Today, if there is a tragic case of an animal killing or seriously injuring a human being, it is very likely that the offending animal, whether it was wild or domestic, would be euthanized, or, in other words, executed. However, in the Middle Ages there were many times when the animal would be put on trial before it was punished.
Such was the case on June 14, 1494, when a pig was arrested for having “strangled and defaced a young child in its cradle, the son of Jehan Lenfant, a cowherd on the fee-farm of Clermont, and of Gillon his wife.” During the trial, several witnesses explained that “on the morning of Easter Day, as the father was guarding the cattle and his wife Gillon was absent in the village of Dizy, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the said pig entered during the said time the said house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child, which, in consequence of the bites and defacements inflicted by the said pig, departed this life.”
After listening to the evidence, the judge read out his verdict: “We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed, that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoining to the gallows and high place of execution …”
We know of at least 85 medieval animal trials that occurred in Europe – many of them in France and Switzerland – and even more cases that would took place in the early modern period up to the beginning of the twentieth-century. Undoubtedly, there were far more medieval animal trials that went unrecorded. Some were criminal trials against an individual animal for harming humans, and ecclesiastical trials against groups of animals for damaging human property.
The topic of medieval animal trials was first written about by Edward P. Evans in his 1906 book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. He believed “the judicial prosecution of animals, resulting in their excommunication by the Church or their execution by the hangman, had its origin in the common superstition of the age, which has left such a tragical record of itself in the incredibly absurd and atrocious annals of witchcraft.”
Since then, several historians have examined the topic and have come up with their own ideas on why these animal trials occurred. Some point to the growth of law in during the 12th and 13th centuries – there were now more courts and more lawyers around and they needed work to do. It seems that some lawyers relished the opportunity to defend an animal so they could come up with an ingenious defence. Others point to the Christian notions that God granted man the power to rule over nature, and that these trials were a way of enforcing human authority over the beasts of the Earth.
In her work The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, Joyce Salisbury points to how in the later Middle Ages we see a blurring in the distinction between man and animal. Medieval literature is full of fables and stories where animals behave and act like humans would. We can also see in medieval manuscripts images of birds, dogs, rabbits and other creatures wearing human clothes and taking part in human activities, including war. When one starts seeing animals as almost human, they can soon believe that they have similar levels of rationality and morality that people have. Therefore the animal that attacks a child is seen as responsible for their actions and deserving of punishment.
The idea of the animal as human can bee seen in 1386, when in Falaise, France, they convicted another pig of murdering an infant. Before its execution, the beast was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, pair of drawers and a human mask on her head, and was chained up before it was hanged. The local government paid ten sous and ten deniers to deliver this spectacle, including buying the hangman a new pair of gloves.
Pigs were the most frequent of animals to face human justice, but other creatures also got this treatment. In 1314, a bull cow was hanged after it escaped from its pen and attacked a passerby, fatal injuring him. In 1474, a court in Switzerland sentenced a rooster to be burned at the stake, “for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.”
Being charged with a crime did not mean that animal was doomed to an execution. There are cases where a donkey and a pig were initially condemned to death, but on appeal had their sentences downgraded to corporal punishment. Meanwhile, in 1457, another pig convicted of killing a five-year-old boy was hung by hung by her hind legs from a tree. “Her six sucklings, although found stained with blood and included in the indictment as accomplices, on account of their youth and the corrupting influence of their mother, were merely remanded into the custody of their owner.”
Another type of medieval animal trial took place in ecclesiastical courts, where bishops and other church officials would rule against groups of animals that were damaging human property. These could be mice eating crops or insects attacking a vineyard. Often these trials would lead to a verdict where the churchman would order the animals to be banished from the area – in one case from 1519, the judge order the offending mice to leave commune of Stelvio but noted that the animals had to be granted free and safe conduct, so they would not be harmed by cats and dogs, and that pregnant and infant mice could take as long as fourteen days to vacate the commune.
The lawyers who took part in these trials sometimes came up with novel arguments to defend these animals. The sixteenth-century lawyer Bartholomew Chassenee was successful in stopping a trial against rats that ate a field of barley by claiming that his clients could not appear in court because they were afraid of the village’s cats. Other lawyers pointed out that these creatures were created by God and had a role to play in the world, or that they needed to eat the food in order to survive.
Perhaps the strangest animal trial we know of took place in the 1730s, in the courtyard of a printing shop in Paris. A young worker named Nicolas Contat explained that he and the other apprentices found life at the printing shop almost unbearable – terrible food, long hours, and having to live in area with dozens of alley cats, whose howls and meowing kept them up at nights. Meanwhile, the printer’s wife kept her own pet cat, her la grise, which got better treatment than the workers.
The apprentices decided to get their revenge. One of them was very good at mimicking the meows of cat, and he did so near the master’s bedroom, for several nights until the master and his wife told the apprentices to go out and get rid of the cats. In his book The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton explains what happened next:
Armed with broom handles, bars of the press, and other tools of their trade, they went after every cat they could find, beginning with la grise. Leville smashed its spine with an iron bar and Jerome finished it off. Then they stashed it in a gutter while the journeymen drove the other cats across the rooftops, bludgeoning every one within reach and trapping those who tried to escape in strategically placed sacks. They dumped sackloads of half-dead cats in the courtyard. Then the entire workshop gathered round and staged a mock trial, complete with guards, a confessor, and a public executioner. After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows. Roused by gales of laughter, the mistress arrived. She let out a shriek as soon as she saw a bloody cat dangling form a noose. Then she realized it might be la grise. Certainly not, the men assured her; they had too much respect for the house to do such a thing. At this point the master appeared. He flew into a rage at the general stoppage of work, though his wife tried to explain that they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination. Then master and mistress withdrew, leaving the men delirious with “joy,” “disorder,” and “laughter.”
The story adds another explanation to why people put animals on trial and punished them – it was relatively easy to do. In the pre-modern world, it was difficult to apprehend and convict criminals and wrongdoers – it was too easy for them to escape justice. However, the animal could also be the scapegoat – the one who could be caught and subjected to the punishment, for his or her own or for other’s sins.
Carson, Hampton, “The Trial of Animals and Insects. A Little Known Chapter of Mediæval Jurisprudence,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 56, No. 5 (1917)
Cohen, Esther, “Law, Folklore and Animal Lore,” Past and Present, No. 110 (1986)
Darnton, Robert, The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984)
Evans, E.P., The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London, 1906)
Jamieson, Philip, “Animal Liability in Early Law,” Cambrian Law Review, Vol.45 (1988)
Salisbury, Joyce, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2011)
The Hour of the Pig / The Advocate
The 1993 film The Hour of the Pig (released in the United States as The Advocate) tells the story of a 15th century trial of a pig for murder. The main character, played by Colin Firth, is based on Bartholomew Chassenee. Here is the full movie: