Trials of Animals.

By Thomas Frost.


ONE of the most singular features of the jurisprudence of the middle ages, and one which was retained in the French code down to nearly the middle of the last century, was the indictment of domestic animals for injuries inflicted on mankind. The records of the criminal tribunals of France disclose ninety-two such judicial processes between 1120 and 1741, when the last of these grotesque trials took place in Poitou. The practice seems to have been based on the Mosaic law, it being there ordered that, “if an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten.” (Exodus, c. xxi., v. 28.) Oxen and pigs were the animals that most frequently were the subjects of these strange proceedings, the indictment against the former being for goring persons, while the latter suffered for killing and sometimes devouring very young children.

The earliest instance of which any particulars can be gathered occurred in 1314, when, according to M. Carlier, who relates the story in his history of the Duchy of Valois, a bull escaped from a farm-yard in the village of Moisy, and gored a man so severely that death ensued. The Count of Valois, being informed of the fatility, directed that the bull should be captured, and formally prosecuted for causing the man’s death. This was done, and evidence was given by persons who had seen the man attacked and killed. The bull was thereupon sentenced to suffer death, which was inflicted by strangulation, after which the carcase was suspended from a tree by the hind legs. But the affair did not end thus, for the sentence was appealed against, probably by the owner of the bull, on the ground that the retainers of the Count of Valois had no legal authority to execute the sentence. This plea was debated at great length, and the provincial parliament eventually decided that, though the sentence was a just one, the Count of Valois had no justiciary authority in the district of Moisy.

Next in the order of time comes the trial at Falaise of a sow which had torn the face and arm of a child, from the effects of which injuries it died. The sow was condemned to be mutilated in the head and one fore leg, and afterwards to be strangled, which sentence was executed in the public square of the town. This was in 1386. Three years later, a horse was condemned to death at Dijon for having killed a man. In 1403, Simon de Baudemont, lieutenant of Meulan; Jean, lord of Maintenon; and the bailiff of Mantes and Meulan, signed an attestation of the expenses incurred in the prosecution and execution of a sow that had killed and partially eaten a child. The following is a copy of the document, to which it may be added that the story of the trial and execution may be found in the “Curiosités Judiciaires et Historiques du Moyen Age” of M. Aguel:—“Item, for expenses within the gaol, 6 sols. Item, to the executioner, who came from Paris to Meulan to put the sentence in execution, by command of our Lord the Bailiff and of the King’s Attorney, 54 sols. Item, for the carriage that conveyed her to execution, 6 sols. Item, for ropes to tie and haul her up, 2 sols, 8 deniers. Item, for gloves, 12 deniers; amounting in the whole to 69 sols, 8 deniers.” In connection with the first item of this curious document, it may be observed that, in a receipt delivered five years later by a notary of Pont de l’Arche to the gaoler of the prison of that town, the same amount is allowed for the daily food of a pig, imprisoned on the charge of killing a child, as for a man in the same prison. The last item, the gloves, is supposed by M. Aguel to be a customary allowance to the executioner.

In 1457, a sow and her six young pigs were tried at Lavegny, on the charge of having killed and partially eaten a child. The sow was convicted, and condemned to death; but the little ones were acquitted on the ground of their tender years or months, the bad example of their mother, and the absence of direct evidence of their having partaken of the unnatural feast. In 1494, sentence of death was pronounced on a pig by the Mayor of Laon for having mutilated and destroyed an infant in its cradle, full particulars of which case were given in the “Annuaire du Departement de l’Aisne” for 1812. The act of condemnation, as there given, concludes as follows:—“We, in detestation and horror of this crime, and in order to make an example and satisfy justice, have declared, judged, sentenced, pronounced, and appointed that the said hog, being detained a prisoner, and confined in the said abbey, shall be, by the executioner, strangled and hanged on a gibbet, near and adjoining the gallows in the jurisdiction of the said monks, being near their copyhold of Avin. In witness of which we have sealed this present with our seal.” This document was sealed with red wax, and endorsed:—“Sentence on a hog, executed by justice, brought into the copyhold of Clermont, and strangled on a gibbet at Avin.”

Three years later, a sow was condemned to be beaten to death for having mutilated the face of a child of the village of Charonne. The act of condemnation in this case directed further that the flesh of the sow should be given to the dogs of the village, and that the owner of the sow and his wife should make a pilgrimage to the Church of Our Lady at Pontoise, and bring on their return a certificate that this injunction had been duly complied with. In 1499, a bull was strangled for having killed a boy in the lordship of Cauroy, which belonged to the abbey of Beaufiré.

Lionnois gives, in his history of Nancy, a full report of the proceedings on the delivery of a condemned pig to the executioner of that city in 1572. He mentions, among other details, that the animal, secured by a cord, was led to a cross near the cemetery; that from the most remote period the justice of the lord, the abbot of Moyen Moutier, was accustomed to deliver to the provost, or marshal of St. Diez, near to this cross, all condemned criminals, that execution might ensue; and that, the said pig being a brute beast, the mayor and the justice held a conference at that place, and left the said pig tied with a cord, without prejudice to the judicial rights of the lord.

Judicial proceedings against the lower animals were not confined to France, for the list of such cases compiled by M. Berriat St. Prix, and published in the “Memoires de la Societé des Antiquaires” for 1829, mentions one tried at Lausanne in 1364, another at the same town in 1451, a third at Basle in 1474, another at Lausanne in 1479, and a fifth at the same place in 1554. Concerning the first of these Swiss trials, Ruchat states, in his history of the Protestant reformation in Switzerland, that the victim was a pig that had killed a child in the village of Chattens, situated among the Jorat hills. It was cited to appear in the Bishop’s Court at Lausanne, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death—the executioner being a pork butcher.

