Putting cats on trial: animals in the law court

I love this area of history.  I devoured a thesis all about it and numerous articles and videos and wow!  There is limited information available because records get destroyed and lost and such things but we know of almost 200 cases of animals being tried in court.  These are predominately European and a large number are based in France but we can’t really conclude much from this about the frequency of such trials.  Record keeping will have differed depending on time and location and at least some records have been intentionally destroyed as a way of ridding the community of the memories of the heinous crimes involved.

In terms of what follows, this is down to what historians have found documented so actual practices may have been going on longer.

All the way back in ancient Greece, it was theoretically possible to put an animal on trial for murder.  There is no evidence that this occurred but the concept fits with the Greek approach to murder trials with a human offender.  The belief was that crime polluted the community and as such murder trials, the most heinous crime, had to be tried outside so that the pollution from the trial wasn’t trapped in the court room.  Human and animal like, if found guilty, would not only be executed but their body had to be removed from the community so that it did not continue to pollute the community.  Plato wrote:

If a beast of draught or other animal cause homicide, except in the case when the deed is done by a beast competing in one of the public sports, the kinsmen shall institute proceedings for homicide against the slayer; on conviction, the beast shall be put to death and cast out beyond the frontier.

Spring forward 1000 years or so and in 824AD, a group of moles was prosecuted and excommunicated by the church.  This was an ecclesiastical trial and would have been taken just as seriously as the secular cases in Ancient Greece.

But 824 is a very long time ago so it’s easy to dismiss the idea of moles on trial as something that uneducated people did back in the first millennium.  So lets fast forward again.

This time, we’re in France, in a town near Normandy and the year is 1386.  A child has died, a cruel and painful death, bought about through the killer mangling their face and arms.  This is a criminal offence and a trial must go ahead, punishment must be carried out.  So the female killer is tried and found guilty.  Her sentence? Execution.  But only after the treatment she gave her victim is inflicted on her.  So she is maimed in her head and arms and then hanged. The professional hangman carries this out in a public square and was issued new gloves for the occasions “in order that he might come from the discharge of his duty, metaphorically at least, with clean hands, thus indicating that, as a minister of justice, he incurred no guilt in shedding blood.” (E P Evans).  The execution is commemorated in a fresco on the wall of a local church.  The killer is a pig.  And she is given human clothing for her execution.

But fear not, extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration.  For example in 1457, another pig, along with her six piglets, were caught killing a five year old boy.  The (pig) mother was found guilty and hanged but despite evidence of their involvement, the piglets were pardoned due to their youth and the bad influence of their mother.

In 1906, Evans, a key writer on this topic, had detailed over 191 prosecutions and excommunications of animals between the 9th and 20th centuries.  This list is considered to be far from complete due to incomplete record keeping and destruction of records in the middle ages.  We do know however, that these were not the whim of a geographical area – the church tried cases across the world including Ethiopia, Scandinavia, Canada, Brazil, Turkey and Spain.  In particular, cases involving bestiality were destroyed to erase the unthinkable crime.

We do still have some records of bestiality including an interesting case in 1750.  A man and a donkey were accused of the crime and the standard punishment was a death sentence.  They were tried and both found guilty, the man was killed.  But the donkey had an advocate.  A priest provided the court with evidence that she had always been virtuous and well behaved and the donkey was let off, being decreed a victim of violence and an unwilling participant.

These cases, the pigs and the donkey, were carried out in civil and criminal courts because the animals had been involved in physical injury and death.  If found guilty, the punishment was often death and this could be through hanging, being burned alive, stoned, beheaded and buried alive.  Less lethal punishments were doled out though, for example a goat who had to go and live in exile and a dog which was placed in an iron cage in a market square, a punishment normally used for blasphemers and peace breakers.

For those crimes which were public nuisances, the church stepped in.  Ecclesiastical trials focused on things like destruction of crops and tended to try more vermin and non domesticated animals.  Defendants included mice, birds, snakes, snails, worms, termites and strangely also extended to include eels and dolphins.

In 1587 weevils were accused of damaging a vineyard but at trial were deemed to be exercising their natural right to eat.  As compensation, they were given their own vineyard.

