful­ly fond of explod­ing sacks, bar­rels, and var­i­ous oth­er recep­ta­cles, and even­tu­al­ly decid­ed to com­bine these ideas with an unwit­ting ani­mal deliv­ery sys­tem. These ani­mals, accord­ing to Helm’s guide, would allow a com­man­der to “set fire to a cas­tle or city which you can’t get at oth­er­wise.”


The text was orig­i­nal­ly dig­i­tized by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and a UPenn his­to­ri­an named Mitch Fraas decid­ed to take a clos­er look at this strange explod­ing cat busi­ness. Accord­ing to Fraas, the accom­pa­ny­ing text reads:

“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.”

That’s the mil­i­tary strat­e­gy in a nut­shell. Seems like a great idea, apart from the fact that cats are noto­ri­ous­ly unpre­dictable. In any case, it’s Fri­day, so here are more illus­tra­tions of weaponized cats to round out your work week.


For more of Helm’s work, head on over to Penn in Hand: Select­ed Man­u­scripts.

via Nation­al Post

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman, or read more of his writ­ing at the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

How to Pot­ty Train Your Cat: A Handy Man­u­al by Charles Min­gus

Humans Fall for Opti­cal Illu­sions, But Do Cats?

Thomas Edison’s Box­ing Cats (1894), or Where the LOL­Cats All Began

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Comments (4)
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  • Nicholas Kronos says:

    Mis­lead­ing head­line, as the cats weren’t pre­sumed to fly through the air, per the illus­tra­tion and the text (“runs to the near­est cas­tle or town”). Nor are they “jet packs.” As far as mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, Sam­son did some­thing sim­i­lar well before the 16th Cen­tu­ry. See Judges 15:4–5.

  • Jan Wolitzky says:

    By chang­ing a sin­gle let­ter, we can go from a medieval fan­ta­sy cat bomb to an actu­al U.S. World War II weapon pro­gram, the bat bomb. See . Same basic idea.

  • Jan Wolitzky says:

    That last com­ment was sup­posed to include a line to the Wikipedia “Bat bomb” page. I also note birds with “jet packs” in the pic­tures above. Even more sim­i­lar to the U.S. bat bombs.

  • Karen Metschuleit says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry, but the image labelled “fig z” is not in the ref­er­enced doc­u­ment. I’ve down­loaded two ver­sions of the Helm book scans and gone through each page by page. The black/white draw­ing is a dif­fer­ent style, and is obvi­ous­ly cropped from a large image. In some oth­er exam­ples the bot­tom of a horse’s feet can be seen above the cat. Can any­one shed light on the source of this cropped image? I want to see the horse ver­sion of the jet-pack …

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