One of the gaming blogs I read is the typically-NSFW Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Pornstars, written by Zak Smith. He’s got a very good article on The Toast today: German Rocket Cats: A Meditation.
German Rocket Cats are one of those things that come from a Renaissance manuscript and most people don’t think they’re real. In fact, the name is kind of a misnomer: the idea is that you strap an incendiary device to a cat, which then runs off and does what cats do, i.e. make a little nest for itself in a heap of straw, and hey presto the enemy castle or town burns down. It’s just the kind of mix of pointless cruelty and impracticality that smacks of urban legend. But it’s still interesting.
Now, if you have read a lot of post-medieval scientific texts, you will find some funny shit in them. For instance, consider this advice from 17th-century physician Jan Baptist van Helmont:
Carve an indentation in a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and cover the brick with another, so that the indentation is completely sealed. Expose the two bricks to sunlight, and you will find that within a few days, fumes from the basil, acting as a leavening agent, will have transformed the vegetable matter into veritable scorpions.
Now, it is perfectly obvious that this is not the case, and yet Helmont wrote it down and printed it, so we can be reasonably sure that just because someone thought of something doesn’t mean they ever put it into practice — since even a cursory examination would ruin Van Helmont’s scorpion factory concept.
Now, in his article Smith cites a bunch of other instances of animals being used in warfare, including the ol’ Roman flaming pig:
Or the incendiary sparrow strategy legendarily deployed by Saint Olga.
Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.
And again, whether it’s true or not, I think it’s important. In short: people will write crazy stuff down even if it’s completely untrue, but people will do barbaric shit, even if it’s a terrible and impractical idea. Which is kinda sorta what Smith is saying in his article, but he does a much better job of it.
Here is a Soviet anti-tank dog from WWII: