Animals on Trial

In 1457 in the village of Sauvigny, France, a sow and six piglets were accused of killing a five year-old boy. The animals were put on trial – a trial complete with judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses and a defense attorney. Witnesses testified that the sow had indeed killed the boy. The piglets on the other hand were not seen taking part in the attack. Consequently, the sow was hanged. The judge found the piglets not guilty, not only because no witnesses implicated them, but also because they were immature and. due to the corrupting influence of their mother, were unable to make reasoned choices. They were remanded into the custody of their owner.

This case was by no means unique. From at least the thirteenth century when the first case was recorded until the eighteenth, many animals were tried for crimes ranging from murder to criminal damage. Usually if convicted the animals would either be hanged or exiled. If tried in an ecclesiastical court the animal might be excommunicated.

In a court of law they were treated the same as humans. Judges took these cases very seriously and weighed the evidence and witness testimony carefully.

In 1750, a female donkey was charged with bestiality. Her human owner was sentenced to death, but the donkey was exonerated because witnesses testified in writing that she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.”

In 1474 a rooster was tried for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg, which the townsfolk took to be a manifestation of Satan.

In a 1379 case a swine herder’s son was attacked by two herds of pigs. The court found that one herd was the instigator and the other had just joined in later. The judge sentenced both herds to death because he determined that their cries of enthrallment during the attack meant that they expressed approval of it.

In 1494 a pig wandered into a house where the parents were absent and ate the face and neck of a baby in its cradle. The judge declared that in order for an example to be made and  justice maintained, the pig should be hanged on the common gibbet. Again in 1567, a sow was convicted not only for assaulting a 4-month-old girl, but for doing so with extreme cruelty. In 1314, a bull  was hanged after it escaped from its pen and attacked a passerby,

The animals most commonly put on trial were pigs, bulls, horses, goats, cows, rats, and weevils. Some poor creatures suspected of being familiar spirits or engaging in bestiality were burned at the stake without benefit of trial.

(In the case of insects my imagination runs wild. Would they appear in court? A bunch of weevils in a glass jar perhaps? If found guilty would they be ‘exiled’ or stomped? How could the court be sure it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity?)

Today, if a human being was seriously hurt by an animal, whether wild or domestic, the animal would be euthanized. But why put animals on trial?

The phenomenon has been studied by scholars and a number of (sometimes esoteric) theories put forward.  One theory is that “in a society of people who believed deeply in a divinely determined order of being, with humans at the top, any disruption of God’s hierarchy had to be visibly restored with a formal event.” I read that to mean an eye for an eye. Another hypothesis is that animal trials gave the authorities the opportunity to punish people for the behavior of their animals, particularly pigs that were often allowed to roam over common areas. Both of these theories do not take account of the fact that summary execution, rather than a costly and time-consuming trial, would have achieved the same result.

The only theory to answer that conundrum, and my particular favorite, is that our ancestors thought the animals among them worthy of justice because they had, like humans, the free will to make basic choices. This may sound like a weird conclusion at first. But the fact is that medieval literature is full of pictures of animals dressed in human clothing and engaged in human activities – even going to war. Our ancestors lived as closely with their domestic animals as we do with our pets, sometimes sharing their home with a valuable beast. It would not be so surprising if they ascribed human qualities to their animals as people today do to their pets. How else explain how a pig could be judged to have acted with ‘extreme cruelty’ or a donkey said to be ‘a most honest creature’?

I have to conclude with a quote from one of the websites I visited. “We condemn billions of animals to conditions that amount to torture without a trial.” And then execute them. Hmm.

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Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2
Edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard.

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