Incendiary Bats, Rocket Cats: Military Strategists Will Dream of Attaching Firepower to Anything That Moves

In 16th century manuscripts, drawings of feline grenades

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Rocket cat and rocket bird, Buch von den probierten Künsten, Franz Helm, c 1535. Franz Helm / Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

For the past year or so, the curious tale of the rocket cats has been spreading far and wide. The Associated Press today picked up the story of how, in the pages of a 16th century text, a book blogger found a curious image of a cat with a rocket strapped to its back.

We've written before about the strange doodles that would sometimes appear in medieval marginalia—where knights have an odd propensity for pursuing combat with ferocious giant snails. But the explosive cat is something different: the fiery feline, and others like it, are not side-of-the-page doodles, but full-page illustrations.

One example (above), says UPenn, dates to around the year 1535. Other cats, similarly depicted, appeared in other works from around the same time. But the cat above wasn't just a fanciful daydream of a Franz Helm of Cologne, the German artillery master who penned the book, says UPenn. Rather, the cat was a strategy:

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”. This section details how to use doves and cats loaded with flammable devices to set fire to enemy positions. On cats the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes and set fire to them. In my awkward translation:

“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."

According to the Associated Press, there doesn't seem to be any “evidence that cats and birds were used in early modern warfare in the way prescribed by Helm.”

"Sort of a harebrained scheme," he said. "It seems like a really terrible idea, and very unlikely the animals would run back to where they came from. More likely they'd set your own camp on fire."

So maybe medieval German soldiers weren't using cats as mobile grenades. Even if they were, though, that probably wouldn't be the weirdest way people have harnessed other species to fight our fights: flaming camels, bomb-carrying dogs, mine-detecting dolphins and incendiary bats have all had their day.

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