In the Middle Ages, animals that did bad things were tried in court. Maybe that’s not as crazy as it sounds.
The content of an animal’s character was also a factor in courtroom deliberations. In 1750, a man and a she-ass landed in court for alleged bestiality. The man was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. The she-ass, however, was exonerated because the townspeople submitted a document to the court noting that the animal was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.” This popular assessment led the jury to conclude that the ass was the innocent victim of a violent and deviant master. Only domesticated animals were subject to such character examinations—the expectation being that, living among humans, they better understood the difference between right and wrong. When pigs behaved badly in the courtroom—such as by grunting loudly in the prisoner’s box—this lack of composure could count against them during sentencing. (For more on these and other animal trials, see legal scholar Jen Girgen’s fascinating “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals.”)
What are we to make of this evidence that our ancestors imputed to animals a sense of moral agency? Contemporary responses have been either to mock them as pre-enlightenment rubes (“artifacts of a superstitious and ritualistic culture,” as legal scholar Katie Sykes summarizes this stance) or to dismiss them as sinister masochists who enjoyed watching animals dangle from the gallows because they had, as historian Edward P. Evans put it in 1906, “a childish disposition to punish irrational creatures.” Overlooked by these interpretations is something that, as we increasingly remove animals from public view, becomes harder to appreciate: These people saw aspects of animal behavior that we don’t see anymore. In this sense, these seemingly odd trials have much to teach us about how fundamentally our relationship with animals has changed over time and how, more poignantly, we’ve lost the ability to empathize with them as sentient beings.
People living in preindustrial agrarian societies interacted almost constantly with domesticated animals. Seventeenth-century farming account books suggest that farmers of that era spent up to 16 hours a day observing and caring for domesticated beasts. They watched these animals make choices, respond to human directives, engage in social relationships, and distinguish themselves as individuals with unique personalities. This observational intimacy lasted well into the 19th century, until feedlots and packing plants consolidated the business of animal agriculture, eventually superseding the practices that kept animals and farmers in close and relatively long-term proximity. A change in mentality followed this consolidation. Humans began to think and talk about animals as objects. “The pig,” explained one agricultural manual from the 1880s, “is the most valuable machine on the farm.” Today, with nearly 99 percent of animal products deriving from these “factory farms,” this view of animals-as-objects persists as the dominant perspective.
However, talk to the 1 percent of farmers who work on small farms and maintain traditional agricultural practices, and they’ll tell you stories that evoke the premodern view of animals. Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis, a former goat farmer, has written that she was so charmed by her animals’ individual qualities that she started to think of them as “part of the family.” Another small-scale goat farmer in California writes that each of his goats “has a personality and I care about each of them as individuals,” and notes that he feels a “twinge” when he takes them to slaughter. A heritage pig farmer in Homosassa, Florida writes, “[T]hey are amazing animals. Each one has its own personality. Little pig Marshall (the boar) is a water hose fanatic. It’s like watching a 3 year old playing in the sprinkler in the front yard.”
And the modern field of animal ethology confirms that farm animals, especially pigs, are fiercely smart. In the most recently publicized study confirming their rare cognition, pigs were shown to be able to use mirrors as tools in their search for food; in other studies, pigs have quickly learned new tasks (like playing videogames), displayed a prodigious memory for where food is stored, and even manipulated one another in a bid for food. The New York Times, referring to this kind of research, editorialized, “We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence—as we define it—and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions.”
There is something fundamentally wrong with our assumptions about premodern animal trials, too. Medieval Europeans gave animal agency the benefit of the doubt. We condemn billions of animals to conditions that amount to torture without a trial. Which practice really makes less sense?
James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong
and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and an associate professor of history
at Texas State University.