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Medieval Court Cases: Animals On Trial?

In Medieval times, Europeans put animals that had committed crimes on trial, often providing them with all the same rights as people, including the right to a lawyer and a fair trial. While the punishments seem harsh to us today, keep in mind that humans were given the exact same treatment. Read all the way to the bottom to see a list of weird court cases against animals. — Global Animal 

Photo Credit: TYWKIWDBI

Library Index, The History of Human-Animal Interaction – The Medieval Period

One of the most bizarre human-animal trends of all recorded history took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. This was the formal prosecution of animals accused of committing crimes against people. Animals charged with such crimes (usually murder) were brought to court, appointed a lawyer, and tried, just as a person would be. Records show that hundreds of animals were found guilty and then executed by hanging.

In the 1994 article “The Law Is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals” (Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, published by the organization Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Piers Beirne described the practice in detail.

The article reviewed books on the subject by several authors, focusing on one written by E. P. Evans in 1906. Evans described 191 animal trials, mostly from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Most of the trials took place in France, Italy, and Germany. There are also a few historical records of trials in other European countries and in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Animals were tried for a variety of offenses besides murder, mostly fraud and theft. Records show that many were tortured for confessions (just as humans were) prior to the trial. It is not clear how animal confessions were interpreted, considering that animals cannot speak human languages.

Criminal proceedings against animals were handled with the utmost seriousness by medieval legal authorities. Animals that harmed humans were considered servants of the devil because they had violated God’s directive in the Bible that humans should have dominion over animals. A particular Bible verse, Exodus 21:28, was often cited as the grounds for executing an animal convicted of murder: “If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten.” The penalties for offenses less serious than murder matched those given to humans for the same types of crimes.

Evans listed a variety of domestic and wild animals, as well as rodents, sea creatures, birds, and insects, that were tried at various times by government or church courts. Those that could not be physically brought to court were tried in absentia. In general, only the larger domestic animals, such as pigs, bulls, cows, horses, sheep, and dogs, actually appeared in court and were subjected to punishments. A few animals were found innocent or granted pardons or reprieves by authorities. Many wild animals found guilty by church courts were excommunicated (exiled from the church).

The vast majority of criminal defendants were pigs, probably because farmers allowed them to roam free much of the time. In 1386 a pig accused of murdering an infant was tried and convicted by a court in Falaise, France. The pig was hanged at the gallows by the village hangman. Her six piglets were charged with being accessories to the crime but were acquitted “on account of their youth and their mother’s bad example.”

A lawyer could establish his reputation by performing well in animal trials. In France in the early 1500s, a lawyer named Bartholomé Chassenée was appointed to represent some rats that had eaten and destroyed some barley (a felony). Chassenée used a series of clever legal maneuvers to delay the trial as long as possible. At one point he convinced the judge that it was too dangerous for his clients to come to court on the appointed day because of the many cats in the neighborhood. Chassenée became famous throughout France for his excellent legal skills.

It is not clear why medieval courts went to the trouble to formally try animals before executing them. Some historians believe that these trials were intended to be warnings to animals and people about the consequences of their actions. Others believe the trials represented a philosophical desire to exert some human control over nature.

Read on to see a list of strange animals court cases. — Global Animal

Purple Slinky, S. Hayes

Pig

The Plaintiff: French Family

The Defendant: A Pig

The Charge: The pig was accused with unauthorised entry a house whereupon the pig did willfully disfigure the face of a child, as a result of these injuries the child then departed this life.

The Verdict: Guilty – The pig failed to adequately defend itself in court.

Punishment: Death by Hanging

Caterpillars

The Plaintiff: The Grand Vicar of Valence, France

The Defendant: Caterpillars

The Charge: The caterpillars were willfully causing destruction of the Grand Vicar’s crops. Failure of the caterpillars to appear in the dock in accordance with the Court Order meant that a lawyer had to be appointed by the court to defend them.

The Verdict: Guilty as charged (the appointed lawyer failed to make a good case on the caterpillar’s behalf)

Punishment: Banishment from the Diocese.

Rats

The Plaintiff: Barley Growers of Autun, France

The Defendant: Rats

The Charge: Burglary of barley – When the impudent rats failed to appear in court, a young lawyer by the name of Chassenee was appointed to defend the rodents. He was determined to make a name for himself in court – Chassenee first argued that the case involved all the rats in diocese, therefore they must ALL appear in the dock – when they failed to appear in accordance with their summons, he argued that under the law, the rats were entitled to protection to and from court, so not appeared as they were scared of being caught by wild cats on route to court.

The Verdict: Unknown – (but every felon wanted to hire Chassenee)

Weevils

The Plaintiff: Vineyard Growers – St Julien, France

The Defendant: Weevils

The Charge: Destruction of Vines / Grapes

The Verdict: Guilty – A proclamation was issued by the Judge that the offending Weevils must desist their illegal activities with immediate effect.

Punishment: None (as amazingly the weevils disappeared)

Mosquitoes

The Plaintiff: The People of Mayenne – France

The Defendant: Mosquitoes

The Charge: Causing a public nuisance by swarming and biting

The Verdict: Not Guilty (the mosquitoes failed to appear in court and a lawyer was appointed who pleaded such a convincing case, that the townsfolk took pity on the flying nuisances).

Rooster

The Plaintiff: The City of Basal, Switzerland

The Defendant: A Rooster

The Charge: Indulging in Sorcery – based upon the fact that it laid eggs – and an egg laid by a rooster is prized by sorcerers

The Verdict: Guilty as charged

Punishment: Death – by burning at the stake.

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