Stuff The History Teacher Didn’t Know: Medieval Animal Trials Essay

The criminal, accused and convicted of maiming an infant, mounted the gallows. Dressed in a jacket and breeches, he had never looked finer. A rowdy and boisterous crowd had formed, heaping abuse on him. In 1356 many believed public executions provided a strong deterrent to future crime, and this rural town in Normandy was no different. He hung until dead. The crowd left. The criminal was a pig.

One of the best parts of teaching Social Studies is continuing to learn stuff that fascinates me. When kids ask me a question I don’t know, I’ve don’t feel the need to be a know-it-all. Instead, I say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out!” Now I get to learn something new, and share in the enjoyment of discovery with my students.

As a life-long history nerd and many-time bar trivia champion, It’s amazing how much I still don’t know. So now I introduce to you my new and favorite blog segment: Stuff the History Teacher Didn’t Know.

In Medieval Times, Animals Were Tried and Convicted for Crimes

The following fact came to me via the ever-wonderful Radio Lab on NPR. If you don’t subscribe to their podcast, do so ASAP.

The Medieval Ages were full of all kinds of superstitions, many that we carry with us today. Taking saying “bless you” when you sneeze. Pope Gregory the Great mandated that response way back in 590, since sneezing was considered one of the first signs of plague.

These superstitions could be dangerous too, especially if you found yourself accused of witchcraft or murder. If witchcraft was the charge, then you would likely be dropped in water to see if you float, since everyone knew that witches floated but innocent people sank.

With that knowledge in mind, you’ll watch Titanic in a whole new light.

Or as I just wrote about in my review of the Killer of Little Shepherds, people accused of murder would often be forced to lightly touch the wounds of the deceased, since it was commonly held that those wounds would bleed a new in the presence of the murderer.

Little did I realize though, that throughout the Middle Ages animals accused of crimes often stood trial, with lawyers defending them, for their actions.

Pigs appear most frequently as defendants, they were common animals with an apparent propensity for murder. The seriousness with which these trials were held is alarming:

  • In 1379, not one but two herds of French pigs faced trial for the murder of a man named Perrinot Muet. The judge ruled that while only one herd had perpetuated the assault, the other loudly encouraged them on. Both herds received the death penalty before the swineherd, facing economic ruin, petitioned the Duke of Burgundy for leniency. Only three sows and a pig were executed.
  • In 1457 a sow killed a 5-year old French child, and her 6 piglets were found covered in blood. All 7 stood trial. The sow was convicted, but the jury acquitted thepiglets, citing the corrupting influence of their mother and deeming them too young to have known what they were doing.“So…. you guy know we’re pigs, right?”

It wasn’t just pigs who were tried. A rooster was burned at the stake for laying an egg. Weevils went to court for eating grapes, sparrows for the interrupting in church. And a number of animals faced justice for tempting men into making unfathomable decisions. In one odd case a priest vouched for the character of particularly seductive mule. The mule was spared, but not her lover.

Most interestingly, many times animals got off. In fact, one man Bartholomew Chassenee, made his name defending animals. In his most famous case, he got a pack of rats off on a technicality from charges of eating all the barley in the town of Autun, France. He argued that being rats that scurry from place to place, they probably never received their summons to court. And on top of that, Autun couldn’t guarantee their safety from the town’s cats. Case dismissed. Collin Firth actually played Bartholomew Chassenee in the 1993 movie, The Hour of the Pig.

Many people read many different things into this. At face value, it is laughable to ascribe human morals and human justice to animals. Pigs most certainly do not have mens rea. Yet, trying the animals does perhaps show a society with more willingness to treat animals as sentient creatures. In a world where your Big Mac might have the meat of 1,000 different cows you’ve never met, of course it seems ridiculous to give an animal a trial

In addition to the Radio Lab podcast, I found great articles about this in Slate and Wired. The godfather of this historical niche is E.P. Evan’s The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals written in 1906. He compiled a list of animal trials starting in 824 up to the date of publishing in 1906 when a dog faced trial in Switzerland. You can find the entire book here at Archive.org.

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