Prosecuting animals in Medieval Europe : possible explanations

Prosecuting animals in Medieval Europe : possible explanations

By Melodie Slabbert

Fundamina : A Journal of Legal History, Issue 10 (2004)

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child.

Introduction: From the ninth to the nineteenth century, more than two hundred well-recorded animal trials took place in Western Europe. Of these, the majority took place in the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries and were limited to certain regions. Animals known to have been prosecuted during this period include asses, beetles, bloodsuckers, bulls, caterpillars, chickens, cows, dogs, dolphins, field mice, flies, goats, grasshoppers, horses, mice, moles, pigs, rats, sheep, snails, termites, wolves, worms and miscellaneous vermin. For example, in 1474 in Basle, Switzerland, a cock was tried on the charge of laying an egg. The valiant efforts of the defence council who claimed that laying an egg was an involuntary act and therefore not punishable in law, could not prevent the cock from being burnt at the stake.

What appears to have been acceptable acts in these times are today seen as puzzling and bizarre. It is strange that in the case of these animal trials, guilt (both in a moral and juridical sense) appears to have been attributed to these animals. We may rightly ask what purpose these sentences could serve, seeing that no other form of meaningful “communication” between humans and beasts existed. Also, is there a connection between these prosecutions and the Roman law actions, namely the actio de pauperie and the actio de pastu, both forms of strict liability, allowing compensation for harm done by domesticated animals of an owner in certain circumstances? It is indeed strange that intellectuals in late medieval and early modern Europe regarded acts such as filing a suit against mice, or officially punishing pigs by the hangmen of local towns, as perfectly reasonable.

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