Although the use of animals in warfare is widespread and well-documented, these medieval images have caught the collective imagination. A video (below) has been making the rounds in the last day or so based on a set of images originally posted in November, 2012 on the BibliOdyssey blog: Early Explosives: Grenades, projectiles, fireworks and offensive weaponry illustrations from a 16th century German manuscript. hat post led to the involvement of Mitch Fraas, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania; he did some research into the subject and found similar images elsewhere, and information on what was actually going on.
Turns out the manuscript was actually a guide to siege warfare, and those be-backpacked kitties are meant to burn down hard-to-access castles and the like, dying in the process. Considering, for example, the section titled “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.
'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.'"
The extract from the Russian Primary Chronicle describing the actions of Olga of Kiev (c.945 CE) is particularly striking:
“Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Upon their receipt, her men attached rags dipped in sulphur to the feet of each bird. When the birds returned to their nests, they lit the city on fire and the Derevlians perished in their homes.Olga’s vengeance was now complete.” The Russian Primary chronicle : Laurentian text, (Mediaeval Academy of America,1953), p.81.
Original set of images from BibliOdyssey, and they have several more.
Ms. Codex 109 ('Feuer Buech' or 'Feuerwerkbuch' -Fireworks Book) is an anonymous paper manuscript of ~230 leaves, including more than 30 colour sketches, hosted online in full by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.
Additional coverage at Atlas Obscura, the Associated Press and an essay from Ben Breen at the Appendix.