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Animal Trials

Updated: Feb 16

Everyone is supposed to be equal before the law but in years gone by, this equality apparently extended to animals as well. It sounds farcical but the legal systems of the time took it very seriously. Read our article to find out how courtrooms became farmyards in the Middle Ages.

If you were attacked and badly bitten by a dog, you might expect it to be detained by the police and possibly euthanised. However, you might be surprised if the dog was taken to court and had its own lawyer appointed.

Yet an examination of historical records shows that in ages past, animals were indeed put on trial, often for charges as serious as murder. We might laugh about this today but the consequences for the luckless animal might be ghastly in the extreme. Many of the cases seem to involve pigs; this is probably due to the fact that there were so many of them and they were allowed to wander freely in the streets.

In 1494, a young pig was arrested for the crime of having “strangled and defaced a child in its cradle”. Several witnesses testified that “on the morning of Easter Day, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the pig entered the house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child.”

The judge examined the evidence and sentenced the pig to be “mangled and maimed in the head forelegs”, and then – dressed up in a jacket and breeches for some unknown reason – to be hanged from a gallows in the market square.

In 1457, a sow was convicted of murder and sentenced to be “hanged by the hind feet from a gallows tree”. Her piglets, which had been with her and so were stained with the victim’s blood, were included in the trial as her accomplices. However, there was no evidence against them and so, because of their age, they were acquitted.

Almost a century earlier, another pig had been sentenced to death for wandering into a church and helping itself to a consecrated communion wafer.

These court cases were conducted against single pigs but on September 5, 1379, at a French monastery, a herd of pigs suddenly became agitated and turned on a man called Perrinot Muet, killing him. The pigs – both the ones that had committed the crime and those who had looked on were tried and sentenced to death. It was claimed that the onlookers had “approved of the assault with their cries and aggressive actions” and therefore, as far as the court could see, should share the punishment of the pigs that had actually killed Muet.

However, the thought of losing the entire herd of pigs horrified the monastery’s prior and he wrote to the Duke of Burgundy, pleading for him to pardon the onlookers. The Duke agreed with him and ordered that the sentence should be remitted and the pigs released.

Another animal that was seemingly ubiquitous in the Middle Ages was the rat, and needless to say, they had their day in court too. In 1522, in the town of Autun in Burgundy, Bartholomew Chassenée made his reputation at the bar as the lawyer charged with the defence of a pack of rats, which had been “feloniously eating up and wantonly destroying the barley-crop”.

Oddly enough, the rats did not turn up to court on the appointed day. Chassenée managed to make use of his legal knowledge to have them forgiven of such an oversight. He pointed out that they had probably not received the summons, since rats moved from place to place and that, even if they had got the summons, they would have been too fearful to come to court since they were in danger of being attacked and eaten by their mortal enemies, cats.

Chassenée used an existing law which allowed somebody summoned to court to legally refuse if he were unable to do so in safety. The judge took Chassenée’s point, and as he could not persuade the villagers to keep their cats indoors, had to dismiss the case.

Sometimes, a good character witness could make all the difference in a trial. In 1750 a man and a female donkey were caught in flagrante delicto. The prosecution demanded that both of them should be sentenced to death for the crime. The man was duly tried, found guilty and sentenced as requested, but the donkey was acquitted on the grounds that she was the victim of violence and had been forced to participate in the crime. The local priest said that he had known the donkey for four years and that she had always been virtuous and well-behaved, never having been involved in any scandal before this. He was therefore willing to testify that she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.”

It was not always necessary for the full majesty of the law to become involved. Rats, for instance, were often sent “a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable.”

On occasion, a well-timed appeal might bear fruit; a sow and a female donkey were sentenced to be hanged after a trial but on appeal, and after retrial, their sentences were reduced to being knocked on the head.

Animals were sometimes punished for what might seem quite trivial crimes; at the end of the tenth century AD, the Bishop of Trier, plagued by the chattering of swallows in the roof of his cathedral anathematised the birds, forbidding them to enter the building on pain of death.

A particular pest in 16th-century France’s agricultural economy was the weevil and in 1545, the wine-growing village of St Julien, ten miles from Bordeaux, suffered a particularly virulent infestation. A proclamation was made, calling for public prayers, repentance from sins and a call for the weevils to depart. They duly left.

Thirty two years later, they were back and this time, public prayer was inefficacious. The village was obliged to take the weevils to court. On April 13th, 1587, the trial began. A lawyer named Antoine Filliol was assigned as the weevils’ public defender. His argument was that God had put the weevils on earth and had provided sustenance for them to survive. That sustenance, in this case, he argued, was the local vineyard.

The villagers tried to find a compromise and selected another area of land nearby to which the weevils could move, designating it officially the territory of the weevils. However, Filliol said, on behalf of his clients, that he could not accept the offer since the land was sterile and did not have enough food for the weevils to feed. The prosecution disagreed, saying that the area was full of trees and shrubs which weevils were known to favour.

This thrilling legal banter went on until the judge came to his decision – eight months after the trial began. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what that decision was because the last page of the court records has since been destroyed – by insects. The weevils, it seems, had the last laugh.

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