In A Nutshell
An amazing, and seemingly superstitious, part of the legal systems throughout the medieval period in Europe involved the question of how animals should be treated by the law. Animals of all kinds, from pigs to birds to insects, were sometimes put on trial—just like people. A fascinating 1906 book, called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, gives us a window into this little-known aspect of the medieval world, where animals were granted public defenders and legal papers were left where they would conveniently find them.
The Whole Bushel
Medieval animal trials mostly took place in Western Europe and from the late medieval to early modern period. To understand this practice, it’s useful to know how legal proceedings involving animals were separated. Domesticated animals—considered members of their owner’s household—were handled by civil authorities, while vermin (who could not be seized and imprisoned) were dealt with by the church.
In the latter cases, animals “appeared” before ecclesiastical courts, who determined a course of action. For example, was a locust swarm was an act of God (not to be interfered with) or possession by demons or evil spirits? If an animal tried by the Church was involved in murder, it was turned over to secular courts if guilty, the way heretics were.
Since possession was part of the typical worldview among medieval men and women, it isn’t surprising that this was reflected in legal proceedings.
Animal prosecution had connections to scripture based upon Old Testament admonitions to stone oxen that had killed (Exodus 21:28), but there were also secular factors. Because they were a part of daily life, medieval law had to determine how animals fit into a legal framework, how disputes involving animals were resolved, how victims of someone’s animal were compensated, and so on. Many trials were attempts by institutions to assert order and keep control.
One 1386 trial involved a sow accused of murder. The pig had partially eaten a child who was sleeping, who died thereafter. Found guilty, it has been said that the sow was dressed in male clothing, given an armed escort, and was mutilated with a knife before being hung, although there is no evidence for the embellishments beyond the fact of the execution.
Another case involved Bartholomew Chassenee, an important legal figure in French law. He defended the rats of Auten, who were devastating crops. Chassenee hit upon a brilliant argument for the rat’s failure to show in court, and it formed the basis for legal standards in use today.
Chassenee argued that the “non-appearance of his clients [should be excused] . . . on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey, and the serious perils that attended it, owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”
Chassenee used variations of this defense to successfully defend human clients.
Bizarrely, rats and other vermin were sometimes served a “writ of ejection.” To ensure that the papers were perused by rodents, they were greased (to provide an attractive odor), rolled up, and placed within rat holes. This practice continued throughout Europe and parts of the United States until at least 1892.
Sometimes, simple revenge against animals was to blame. Egbert, Bishop of Trier, issued an anathema against swallows because they had a habit of “chirping and chattering, and [they] sacrilegiously defiled his head and vestments with their droppings when he was officiating at the altar.”
Superstition was a factor, as when roosters were accused of laying eggs. In 1474, a rooster was actually executed for this crime.
One of the longest animal trials documented was brought before Francois Bonnivard against a species of green weevil, which was devastating vineyards throughout a region of France. The defense maintained that, as God created all things, and supplied food not just for humans, but also for animals, the court must consider the insect’s affairs.
The Church decided to exorcise the insects and insisted that villagers help maintain harmony (and pay their tithes). According to accounts, the insects departed.
Here the Church used the animal world and the law to exert control and influence over earthly affairs, including filling the holy coffers.
But 30 years later, the insects returned. This time, the case went to trial. The defense remained, but the plaintiff insisted that the land and lower creatures were subordinate to man and that it was therefore permissible to order them off land set aside for his use. After a drawn-out case, a plot was picked for the weevils’ use—if the advocate approved.
Unfortunately, the advocate wasn’t satisfied. How did it end? We don’t know. The last pages of the documentation were eaten by insects!