The Law is an Ass: Reading E.P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals
By Piers Beirnes
Animals and Society, Vol.2:1 (1994)
Abstract: In this essay I address a little-known chapter in the lengthy history of crimes against (nonhuman) animals. My focus is not crimes committed by humans against animals, as such, but a practical outcome of the seemingly bizarre belief that animals are capable of committing crimes against humans. I refer here to the medieval practice whereby animals were prosecuted and punished for their misdeeds, aspects of which readers are likely to have encountered in the work of the historian Robert Darnton (1985).
Introduction: In his book The Great Cat Massacre, Darnton (chapter 2) describes the informal justice meted out to offending neighborhood cats – some of whom were owned and adored by their master’s wife – by a group of young male printer’s apprentices in Paris during the late 1730s. One night the boys, who felt themselves wronged by the many cats who begged for food from their workshop and who kept them awake at night with their screeching, “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” (p. 77). The boys were at once delirious with joy and erupted in gales of laughter – much to the dismay of the owner and his wife, who arrived only after the proceedings had ended.
How can we understand this grotesque legalism? Darnton himself is concerned less with recounting an episode of human cruelty to animals than he is with confronting the difficult interpretive problem of how a riotous cat massacre seemed to their eighteenth-century participants as an affair of great merriment. Why do we not get the joke that the apprentices so obviously did? One answer is that the apprentices suffered appalling working conditions, low pay, and poor prospects, and that the killing of her cats was a low-risk method of causing great emotional distress to Madame and to her husband.