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Photo of an illustration of a rocket cat and a castle.

A cat and bird wearing flaming packs attack a city under siege in this illustration from a 1584 artillery manual, or feuerwerkbuch, housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Photograph by Matt Rourke, AP

Brad Scriber

National Geographic

Published March 10, 2014

A series of 16th-century manuscripts that have been making waves on the Internet look like a Monty Python version of the Renaissance: They show cats outfitted with flaming backpacks, attacking castles and villages.

But the illustrations are legit. They're intended to show how cats and birds could in theory be used to set fire to a besieged city, according to a University of Pennsylvania scholar.

Mitch Fraas, scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania—the university digitized the manuscripts last year—says that the drawings are from artillery manuals and are accompanied by notes explaining how to use animals as incendiary devices.

Detail of an illustration of a rocket cat and a bird with a rocket.
This 17th-century engraving shows that the idea of using cats as arsonists had staying power and was widespread.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT ROURKE, AP

Fraas translated from the original German:

"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 is skeptical that any army ever deployed what he calls a "pretty grisly" tactic: "It seems really hard to believe that would ever work."

 

The texts were likely expensive to create and were probably owned by nobility or others who were studying battle tactics and kept their books in a library, safe from conflict, Fraas said.

Surprisingly Common Idea

Fraas first heard about the cats when a friend alerted him to an Australian blog that had posted the peculiar images from Penn's digital collections last November.

Over the past three years Penn has digitized its collection of pre-1800 manuscripts and has shared them online for the public to browse.

Early modern and Renaissance manuscripts are rife with unusual doodles and unexpected marginalia, and Fraas said he "figured it was an idiosyncratic thing that a particular illustrator had drawn."

After getting the initial tip, Fraas turned to Twitter to see if he could find more explosive feline images. That unleashed more tips, which sent him hunting through more digital archives.

It turns out that pictures of explosive felines from the Renaissance are not all that uncommon.

Photo of a book with an illustration of a castle and a rocket cat.
Another cat and bird maraud inside a city in this manuscript, "Book of Instruction for a Cannon Master" from around 1590.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT ROURKE, AP

"It's a pretty stable form, and I think we've seen seven or eight instances of this illustration in manuscripts copied at various times over the 16th century," Fraas said.

Fiery attack cats and birds showed up in a number of hand-painted manuscript illustrations and also in etchings from volumes printed years later. "It's clearly something that had staying power," Fraas said.

And plans for deploying firebombs on animals were not limited to Europe.

"Over the past couple of days, I've gotten a lot of emails of people pulling examples out of history," Fraas said. "The folks in China and Japan have a long history of these manuals."

In the Chinese manuals, oxen and horses are the animal arsonists of choice.

The weaponized felines, for their part, have become known simply as "rocket cats" on the Internet.

"It sounds a little better than fire cat or cat with explosive sack," Fraas said.

Follow Brad Scriber on Twitter.

48 comments
Taku Notoda
Taku Notoda

I bet the inventors of these were sniffing glue until their brains turned to mush.

Cecil Cat
Cecil Cat

Yes! Flying felines armed with rocket packs soaring wildly just waiting to tag you! Renaissance attack cats! Scary, huh? Count me in! (No jokes about my weight, please...)

Matt Eggleston
Matt Eggleston

Sounds like where they got the idea for "bat bombs" in World War II. Small bombs or flares were attached to bats and released over targets, spreading fires all over the city.

Charles Damery
Charles Damery

In the 16th century, I suppose any kind of weapon was possible. Having lived in Europe and visited the castle ruins, they must have used some kind of strange weapons to defeat some of the strongholds.

Christopher R.
Christopher R.

"...explosive felines from the Renaissance are not all that uncommon." 

So there were numerous weirdos. I see....

s. gonzaga
s. gonzaga

not fond of cats but i guess it pretty sums up that be it in the old days or current have crazy ideas. some are good and some are just plain weird.

Andrew Gist
Andrew Gist

wow, and I thought we had weird ideas...

A. Law
A. Law

Cats with flaming backpacks...? COULD THESE BE THE ANCIENT ROOTS OF THE SACRED NYAN CAT?!!?    o(OAO;)o

David Feldenkris
David Feldenkris

CUZ IM A ROCKEEET CAAAAAAAAAAT. ROOOOOCKET CAAAAAAAAAAAAT!!

Bitcoin Rat
Bitcoin Rat

I can't stand Cats anyway ... so I'm quite pleased   tee hee

Alain Paul Dela Cruz
Alain Paul Dela Cruz

that's biblical. I just dont know where in the bible, but it is written and described in the Book. Lets go search for that in the bible...

Radhakrishnan Nair
Radhakrishnan Nair

In Ramayana, the author describes the 'Hanuman' burning the City of Lanka with a torch in its tail

Csimensis .
Csimensis .

Reminds me of that test we did during one of the world wars when we put cats inside of bombs and hooked them up to the controls thinking that the cats would try to avoid the ocean and steer the bombs towards enemy ships. Instead, the cats blacked out and the bombs missed.

Sam Eisenkraft
Sam Eisenkraft

 The Romans did similar with lighting greased pigs on fire to scare war elephants. Also the Russians during WW1 attached bombs to dogs and trained them to run under tanks (it quite literally backfired on the dog trainers). 

robbie butler
robbie butler

would be nice idea for someone attacking crimea and blowing up russians

Jean Roberts
Jean Roberts

I hope this doesn't give weirdos any ideas.

mao jason
mao jason

I don't under stand it....

why?

jan hamshaw
jan hamshaw

That would be so unpredictable it would probably run the other way

Tami Pixeltrash
Tami Pixeltrash

They tried to strap the contraption to the cat.  The cat won.

Barry Graves
Barry Graves

These people could dream up such feline/bird-powered widgets yet drank from the same water supply in which they also evacuated their worm-ridden bowels. Nice.

Paul Riedstra
Paul Riedstra

More like roasted cat than rocket cat.... LOL.. 

Suzanne Barnes
Suzanne Barnes

I am strongly reminded of the attack strategies thought up by one Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.....

Nick Westcott
Nick Westcott

In modern times, it is said that rats have been employed as fire bombers to burn down factories / warehouses for insurance claims. Tie a petrol-soaked rag to their tail, set it on fire and let them go!

LARRY MARTIN
LARRY MARTIN

Wow!  With those rocket packs strapped on, it looks like cats could actually have dog fights in mid air....

Elaine Young
Elaine Young

@Alain Paul Dela Cruz   4 Samson went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them together in pairs with oil-soaked rags around their tails.5 Then Samson took the foxes into the Philistine wheat fields that were ready to be harvested. He set the rags on fire and let the foxes go. The wheat fields went up in flames, and so did the stacks of wheat that had already been cut. Even the Philistine vineyards and olive orchards burnt Judges 15 ff

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