Strange But Serious Medieval Animal Trials Were No Kangaroo Court!
One of the more unusual aspects of the Medieval world was that animals could be put on trial like human beings. Yes, there was such a thing as legal animal trials! While the veracity of many Medieval animal trials is difficult to ascertain, it is without doubt that some of them took place. All kinds of animals could be brought before a secular or ecclesiastical court, either as individuals or as groups.
A wide range of crimes could be committed by these animals including murder, being an accomplice in bestiality, and damage of crops and property. If found guilty, the larger animals would be punished with execution or exile, whereas the smaller ones would be excommunicated or denounced by a church tribunal. One of the more detailed examinations of this strange subject is Edmund P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals , which was published in 1906.
When Did the Animal Trials Occur?
According to Evans, the trial and punishment of animals did not occur uniquely during the Middle Ages, as this practice is recorded in other civilizations as well. As an example, Evans states that the Romans would crucify a dog as part of the celebrations commemorating the anniversary of the preservation of the Capitol from the night-attack of the Gauls, which is traditionally regarded to have occurred in 390 BC.
After defeating the Romans at the Battle of the Allia , the Gauls proceeded to sack Rome. The Capitoline Hill , however, was one of the places that withstood the invaders, so the Gauls decided to put it under siege. Eventually, the Gauls found a way to ascend the hill and were detected neither by the guards nor the dogs. Fortunately, the Roman defenders were alerted to the movement of the Gauls by the sacred geese of the goddess Juno and were able to repel the Gauls. While the geese were hailed as heroes, the dogs were punished for neglecting their duty.
The Romans used dogs in warfare and when the dogs failed to warn of an attack by the Gauls they were put on animal trial. (Fæ / Public Domain )
Before moving into the Middle Ages, it may be mentioned that in the ancient world, apart from animals, inanimate objects could be brought to court as well. Evans cites the trial and punishment of a statue in Athens as an example. This statue belonged to Nikon of Thasos, a famous athlete, and was set up by the Athenians in his honor.
Unfortunately, rivals who were jealous of his success attacked the statue and knocked it off its pedestal. One of the assailants was crushed to death under the statue. According to Athenian law , weapons and all other objects that caused the death of a person were to be publicly condemned and thrown beyond the city’s boundaries. Thus, the statue was brought before a tribunal, found guilty, and sentenced to be thrown into the sea .
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The statue that belonged to Nikon of Thasos, was part of the animal and inanimate objects trials. The statue was found guilty and sentenced to be thrown into the sea. ( XtravaganT / Adobe)
While animal trials did take place during the Middle Ages it is unclear as to how many documented ones are real. Sara McDougall, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice points out that the 19 th scholars who recorded these trials do not provide enough detail regarding their sources. In other words, it is difficult for scholars today to trace the origins of these stories and to determine their veracity.
Nevertheless, medieval accounts of animal trials are known and McDougall states that a lot of them were either made up or written as a means to keep students from falling asleep. McDougall also notes that one of the most famous animal trials was completely made up so as to defame the lawyer who had allegedly defended the animals, in this case, a bunch of rats.
Accounts of Animal Trials
The earliest known documentation of a Medieval animal trial dates to 1266. The trial took place in Fontenay-aux-Roses, not far from the French capital Paris, and involved a pig accused of committing infanticide. The pig on trial was suspected of devouring a child and therefore brought before a court.
The trial was overseen by the monks of St Genevieve and the animal was found guilty, after which it was sentenced to burn at stake. It seems that during the Middle Ages it was illegal to execute anyone (or anything for that matter) without a trial and therefore animals suspected of committing serious crimes were put on trial, before being executed.
Illustration depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted. (InverseHypercube / Public Domain )
This explanation, however, is only one of many that have been suggested to make sense of this strange phenomenon. Over the years, other scholars have put forward their own hypotheses in an attempt to explain the existence of these animal trials. One explanation, for instance, is that some animals were believed to have moral agency and therefore, like human beings, could be held responsible for the crimes they committed.