The Basle case was a very singular one. A farm-yard cock was tried on the absurd charge of having laid an egg. It was contended in support of the prosecution that eggs laid by cocks were of inestimable value for use in certain magical preparations; that a sorcerer would rather possess a cock’s egg than the philosopher’s stone; and that Satan employed witches to hatch such eggs, from which proceeded winged serpents most dangerous to mankind. On behalf of the gallinaceous prisoner, the facts of the case were admitted, but his advocate submitted that no evil animus had been proved against his client, and that no injury to man or beast had resulted. Besides, the laying of the egg was an involuntary act, and as such not punishable by law. If it was intended to impute the crime of sorcery to his client, he was entitled to an acquittal; for there was no instance on record of Satan having made a compact with one of the brute creation. In reply, the public prosecutor stated that, though the Evil One did not make compacts with brutes, he sometimes entered into them; and though the swine possessed by devils, as related by the Evangelists, were involuntary agents, yet they, nevertheless, were punished by being caused to run down a steep decline into the Lake of Galilee, where they were drowned. The poor cock was convicted, and condemned to death, not as a cock, however, but as a sorcerer, or perhaps a devil, in the form of a cock, on which finding it was, with the egg attributed to it, burned at a stake, with all the form and solemnity of a judicial execution.

As the lower animals were amenable to the law in Switzerland in those dark ages, so, in certain circumstances, they could be put into the witness box. If a house was broken into between sunset and sunrise, and the occupier killed the intruder, the act was regarded as justifiable homicide. But it was thought right to provide by law against the case of a man, living alone, who might invite a person whom he wished to kill to spend the evening with him, and having slain him, might assert that he committed the act in self-defence, or to protect his property, the dead man having been a burglar. Therefore, when a man was killed in such circumstances, the occupier of the house was required to produce some domestic animal that was an inmate of the house, and had witnessed the tragedy, and to declare his innocence on oath in the presence of such animal. If the brute witness did not contradict him, he was acquitted; the law taking it for granted that God, rather than allow a murderer to go unpunished, would intervene by causing a miraculous manifestation by the mouth of a dumb witness.

Even more strange than the trials of oxen, pigs, etc., for offences against mankind, were the legal proceedings often taken in the middle ages against noxious insects and the smaller quadrupeds, such as rats. The “Memoires de la Societé Royale Academique de Savoie” contain a very curious account of the proceedings instituted in 1445 and 1487 against certain beetles that had committed great ravages in the vineyards of St. Julien. Advocates were named on behalf of the vine-growers and the beetles respectively; but, by a singular coincidence, the insects disappeared when cited to answer for the mischief they had done, and the proceedings were in consequence abandoned. That was in 1445. In 1487, however, they re-appeared, and a complaint was thereupon addressed to the vicar-general of the Bishop of Maurienne, who named a judge, and also an advocate to represent the beetles. Counsel having been heard on both sides, the judge suggested that the vine-growers should cede to the defendants certain land, where they could live without encroaching on the vineyards. The plaintiffs agreed to this compromise, with the proviso that, in default of the defendants accepting the terms offered them, the judge would order that the vineyards should be respected by the beetles under certain penalties. The advocate for the beetles demanded time for consideration, and on the resumption of the proceedings stated that he could not accept, on behalf of his clients, the suggestion of the court, as the land proposed to be given up to them was barren, and afforded nothing upon which they could subsist. The court then appointed assessors to survey the land in question, and on their report that it was well wooded and provided with herbage, the conveyance was ordered to be engrossed in due form and executed. The matter was then regarded by the plaintiffs as settled; but the beetles discovered, or their advocate discovered for them, that a quarry of an ochreous earth, used as a pigment, had formerly been worked on the land conveyed to the insects, and though it had long since been worked out, some person possessed an ancient right of way to it, the exercise of which would be extremely prejudicial to them. Consequently, the agreement was held to be vitiated, and the legal proceedings had to be recommenced de novo. How they eventually terminated cannot be told, owing to the mutilation of the documents relating to the proceedings subsequent to 1487.

Nearly a century later, legal proceedings were commenced by the inhabitants of a village in the diocese of Autun against the rats by which their houses and barns were infested; the trial being famous in the annals of French jurisprudence as that in which Chassanee, the celebrated jurisconsult, first achieved distinction. The rats not appearing on the first citation, Chassanee, who was retained for the defence, argued that the summons was of too local a character, and that, as all the rats in the diocese of Autun were interested in the case, they should be summoned throughout the diocese. This plea being admitted, the curé of every parish in the diocese was instructed to summon all the rats within its limits to attend on a day named in the summons. The day having arrived, and the rats failing to appear, Chassanee said that, as all his clients were summoned, including old and young, sick and healthy, great preparations had to be made, and certain necessary arrangements effected, and he had to ask, therefore, for an extension of time. This also being granted, another day was appointed, but again not a single rat put in an appearance.

Chassanee then made an objection to the legality of the summons. A summons from that court, he said, implied full protection to the parties summoned, both on their way to it and on their return to their homes; and his clients, the rats, though most anxious to appear in obedience to the court, did not dare to leave their homes to come to Autun, on account of the number of evil-disposed cats kept by the plaintiffs. If the latter would enter into bonds, under heavy pecuniary penalties, that their cats should not molest his clients, the summons would be immediately obeyed. The court acknowledged the validity of this plea, but the plaintiffs declined to be bound for the good behaviour of their cats. The further hearing of the case was, therefore, adjourned sine die, and thus Chassanee gained his cause. Full particulars of the proceedings are given in a Latin work, written by him, and published in 1588.


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