Animal Trials: The Quest for Order in a Chaotic World
Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny, c. 1889
by B. Alexandra Szerlip
In 1510, peasants in the French township of Autun complained to their local episcopal court that rats “had feloniously eaten and wantonly destroyed” the barley crop. The court, having agreed to hear the case, ordered that proclamations (complete with blaring trumpets) be made at various crossroads, requiring the rodents to appear before the bench on the appointed day (“to justify yourselves or answer for your conduct”). When they didn’t, the prosecutor called for judgment; under canonical law, such absence constituted powerful evidence of guilt. Instead, the court appointed the accused a lawyer. Just as it was “intolerable tyranny” to impose summary judgment on a human, so too it was considered unjust to deny due process to God’s lesser beings. Bartholomew Chassenee’s eloquent and tenacious defence would jumpstart his reputation as one of the country’s most distinguished jurists.
Chassenee argued that as every rodent in Autun was at risk, every single one was entitled to representation. And as they were spread out over great distances, the summons could not possibly have reached them all.
The court scheduled a retrial, ordering that a new summons to attend be disseminated, via sermons, from every pulpit in the town.
It’s unknown how long the reassembled petitioners, clerics and lawyers waited; not a single rat showed up. Ever vigilant, Chassenee claimed that his clients had not been given enough advanced warning. Beyond that, it was customary that no defendant be made to risk life or limb to appear; just as there were rats on every highway, so too were there cats. The summons had been ignored due to an understandable fear of being attacked en route.
Thus, Chassenee won his clients a second reprieve.
No record of the final verdict survives, but based on legal precedents, the odds are that the rats were condemned to perpetual banishment.
But in 1545, when grape-vine-loving weevils threatened the economy of the Alpine village of St Julien and the issue was brought to trial, things took a different turn. The judge cast an accusing finger at the petitioners. Quoting from Genesis (hadn’t God provided “every green herb” for the sustenance of “every thing that creepeth upon the earth”?), he recommended that the locals repent their sins and carry communion wafers to the afflicted vineyards according to a complex schedule the court devised. Clearly the scourge had been sent from Above as a sign of God’s displeasure. (Leprosy. The ten plagues let loose on Pharaoh’s Egypt. Same deal.) If the local curate’s records are to be believed, the populace complied, the weevils disappeared, and four decades of bountiful wine harvests followed.
In 1587, when the voracious pests reappeared, a new generation of villagers petitioned the court in the apparent belief that – having done all due diligence to the Almighty in the intervening decades, the inherent rights of God’s creeping insects notwithstanding – their village was being unjustly served.
As Weevil Trial: The Sequel dragged on, the plaintiff’s lawyers pushed for a settlement. The insects were offered an allegedly fertile tract of land, complete with renewable lease, with the caveat that St Julien’s bipeds could share its natural springs, claim any and all ocher deposits and, in case of war (the local Duke was busy preparing to invade nearby Saluzzo), seek shelter there.
This seemingly reasonable compromise was rejected, with considerable contempt, after experts (paid three florins to visit the offered site) revealed the parcel to be barren and incapable of sustaining the accused. At which point, principal advocate Pierre Rembaud, perhaps on to bigger battles, asked that the claim be dismissed, with costs. The last words of the trial record’s final page, noting the judge’s verdict, has been lost to history, destroyed, according to one historian, by vermin.
To the “modern” mind, such elaborate proceedings seem comic and absurd, but records dating from the 9th to 19th centuries – with a heyday in the Middle Ages – document similar cases brought before magistrates in cities and towns across Europe and as far afield as South America.
That the weevils, like the rodents before them, were incapable of understanding what they were accused of, or of reaping any moral lessons from a sentence, was beside the point.
In eras when disorder was the rule and the weak (a largely illiterate, provincial populace) had little redress against the powerful, judicial “rites” provided a matrix through which ordinary citizens could seek a kind of equity. For all their seeming absurdities, animal trials offered reassurance by imposing order on a world whose workings were little understood. Even during the Enlightenment, the idea of cosmic anarchy, that God – and Satan – were, as Einstein later put it, “playing dice with the universe,” remained a terrifying prospect.
Had it been suspected that the Black Death – which killed off a third of the world’s population between the 14th and 17th centuries – was spread by rats and fleas, the ecclesiastical courts might have been a lot busier.
