Did the Middle Age tradition of throwing of the cats from the belfry in Yipes Town Square symbolize killing evil spirits? Or was it way to just get the cats out of the tower once they had completed their job of rodent control?
These are two of the legends that surround the ‘throwing of the cats’, a part of Belgium’s Yipes Kattenstoet, otherwise known as the Festival of the Cats.
Throwing cats from the belfry tower of Cloth Hall is a tradition that took hold in the Middle Ages, and lived on until 1817. Many Europeans did believe that cats were intertwined with witchcraft – whether as companions to the witches, or as an actual incarnate of the witch. The European church cracked down on witchcraft, and with that, the connection of any cats’ connection with sorcery came into question. Cats were executed in-mass in various parts of the continent.
Today, this celebration is re-created by throwing stuffed animals from the tower. The celebration, held once every 3 years, is not held around Halloween. It is held the first Saturday in May, and in 2015, the 44th event is set for May 10. It has been held regularly on the second Sunday of May since 1955.
The Festival includes a huge parade commemorating this celebration, taking in everything cat. It’s not designed to be something that would hurt cats, as spectators stand with hands stretching into the sky, hoping to catch one of the stuffed cats.
A more subdued legend has it that the cats were brought to Cloth Hall (Lakenhallen) to control
vermin. Ypres was a cloth city and the cloth industry was big business. The wool, imported from England, was stored in the Cloth halls until it was sold to the artisans. After the wool was processed into cloth, it returned to the halls where it remained until it was time for the annual fair.
Wool was stored in the upper floors, and the cats kept the rodents at bay. Once spring took hold and the wool was gone, legend says the cats were tossed out of the belfry. Perhaps, as cats can be very prolific, and multiply profusely, there were just way too many cats.
The earliest descriptions of cat throwing is found documented from 1410-1420. linking the cat throwing with the Ascension fair that was in existence back in 1127. After the fair was moved to the second week of the Lent in 1476, the cats were thrown on ‘Cats’ Wednesday’. According to the Kattenstoet website, it is believed the cats may have been first thrown off the St Martin’s church. From 1231 on, they were thrown from the Belfry tower.
Today, a jester symbolically tosses children’s toy cats from the Cloth Hall belfry down to the crowd, which awaits with outstretched arms to catch one. The throwing of the cats from the belfry is followed by a mock witch burning. Participants in the festivities often dress as cats, witches, mice, or people from medieval times. The festival also features brass bands and people riding on horseback.
This event is designed to be fun and bring in cat lovers from around the world. We take pause, and are thankful, this event is held in the spring, and not around Halloween.
If you had a chance, would you visit the Festival of the Cats? It does sound like fun, that is, if we get beyond any actual hurt that might have once come to the kitties tossed from the tower. Do you suppose any of them thought, the cats had 9-lives, and would land on their feet, pawing their way to another ‘more desirable’ home?