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Prosecution of Animals in Medieval Justice Explained by Oldridge
Strange Histories by Darren Oldridge

The prosecution of animals – putting a pig on trial with its own lawyer, bringing criminals charges against a horde of flies – was a common practice in the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.  Strange as it may seem to us, it was based on some fairly sound logic, according to Darren Oldridge, in his book, Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (Routledge Press).

One of the things I most appreciate about this book is its supposition that the Middle Ages were not, in fact, fraught with superstition.  The book looks at things that were believed in the Middle Ages, especially things that we think are odd, and describes why they were logically based on the philosophy of the time.  It’s a handy book for someone interested in the Medieval mind and trying to describe Medieval characters.

According to Oldridge, from the first recorded case in 1255, the criminal prosecution of animals was a recognized part of legal practice in medieval and Renaissance Europe.  The procedure originated in northern France and spread to the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, reaching its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries.  “In 1474 the authorities at Basle in Switzerland condemned a demonic rooster to the stake.”

During the heyday of the practice, the prosecution of animals involved the careful observance of due procedure.”  They had legal counsel; they were held in prison prior to trial; care was taken to be sure they were correctly identified and that relative guilt was established; when a herd of pigs trampled the swineherd, several pigs were identified as ringleaders and the rest were let go. When the piggy ring-leaders were found guilty they were executed using very specific procedures. Special executions were routine: on one occasion it took two days to build a special scaffold with pulleys to hang a felonious bull.

In another type of criminal trial, though, large numbers of vermin were arraigned for offenses against an entire community.  Cases were brought against rats, mice, fish, caterpillars and weevils and defense attorneys were assigned to them.

“In one of the best-documented episodes, the townsfolk of Saint-Julien-de-Maurienne in France sued a plague of flies for destroying a vineyard.” They tried in1545 to prosecute the insects but the court ruled that the townsfolk should conduct public prayers because the infestation was the judgment of God. Thirty years later, the flies returned and destroyed the harvest again.  This time the court accepted a formal complaint and appointed a defense attorney for the flies, who agued that his clients were commanded by God to be fruitful and multiply.  So the townsfolk set aside a piece of land for this purpose outside the vineyards.

It sounds really bizarre and if you were to use it in a story, it would add a touch of the ridiculous to the story, some evidence of back-woods idiocy, as it was portrayed in an interesting movie, The Advocate, starring Colin Firth. (I’m tempted to use it in a story anyway: nothing screams Middle Ages quite like a pig trial.)

But Oldridge argues that it wasn’t that Medieval people were foolish or quaint.  They weren’t saying that the creatures had rationality; they didn’t assume that animals were “capable of willful misdeeds.” The townspeople in the case of the ruined vineyard weren’t trying to negotiate with the flies, they were negotiating with God, honoring the insects’ God-given right to feed. That’s an entirely different spin. In many cases, the animals were punished to obtain the blessing of God.

There were several other contexts in which animals were involved in legal proceedings; “most often, they were at the centre of disputes about ownership and cases of theft.” Ok, that seems reasonable: the goat eats the cabbage patch then the goat should be punished.  “In some instances their status as human property meant they could be mutilated as part of the punishment of their owners.  For example, the horses of noblemen convicted of rape could be castrated.  In cases of bestiality, the beasts were not accused but they could be executed along with their abusers.”  Cattle involved in bestiality, for example, were killed and thrown into a pit, not eaten, because they were considered impure.

Another rationale for trying animals was that when animals harmed humans they infringed on the natural order of things. The law should recognize and uphold this order, according to the thinking of the time.  In the Middle Ages, the “view of justice ‘assumed the proportions of supra-human, universal law, beyond the simple mechanisms of human relationships.’ This is a foreign concept to us.  But the idea of universal, God-given laws underpinned a great deal of legal practice in the pre-modern world.”

Animals were also charged because in the Medieval understanding they were sometimes instruments of the Devil.  The rooster who was burned at the stake was killed for “the unnatural crime of laying an egg.”  I’m not sure I think that the presence of the Devil is much of an argument for the logic of the medieval mind but I get it.

The human-style punishment of convinced animals can also be explained, Oldridge says, by the need to make a public show of justice.  Hangings and executions were public events and served a cautionary purpose.  When a court in France condemned a sow for murder in 1567, the judge told people in the region to keep “good and secure guard” on potentially violent animals.”  I think it’s also worth noting that people lived in close proximity to animals at the time.  A pig devoured the 4-month old daughter of the Machieu family in 1567, convicted by a court and hanged from a tree. Did it provide comfort to a distraught community? Perhaps.  

Oldrich goes on to show that the prosecution of vermin coincided with exceptionally bad weather that blighted the harvest.  “Viewed in this light, the prosecution of vermin resembled other responses to disaster in a profoundly religious culture…It was an attempt to relieve suffering in circumstances where all human efforts had failed.”

“For us, the treatment of these animals may have the character of farce, but it was much nearer to tragedy for the men and women involved.”