Whilst this might sound silly and trivial to us today, we have evidence that these cases were treated seriously.  The proceedings strictly followed those of human defendants with defence lawyers provided, complex legal arguments raised and in some cases, the defendant was kept in jail whilst awaiting trial (in some cases alongside humans).  Evidence was presented and judgement was made after heavily weighing up the arguments.  A lot of time went into this overseeing of the law as well as money, the cost will have been equivalent to that of trying humans.  In one weevil case, the land offered as an alternative was deemed unsuitable by the defence lawyer and a professional report into the suitability of the soil was carried out.  As with human trials, animal trials could be appealed if the outcome was unfavourable.  Learning that the animals, once killed, could not be eaten or used in other ways, reiterates the seriousness with which this was taken.  In the example of the pig and piglets, to think about killing seven pigs and not benefiting in terms of food or resources would have been a huge sacrifice when food was not plentiful.

We can also see the sincerity of these trials by turning to a case from 1522.  A group of rats were on trial accused of destroying a barley crop.  The rats, as was normal in these cases, were appointed a lawyer (paid for by taxes) called Bartholomew Chassenee.  On the day of the trial, the rats failed to respond to the formal summons.  As a good lawyer, Chassenee argued that because the rats lived in different locations across several villages, a single summons would not have reached them all.  The court agreed and a second summons was read in the various villages.  The rats still did not turn up for their day in court but Chassenee now argued that it was down to the length and difficulty of the journey.  The court could not expect the rats to risk their lives with the cats they would encounter on the way.  This idea of ensuring safety to attend court is one which is still in play today.

Obviously, in most cases, the defendants fail to turn up to their court trial and by default, despite arguments made by lawyers, they lose.  The result is that they were excommunicated and told to leave.  One lovely example from 1519 shows some compassion from the judge.  Despite being found guilty of damaging crops, the moles were given a 14 day window to leave the area.  However, after this, every mole must be gone despite their age or maternity status!

The other reason a trial might be held is due to supernatural occurrences.  In 1477, a cockerel was executed because it was found guilty of laying an egg, something utterly unnatural and unsettling for the community.  This was during the witch trials when fear of anything out of the ordinary was rife.

Cats are well known as being witches familiars today but many other animals bore that badge as well.  Anything from toads to dogs to owls to hares could be considered familiars, or the witch herself shapeshifted into an animal form.  The reason that people were so concerned with familiars is firstly it indicated a witch, but also the familiar itself was considered to be the devil, or another evil spirit, in disguise.  I haven’t been able to find out a lot about how this played out in court but some snippets on the internet suggest that the familiars were tried alongside the witches and faced similar punishments.  I do know that many witches were identified because they had a familiar and the mark of a familiar (considered to be where they suckled from the witch) could condemn a woman.  In one case, a familiar, in this instance a lamb called Tiffin, had told her witch something critical to a case.  The witch then recounted this in court, thus making Tiffin an indirect witness and charges were made against two other women on the basis of this.

“Nothing was more common in those times than to bring a charge of witchcraft against animals”
– Victor Hugo, writing about the 15th century trial of Esmeralda’s goat

As animal trials cross cultures, countries and times, there are going to be different reasons why they were carried out but suggestions include retribution and revenge, making examples of the defendants (to deter humans from the same crimes or to influence behaviour of humans who own the animals) and a way of helping a community deal with an event.  It is helpful to remember that a lot of these trials were held during the witch trials and that the times were uncertain ones.  There was a great fear of lawlessness and the trials allowed communities to reinstate some sense of control and a way of domesticating the chaos.  For an animal to kill a human was to turn the world on its head.  It defied the natural way of things in which humans ate and killed animals, not the other way around.  This violated the hierarchical order of God and was a sign or symptom of disarray.  If the animal was not dealt with quickly, it would symbolise a success on the part of the revolting animals.

Whilst on the whole, animal trials are not something that happens today, we still prosecute and convict animals, we just tend do so without giving them a fair hearing.  For example, in 1986 villagers in Malaysia beat a dog to death because it was believed to be one of a gang of thieves, a human who could turn into a dog.  This killing without due process was something that was condemned back in the days of animal trials.  As such, when a man took matters into his own hands in 1576 in Germany, he was permanently banished from the community.

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