What, then, is to be made of the fact that animal trials re-emerged as recently as the 20th century – when natural laws had been largely quantified and made subservient to technology (electricity, aeroplanes, vaccines) – and in places like Michigan and Kentucky?
The first category of hearings, the province of ecclesiastical courts, involved groups of vermin deemed nuisances or threats. Complaints against everything from the above-mentioned rats and weevils, to snakes, cockroaches, leeches, gnats, snails, grasshoppers, caterpillars, bees, flies (of various varieties), termites, mosquitos, slugs and worms were brought before the bench. Given that a scourge of such creatures could not be seized in quantities that would make a difference, Church intervention (e.g. imploring aid from On High) was seen as a viable option. Given the ravages of a capricious world, there was, wrote E.P. Evans (author of a seminal 1902 study of the trials), “something indescribably beautiful in the thought of assimilating the insect of the field to the masterpiece of creation and putting them on an equality before the law.”
Critic Jeffrey Katsner offers a more contemporary view, one that helps explain the odd triumvirate of Church, court and critter: “If religion provided society with certain transcendental truths, social systems terrestrialized [those] truths.”
Along with banishment (and the occasional offer of a home of one’s own), sentences included threats of eternal damnation and, in extreme cases, excommunication, with Rome’s approval and all the accompanying formalities.
Even air and sea creatures came under scrutiny. In Germany, a lawsuit was brought against swallows that persisted in disturbing the devotions of the faithful with their chirping, (not to mention defiling the local bishop’s head and vestments with their droppings). In Switzerland, Lake Geneva’s lamprey were ordered to cease and desist from molesting the local salmon. In Marseille, a school of dolphins was tried and sentenced to death; perhaps one too many fishing boats had capsized.
Clergy of all stripes were happy to promote the world as a perpetual battlefield of hostile forces hungry to corrupt and destroy, positioning themselves as the ultimate flashlight into the surrounding darkness. Every discomfiting event was an opportunity for Divine intervention, which required privileged access to the Almighty’s ear.
Which may help explain why the Church approved sacerdotal cursing against trespassing caterpillars and chirping swallows, which lacked “consciousness” or souls to begin with. Holding all things to account showed who was in charge, affirmed man’s judicial rights – logic be damned – over the entire planet and the Church’s supreme dominion over all.
Garnet Terry, A cat in a priest’s habit is hung on the gallows with priests laughing at the sight, 1776
Elaborate public ritual – be it ecclesiastic trials, anathemas or excommunications – strengthened the Church’s influence and extended its authority, allowing people to believe in the possibility of a magically coherent universe. A private phone call, so to speak, between the Pope and the Almighty would lack the theatricality required to impress, and control, the flock.
Economist Peter T. Leeson suggests that the Church might have also used these trials to increase tithe revenue in areas of high tithe evasion by bolstering peoples’ belief in the validity of Church punishments. Never having been “communicated” in the first place, weevils, rats and caterpillars might not give a damn about being barred from the Kingdom of Heaven, but humans had been trained from earliest childhood to find the prospect terrifying. Best to ante up, egregious as those taxes might be.
Devilishly clever, those clergy.
The second animal trial category, dominion of the civil courts, handled complaints against domestic animals (horses, sheep, goats, cows, bulls, foxes, wolves, dogs, cats) – individual culprits that could be captured and imprisoned. Held to account for having endangered their betters, they were subject to the same severities as human criminals.
The most frequent and recalcitrant civil court offenders were homicidal pigs (Evans cites 34 recorded cases). At a time when farm animals spent their days in close proximity to their owners, sometimes living and sleeping under the same roof, porcine victims were often infants and young children who’d been left unattended.
Execution of a Sow, 1872
In the late 14th century, a fresco was painted on the wall of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in the Norman village of Falaise. The local authorities thought it important enough to commission this reminder of an execution that had been held in the town square.
Before being hung, the criminal – a sow – had been intentionally maimed in the head and forelegs with a pincer, retribution for having disfigured the face and arms of a child, causing its death. Dressed in a waistcoat and breeches, as if it were a person (lest the moral lesson-in-progress be lost on anyone), the sow was then dragged up to the gallows, had a mask of a human face fixed to its snout (eliminating any last shreds of ambiguity) and given last rites.
