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Medieval Animal Court Trials

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A pig in the dock was not an unusual sight in the Middle Ages, particularly in France and Switzerland. Almost every member of the animal kingdom suffered the sanctions of the law if found guilty of a crime. In court, animals facing charges were treated in the same way as humans springing from a belief that animals understood the concept of morality.

Why Were Animals Put on Trial?

Some historians lean on Christianity as an explanation for judicial proceedings against animals. There was a deep belief in society that the affairs of the world were divinely ordered. Any disturbance of God’s plan had to be corrected and a public event, such as a trial of the alleged disruptor, might have been seen as a clear demonstration to the deity about humanity’s faith in his blessed hierarchy.

Before the enclosure of land from the 13th century onwards, animals wandered freely and grazed on the commons. The authorities might have seen a misbehaving sheep as an opportunity to set an example. If the sheep was convicted and hanged from a gallows it sent a clear message to other owners to keep your beasts under control. But, a swift execution without a trial would accomplish the same goal.

Historian Joyce E. Salisbury puts forward the idea that people began to identify closely with animals. There were fables about critters behaving in human ways and pictures were created with birds and dogs dressed in human clothes. Such depictions suggest a belief that animals possessed rationality; that they could make behavioural choices just as humans do. Make a bad decision and you get punished.

Finally, there is the cynical suggestion that as the practice of law expanded lawyers needed to find employment. But, it’s hard to see how a rooster could compensate his advocate. Anyway, lawyers would never stoop to such behaviour. Would they?

Animals anthropomorphized.

Animals anthropomorphized.

Herds of Miscreant Swine

More than any other animal, pigs found themselves facing the stern majesty of the law. Edmund P. Evans gave us The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906. In the book he wrote “The frequency with which pigs were brought to trial and adjudged to death, was owing, in a great measure, to the freedom with which they were permitted to run about the streets and to their immense number.”

This takes us to the French village of Savigny in 1457. A sow and her six piglets attacked and killed a five-year-old boy. James McWilliams, (Slate) tells us what followed was not a show trial: “this was the real deal, equipped with a judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses, and a defense attorney for the accused swine.”

The case was a slam dunk, and the sow was executed. The piglets walked free.

Hogs run amok in a village.

Hogs run amok in a village.

Earlier, in 1386, in Falaise, France, a porker was convicted of a similar offence. The locals obviously wanted to give the hog a proper send off, so, as The Medevialists reports “the beast was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, pair of drawers and a human mask on her head, and was chained up before it was hanged (below).”

The Excommunication of Vermin

It wasn’t just criminal horses, donkeys, bulls, and the like that faced judgement; flies, wasps, rats, and weevils were encouraged to behave or be pulled into ecclesiastical courts.

Jean Rohin, Cardinal Bishop of Autun, France got more than a tiny bit annoyed with some slugs. In 1487, the clergyman was informed the pests were laying waste to some estates in his diocese.

The bishop ordered three processions to take place in each parish during which the slugs were informed they weren’t welcome and had better leave or suffer the wrath of the Almighty. The warning was clearly spelled out: “if they (the slugs) do not heed this our command, we excommunicate them and smite them with our anathema.”

“You’re under arrest. Please come along quietly.”

“You’re under arrest. Please come along quietly.”

The slugs, having a very limited amount of cognition, did not leave as ordered and found themselves banned from access to the Sacred Sacraments.

Perhaps unaware of John Rohin’s failure to evict the slugs, an official in Troyes tried the same strategy in 1516 with regard to certain insects. The same unsatisfactory outcome ensued.

Read More From Owlcation

Three years later, a mischief of mice fell afoul of the law for damaging crops by their tunnelling. The trial in Stelvio in what is now Italy found the rodents guilty and banished them from the community. But, medieval justice was not always heartless, pregnant mice and infants were given two weeks to pack up and leave.

Counsel for the Defence

In the sixteenth-century, Barthélemy de Chasseneuz developed quite a reputation as a defence lawyer for animals.

The learned advocate appeared for the defence in the case of the state versus a colony of rats. We are back in Autun in 1508, where the rodents were accused of devouring barley crops. The local priest commanded that the rats appear before le tribunal ecclesisatique d’Autun to answer for their crimes.

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, of necessity working pro bono, argued that his rodent clients should not be forced to attend the court. To order them to court would expose them to great danger as they would have to run the gauntlet of the village’s dogs and cats and many of them might be killed.

The law was quite clear; no defendant could be compelled to appear in court if such compulsion placed the defendant’s life in jeopardy.

Duhaime’s Encyclopedia of Law records that “Although there is no clear record of the final disposition of the case, legal historians are all of a like mind in proclaiming that the rats must have been acquitted.”

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz.

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1916, a circus came to the town of Kingsport, Tennessee. Walter “Red” Eldridge, largely untrained in animal handling, was riding atop the elephant known as “Big Mary.” Eldridge beat the pachyderm with a hooked stick angering it. There are various versions of what followed but they all end with Big Mary killing Eldridge. The people of Kingsport demanded justice. Using a 100-ton crane, and with a chain around her neck, Big Mary was hanged in front of an appreciative crowd.
  • In 1986, villagers in Malaysia beat a dog to death. The people believed the hound was part of a gang of criminals who could change themselves into dogs
  • In 2004, a brown bear named Ekaterina began serving a 15-year sentence in a prison in Kazakhstan. She had mauled two people at a campsite and was locked up in a penal colony that housed many dangerous offenders. She was released and sent to live in a zoo in what are described as “almost natural conditions.”

Sources

  • “The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages.” Joyce Salisbury, Routledge, 2011.
  • “Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them.” Matt Simon, Wired, September 24, 2014.
  • “Beastly Justice.” James McWilliams, Slate, February 21, 2013.
  • “Medieval Animal Trials.” Medevialists.net, undated.
  • “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.” E.P. Evans, William Heinemann, 1906.
  • “The Truth and Myth Behind Animal Trials in the Middle Ages.” Eric Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura, August 10, 2015.
  • “1508: The Trial of the Autun Rats.” Duhaime’s Encyclopedia of Law, August 4, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 12, 2021:

And, there's a fair number of "people" who believe the Democrats run a Satan-worshiping pedophile ring.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 12, 2021:

Rupert, this all sounds so ridiculous to me. Why on earth would people think they can put animals on trial?! Were they that ignorant? What boggles my mind is it was still being practiced in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries! Wow!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 08, 2021:

Hi Peggy. I held off posting this because I didn't want readers to think it was an April Fool's joke. These trials really did happen. Amazing isn't it?

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 08, 2021:

Wow! It is hard to believe that such trials and punishments took place. Amazing!

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