The bizarre medieval trials against animals5 min read
Even if it might seem bizarre to modern observers, animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe. Pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs that allegedly broke the law were routinely subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans, in a court of law, where they were treated as persons.
The history of animal trials has its roots in the Low Middle Ages, and saw a series of “beasts” being judged, in some cases executed, according to the normal human laws. From the thirteenth century until the eighteenth century there were several cases of animals brought into the courtroom.
All kinds of creatures, from farm animals to insects, found themselves in the presence of judges and juries of human persons, questioned about specific events. Although it may seem utterly incredible, the “animal proofs” were considered reliable by several national legislative systems until about the end of the 18th century.
The first testimony of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. The accused animals were presented in religious courts or in front of a secular court, with charges ranging from voluntary murder to damage.
Human beings also participated in the trials as witnesses. The animals were provided with regular lawyers in the religious courts, while in the secular ones they did not enjoy this privilege (like the equal human defendants who could not afford the lawyer).
In a 1379 case, also in France, the son of a swine keeper was attacked and killed by two herds of swine. The court determined that one herd initiated the attack while the other joined in afterward. The judge sentenced both herds to death because their evident cries of enthrallment during the melee were said to confirm their expressed approval of it, whether they were directly responsible or not. A sow hanged in 1567 was convicted not only for assaulting a 4-month-old girl, but for doing so with extra “cruelty.”
In the fall of 1457, villagers in Savigny, France witnessed a sow and six piglets attack and kill a 5-year-old boy. Today, the animals would be summarily killed. But errant 15th-century French pigs went to court. And it wasn’t for a show trial, but was the reality: a trial equipped with a judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses, and a defense attorney for the accused swine. Witness testimony proved beyond reasonable doubt that the sow had killed the child. The piglets’ role, however, was ambiguous. Although splattered with blood, they were never seen directly attacking the child. The judge sentenced the sow to be hanged by her hind feet from a “gallows tree.” The piglets, by contrast, were absolved.
Below, an illustration from the Chambers Book of Days depicting the sow and her piglets on trial:
The animal could be condemned or acquitted, and the penalty was often exile or death. Some animals, despite not being able to defend themselves, still managed to win their freedom through a legal process. In 1750, a man and a she-ass landed in court for alleged bestiality. The man was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. The she-ass, however, was exonerated because the townspeople submitted a document to the court noting that the animal was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.” This popular assessment led the jury to conclude that the ass was the innocent victim of a violent and deviant master. Only domesticated animals were subject to such character examinations—the expectation being that, living among humans, they better understood the difference between right and wrong. When pigs behaved badly in the courtroom, such as by grunting loudly in the prisoner’s box, this lack of composure could count against them during sentencing.
For more on these and other animal trials, see legal scholar Jen Girgen’s fascinating “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals”, or in “The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama” by Sadakat Kadri. In Kadri’s book, the scholar explains how the subjects at trial were not only animals, but also corpses or inanimate objects, and the scholar maintains that there is an echo in the modern jurisprudence of some countries that sees the punishment of children or people mentally incapacitated.
Below: an illustration from Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel, from the early 14th century, which shows the execution of some animals for the act of “non-assistance”. A woman had been raped and her house destroyed, but according to the court the animals should have protected the woman and the home:
The animals put on trial were almost always domestic (most often pigs, but also bulls, horses and cows) or parasites such as rats and bedbugs. The creatures that were suspected of being accomplices in “bestial” acts suffered the condemnation, which could have been the fire or the beheading, even if few were really executed.
People that lived in preindustrial agrarian societies interacted almost constantly with domesticated animals. Seventeenth-century farming account books suggest that farmers of that era spent up to 16 hours a day observing and caring for domesticated beasts. They watched these animals make choices, respond to human directives, engage in social relationships, and distinguish themselves as individuals with unique personalities. Also the modern field of animal ethology confirms that farm animals, especially pigs, are fiercely smart.
According to Johannis Gross in his “Kurze Basler Chronik”, dated 1624, in 1474 a rooster was put on trial for “an odious crime against nature” for laying an egg. The whole country was interested in the case, and the rooster accused of having been begotten by Satan and containing a Basilisk.
The werewolves who ended up on trial were innumerable during the history and were numerous the condemned of lycanthropy, particularly in the sixteenth century in France. Obviously the accused was a human being, but his being suspected of “lycanthropy” made him rise to an animal defendant.
However, there is something fundamentally wrong with our prejudistes about animal trials. Medieval Europeans gave animal the benefit of the doubt, and today we condemn billions of animals to conditions that amount to torture without a trial. Which practice really makes less sense?
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