Such executions, notes Cornell professor Paul Friedland, not only prevented the “criminal” from doing further harm but also, in a sense, “removed the crime” by a kind of “exorcism through reenactment.” An eye for an eye.
At about the same time, a far less egregious porcine offender was hanged in the village of Mortagne for having eaten a consecrated communion wafer.
Theological distinctions tended to be somewhat murky.
In his hugely influential Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God could be called upon to curse unwitting agents of Satan (how else could they be brought to heel?), as long as it was made absolutely clear that the demons – not the poor possessed animals – were the target. Fate, Aquinas argued, couldn’t be separated from Divine Will, ergo, if the animal ended up being killed in the course of things, well, there was no such thing as an unlucky or random occurrence.
Animals, Aquinas argued, could also be made to suffer as punishment for their owners’ negligence (depriving peasants of their livestock, possibly their livelihood). Still, he allowed, punishing animals was potentially blasphemous, as the beasts were only going about God’s mysterious work. Even if Satan manifested himself as an animal, he could do nothing without a nod from God, his creator. Endowed with “rational” free will (e.g. the ability to distinguish right from wrong and therefore fend off Satan’s lure), humans were held to a “higher” standard.
Then again, the ability of pigs (or other quadrupeds) to rise above their natures, whether in action, thought or comprehension of the bizarre ways of humankind, was the subject of some debate. Some argued that animals often betrayed a consciousness of their acts by showing a fear of detection or by trying to conceal what they’d done.
17th-century account books suggest that farmers of that era spent up to 16 hours a day observing and caring for domesticated beasts – an intimacy that prevailed until processing plants and feedlots became the norm. Humans watched these animals make choices (pigs, in particular, are fiercely smart), respond to human directives, engage in social relationships and distinguish themselves as individuals with unique personalities.
Medieval tales and manuscripts were filled with images of animals that behaved, and dressed, like humans. So, the leap to believing they have levels of rationality and morality similar to their owners’ is less of a stretch than it might initially appear.
Less surprising, then, that judges often took great trouble to ascertain an accused’s “character” and circumstances before meting out punishment. Prosecutors, for their part, were fond of quoting from the Old Testament, which called for murderous oxen to be publicly stoned to death.
But ultimately, as with Falaise’s breeches-clad sow, moral lessons embedded in the court’s pronouncements were designed for the edification of humans, not the unfortunate accused.
The Old Testament also called for the destruction of sexual deviants, regardless of bodily form.
In one famous 15th century case, a rooster, accused of having laid an egg, a clearly unnatural act, was burned at the stake outside a Swiss courthouse before a large crowd.
In 1641, a half-century before the infamous Salem Witch Trials (two dogs, along with twenty humans, were executed), the Massachusetts colony enacted its earliest law, condemning bestiality and insisting on the culpability of both parties. Within a year, a teenager by the name of Thomas Granger was arrested for “buggery” and hanged (one of the first convicted criminals to be executed in the New World), but not before identifying an astonishingly long list of those he’d “known” (in the Biblical sense) – two calves, “divers sheepe,” a mare, a cow, a turkey and two goats – all of which were “slain, buried, and not eaten,” as the law proscribed.
Not coincidentally, the word ‘scapegoat,’ someone or thing wrongfully accused, dates back to the heyday of animal trials.
Such crimes were seen as having been committed against the entire community. Along with the obvious warning to future (human) deviants, the bloody penance served as a ritual of collective redemption.
In 1750, in the French town of Vanvres, a she-ass and her seducer, one Jacques Ferron, were sentenced to death, but thanks to a last-minute reprieve, issued at the behest of the parish priest and village citizenry, the animal – “in word and deed, and in all her habits of life, a most honest creature” – was exonerated. Ferron went to the gallows alone. Reasonable doubt had prevailed.
Victor Hugo may have known the story. Eighty years after Ferron’s demise, the French novelist put both a goat and its teenage gypsy owner on trial for murder in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (that the animal could dance, tell the time and perform counting tricks with a tambourine is offered as proof of Satanic foul play and Emeralda’s status as a witch.) Innocent Esmeralda hangs; the goat is saved.
