European Animal Trials

Not Jurisprudence’s Finest Nine Centuries

Here’s a bit of strange fluff from the history bin: From as early as the year 824 through the mid-1700’s animals and even insects in Europe could be accused of crimes and tried in criminal and ecclesiastical courts. They might appear in the dock, accused of murder, theft, fraud, criminal damage, bestiality, or any number of offenses.

Animal TrialsIt having been a civilized society, the animals were afforded legal representation, of course. In addition to defense attorneys, trials included a judge, prosecutors, and a list of witnesses.

Judges routinely considered the animal’s character and circumstances in rendering judgment. In fact, a she-ass was acquitted of bestiality when the townsfolk attested to her upright character, saying she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.” However, all was not roses and comity for the accused. Like their criminal human counterparts, some animals were actually tortured for confessions before the trial even began.

The same penalties that applied to humans applied to animals, so jail time or capital punishment in the form of hanging or burning at the stake were not uncommon. A verse of the Bible, 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 entire animal trials concept is so freakishly bizarre that I am forced to imagine the prosecutor thundering and railing at a pig defendant, trying to break through the careful mask of snuffling, porcine indifference, shouting, “Do you deny the charges, Sirrah?!”

Records survive of animal trials (and often executions) carried out on many creatures, including bulls, pigs, caterpillars, cows, goats, leeches, horses, dogs, mosquitos, sheep, eels, and even dolphins.

Animal trials 2A rooster was accused and convicted of sorcery, consorting with Satan, and “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg” which was purported to contain a cockatrice. The sentence was burning at the stake.

In St. Julien, France, an infestation of weevils was charged with the decimation of crops. The trial went on for eight months before a sentence was rendered. At one point in the proceedings, a compromise was offered that would have provided the weevils a tract of land of their own that they could decimate to their hearts’ content. The townsfolk, however, reserved “the right to pass through the said tract of land, ‘without prejudice to the pasture of the said animals,’ and to make use of the springs of water contained therein, which are also to be at the service of said animals.”

Every time you think history can’t possibly get any weirder, it upchucks a little nugget like this.

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