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Why Do 16th-Century Manuscripts Show Cats With Flaming Backpacks?

Illustrations in 16th-century artillery manuals show how to use cats to attack a city.

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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.

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.

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...

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