Unlike ecclesiastical vermin trials, civil animal proceedings were funded by public taxes. Costs could be substantial. There were judge and defendant lawyers fees, the feeding and housing of prisoners (sometimes for months), and recompense to the hangman, who sometimes had to be “imported” from elsewhere and whose payment, in one recorded case, included ten sous for a new pair of gloves. So, it’s reasonable to ask: Why did communities believe such grisly “morality plays” were worth the investment?
Though lacking embroidered robes, incense censers, incantations and God’s irrefutable imprimatur, civil courts provided a similar service to episcopal tribunals.
Wickedness (whether the result of moral weakness, greed, lust or Satanic intervention) was explainable; coincidence and blind luck were not. Civil courts domesticated chaos, making sense of the inexplicable by declaring its manifestations crimes. Crimes, by definition, require guilty parties, some one or thing that can be held accountable.
“The Trial of the Dog for Biting the Noble Lord”
It’s worth noting that the need to ascribe blame is so built into the human psyche that in ancient Athens, considered a bastion of rationality, trials were sometimes held to establish the guilt of inanimate objects that had caused serious harm – a sword, a runaway cart, a toppled haystack, even dislodged church bells that fell on the unsuspecting below. Their subsequent destruction (or, in some cases, banishment) was meant to help erase the evils they’d been responsible for. Even the illustrious Plato agreed that a “lifeless thing” that had caused a death (“provided it may not be a thunderbolt or other missile hurled by a god”) be treated as culpable.
But before writing off animal trials as irrational acts of an ignorant and superstitious past, consider a few more recent examples.
In 1906, a Swiss dog was tried and executed for his part in a robbery resulting in death (the men involved were sentenced to life in prison). In 1926, in Kentucky, a stray German shepherd was subjected to the electric chair for the attempted murder of a child. In 1937, in France, a 260-lb. St Bernard, part of a venerable canine “rescue pack” hospice, was convicted of murdering a 10-year-old girl who was skiing on a mountain pass with her family. In 1985, in Detroit, King Boots, a seven-year ‘best-in-show’ champion sheepdog, went on trial for killing the frail grandmother of its owner, who’d fallen over him. The highly publicised, five-day proceeding included testimony from expert witnesses, a re-enactment and a plea of self-defence.
In 2008, a Macedonian bear was convicted, in absentia, of repeatedly stealing honey from a beekeeper and damaging his hives. At last report, the bear, a protected species, remained at large.
It’s fair to say that, some 500 years after Autun’s rats benefitted from an eloquent legal defence, while less fortunate farm animals were hanged or burned alive for having been unwitting victims of human lust, at least some of us are still grappling with basic uncertainties – about ourselves, our relationship to (and dominion over) the creatures who live among us, the virtues of empathy, and our need for hierarchy, order and some semblance of meaning.
Writing this from the perspective of fifteen-plus months into a rapacious, global pandemic (exacerbated by heat waves, several hurricanes and the worst wildfires in California history, not to mention melting polar caps, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, severe droughts and resulting mass migrations), the terrors of an unpredictable, medieval universe seem far less remote, and the hunger for guidance and comfort, by whatever means, less easy to ridicule or disavow.
About the Author
B. Alexandra Szerlip is the author of The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes & the Invention of 20th Century America (Melville House, NY/London), voted “One of the Top Ten Art Books of 2017” by the American Library Association. She’s at work on a history of San Francisco’s historic Sentinel Building.
Images and Video
Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny is from Robert Chambers’ The book of days : a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, including anecdote, biography & history, curiosities of literature, and oddities of human life and character (1869).
A cat in a priest’s habit is hung on the gallows with priests laughing at the sight is a detail from Above, a cat in a priest’s habit is hung on the gallows with priests laughing at the sight; below, a blindfolded man is hung and the rope breaks to release him to the ground in John Fox’s Book of Martyrs (1776 edition).
Execution of a Sow is from Arthur Mangin’s L’Homme et la Bête (1872), via E.P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906).
The video clips come from The Hour of the Pig/The Advocate (BBC, 1993).
“The Trial of the Dog for Biting the Noble Lord” is from The trial of the dog for biting the noble lord : with the whole of the evidence at length ; taken in short hand (1817) by The Author of The Official Account of the Noble Lord’s Bite.