Thus, when an animal was brought before a court, it was treated as a human being and the strictest legal procedures were adhered to, so as to endow the whole affair with a somber atmosphere. In some cases, the animals were dressed up in human clothing as well when they were brought to court. This is seen, for instance, in the execution of a pig convicted of infanticide in 1386. Before the execution the pig was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, and pair of drawers. Additionally, a human mask was placed on her head.
Trials of animals were subject to the same laws and procedures as those of humans. Archaeology Soup / YouTube Screenshot .
Many other hypotheses have been put forward to explain the occurrence of animal trials. One of these, for instance, suggests that the Medieval Europeans believed that authority over the animal kingdom was conferred on mankind by God and that putting animals on trial was a way of asserting this authority.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that during the 12 th and 13 th centuries the development of the legal system led to a glut of courts and lawyers. As there was not enough work to go around for everyone it was decided that animals suspected of committing crimes too should be tried, so as to create more job opportunities.
Yet another hypothesis states that Medieval lawyers saw the animal trials as an opportunity to show off their mental dexterity as they had the chance to come up with ingenious arguments to defend their clients. This is seen in the case of Bartholomew Chassenée a French jurist who lived during the 15 th/16th century.
Chassenée was the defense lawyer for a bunch of rats charged with eating and destroying the local barley. On the day of the trial the rats failed to turn up as expected and Chassenée came up with cunning arguments to excuse them. For instance, he argued that since the rats were moving from one village to another they probably did not receive the summons. Even if they did receive the summons they may have been afraid to obey it as they risked being attacked by cats as they came to the court.
The lawyer elaborated on this point and concluded that his clients may legally refuse to appear in court if their safety could not be guaranteed. Finally, the judges were forced to drop the case as they could neither refute Chassenée’s argument nor persuade the villagers to keep their cats indoors.
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The animal trials included rats charged with eating and destroying the local barley. ( Erni / Adobe)
Based on the documented evidence, the pig was the most commonly tried animal during the Middle Ages. According to Evans, this was mainly due to the fact that pigs were given greater freedom to roam around the streets than other animals and that they existed in much greater numbers than other animals. Nevertheless, other animals could be tried for various offences.
For instance, in 1474, a court in the Swiss city of Basel sentenced a rooster to burn at stake “for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.” According to Medieval belief, an egg laid by a rooster would hatch either into a basilisk or a cockatrice both of which were extremely dangerous creatures. While these monsters are believed to have existed, no one expected to come across a rooster that laid eggs thus making the 1474 trial in Basel an exceptional one.
Other animals that were tried during the Middle Ages include bulls, dogs, and goats. One of the most curious animal trials recorded by Evans is that of some dolphins. Apart from stating that the animals were tried and executed in Marseilles in 1596, Evans provides no further details regarding the case.
Although animals were commonly brought before a court on charges of murder or injuring humans, other ‘offences’ could be committed by them as well. The rooster of Basel, for instance, was tried for participating in demonic activities. Bestiality was another offense for which an animal could be brought to court.
While both parties, i.e. the human and animal, could be sentenced to death, the latter has an opportunity to be spared punishment as it would be argued that the animal did not consent and was therefore not its fault. Such was the case of Jacques Ferron, a Frenchman caught engaging in bestiality with a female donkey in Vanves in 1750. Both parties were tried, and the prosecution asked for the death sentence of both Ferron and the donkey.
While Ferron was sentenced to death (by burning at stake), the donkey was set free on the basis that she had not participate in Ferron’s crime on her own free will. Moreover, the parish priest had testified to the donkey’s good character, saying that he had known her for four years, that she was a virtuous and well-behaved animal and that she had never given occasion of scandal to anyone.
A female donkey was put on animal trial for participating in bestiality, she was set free on the basis that she had not participated willingly. (דוג'רית / Public Domain )
Who Administered the Animal Trials?
The trial of animals was often carried out by the secular courts which had the power to sentence them to death. The ecclesiastical courts too were granted authority to try animals, though animals of a different sort were brought before its judges who were bishops and other church officials.
