Animal Conspiracies: The True Story of Medieval Animal Trials

I hope your donkey’s got a good lawyer..

A pig is found guilty of murder, but her piglets are acquitted as accomplices. A horde of rats is successfully defended by their sharp-as-a-whip lawyer. A she-donkey is found not guilty of bestiality but her human co-fornicator gets the gallows. In medieval times, court decisions like this routinely took place. Medieval animal trials were a part of European life from the 13th to the 18th centuries. We have at least 85 of them recorded on the books. Likely there were exponentially more.

Why were there Medieval Animal Trials?

To the modern mind, medieval animal trials look completely bonkers. Even if a pig or weevil or gnat was somehow self-aware enough to understand the moral implications of their actions, none of them speak Latin, French, German, or any other human tongue. And yet, all kinds of critters were subjected to medieval legal jurisdiction. Scholars dispute the exact point of all this. Many assume it was a means of affirming humans held dominion over animals, as is written in Genesis 1:26-28. Back in those days, the world was truly full of danger and death. Humanity hadn’t yet meaningfully escaped the muck of nature. Were humans just being really, really insecure? Then again, if a pig ate your baby, I suppose you would want to see some retribution over that specific animal, even today. However, why bother going through the whole legal regalia when you had the perfect excuse for cooking up some hate-bacon? One deeply problematic murderin’ medieval pig was even dressed in a peasant’s smock and trousers before being hanged with great ceremony in 1386 in Falaise, France.

French lawyer Barthélemy de Chasseneuz successfully defended barley-eating rats in court.

Superstar Lawyer at the Medieval Animal Trials

One jurist and lawyer, Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, proved very adept at defending animals. Indeed, his long and storied career was largely made on his defense of rats against charges of destroying barley in an extremely bizarre 1508 trial in the town of Autun, France. His brilliant strategy? He suggested that the rats, who failed to appear in court despite being summoned, were not there because they could not be guaranteed safe passage. The village was full of cats and dogs, and they could not be expected to put themselves in such peril. Apart from that, people from miles around were all murderously angry at them for ruining their livelihood. Since it was impossible to fulfill this basic criteria needed to bring about a fair trial, the rats were acquitted. Hooray! It’s an inspiring story ripe for a Disney adaptation.

 

One can only assume the vibe in medieval courts was something approaching this.

The Final Verdict on Medieval Animal Trials

Medieval animal trials finally started to vanish from the record in the 18th century. This period coincides with enormous changes in Western societies. The intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment saw thinkers like Newton and Kant leading the charge for science and progress. It was time to kick out superstition. Suing a swarm of bugs just wasn’t cool anymore. Still, this kind of insanity lived on long afterwards in pockets. For example, in 1916 a town in Tennessee executed a circus elephant named Big Mary by hanging her from a crane. The reason? She had stomped her new and inexperienced handler, who apparently had also been kind of a jerk. In some strange way, that display of authority over animals was more savage than the medieval situation. If Big Mary had Barthélemy de Chasseneuz to defend her in court, things may well have worked out differently. Le Sigh. These things you just can’t make up. It truly is a strange world out there, folks.