These clergymen usually dealt with cases involving vermin, such as rodents and insects. This was due to the fact that unlike pigs or other animals tried by the secular courts it was impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for the civil authorities to seize and bring these animals before a court. Therefore, they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Church.
Towns or districts plagued by vermin could bring the perpetrators of the ‘crime’ before an ecclesiastical court. An investigation would be launched and if sufficient grounds for bringing the pests to court be found an advocate would be appointed to defend them. A summons would then be issued by the court which would be read by a court official at places where the vermin are thought to frequent.
The pests were given three opportunities to appear in court and to plead their case. As one may expect the vermin rarely, if ever, turned up at court and therefore lost their case. The animals would then be given a certain amount of time to leave the area. If the vermin failed to do so they would be excommunicated.
The trial of vermin by ecclesiastical courts has led to the suggestion that animal trials were carried out as a means of helping the community to cope during times of crisis. Plagues, destruction of crops, and other problems may be blamed on vermin and the animals could be brought before a court.
While the trials almost certainly did not solve the problems, they gave the people an impression that the authorities were doing what they can to maintain law and order and therefore gave them some sense of assurance.
Animal trials were carried out as a means of helping the community cope during times of crisis such as plague. (7mike5000 / Public Domain )
It may be mentioned that compared to pesticides available during that time, trying vermin and punishing them may not sound so far-fetched after all. Some ways of dealing with pests during that time include sprinkling weasel ash over a field to drive away mice, castrating a mouse, then releasing it so as to scare away other mice from the area, and driving moles away by planting castor oil plants in fields plagued by these creatures.
Lastly, it may be said that the end of the Medieval period was not the end of animal trials. One example of an animal trial beyond the Middle Ages is that of the Hartlepool Monkey, which allegedly occurred during the Napoleonic Wars .
The story goes that a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool, in County Durham, England, and the only survivor was a monkey, who was the ship’s mascot. The people of Hartlepool mistook the animal for a French spy as the monkey’s chattering was thought to be the French language.
Therefore, the monkey was put on trial, found guilty of espionage, and hung on the beach. While some believe that the hanging of the Hartlepool Monkey did occur others are less sure about it. In any case, the story became attached to Hartlepool and has stuck to the city ever since.
Top image: The animal trials were common in the Middle Ages. (The Trail of Bill Burns by P. Mathews, 1838 ) Source: דוג'רית / Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Evans, P. 1906. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. London: William Heinemann.
Grundhauser, E. 2015. The Truth and Myth Behind Animal Trials in the Middle Ages. [Online] Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-truth-and-myth-behind-animal-trials-of-the-middle-ages
Guinness World Records Limited. 2019. First documented animal execution. [Online] Available at: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-documented-animal-execution
Humphrey, N. 2011. Bugs and Beasts Before the Law. [Online] Available at: https://publicdomainreview.org/2011/03/27/bugs-and-beasts-before-the-law/
Johnson, B. 2019. The Hanging of the Hartlepool Monkey. [Online] Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Hanging-of-the-Hartlepool-Monkey/
Leatherdale, D. 2017. Was a monkey really hanged in Hartlepool?. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-tees-40801937
McWilliams, J. 2013. Beastly Justice. [Online] Available at: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/02/medieval-animal-trials-why-theyre-not-quite-as-crazy-as-they-sound.html
Simon, M. 2014. Fantastically Wrong: Europe's Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them. [Online] Available at: https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-europes-insane-history-putting-animals-trial-executing/
Vatomsky, S. 2017. When Societies Put Animals on Trial. [Online] Available at: https://daily.jstor.org/when-societies-put-animals-on-trial/
www.historyrevealed.com. 2019. Top 10 animals on trial. [Online] Available at: https://www.historyrevealed.com/eras/general-history/top-10-animals-on-trial/
www.medievalists.net. 2013. Medieval Animal Trials. [Online] Available at: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/09/medieval-animal-trials/
I would like to report and have summonsed the blackbirds for always mocking me in their song. I feel helplessly terrorised and think they should pay dearly. Those tearaways!