In the Middle Ages, animals that did bad things were tried in court. Maybe that’s not as crazy as it sounds.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
In the fall of 1457, villagers in Savigny, France witnessed a sow and six piglets attack and kill a 5-year-old boy. Today, the animals would be summarily killed. But errant 15th-century French pigs went to court. And it wasn’t for a show trial—this was the real deal, equipped with a judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses, and a defense attorney for the accused swine. Witness testimony proved beyond reasonable doubt that the sow had killed the child. The piglets’ role, however, was ambiguous. Although splattered with blood, they were never seen directly attacking the boy. The judge sentenced the sow to be hanged by her hind feet from a “gallows tree.” The piglets, by contrast, were exonerated.
Such a case might seem bizarre to modern observers, but animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe. Pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs that allegedly broke the law were routinely subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans. In a court of law, they were treated as persons. These somber affairs, which always adhered to the strictest legal procedures, reveal a bygone mentality according to which some animals possessed moral agency.
Scholars who have explored animals on trial generally avoid addressing this mentality. Instead, they’ve situated animal trials in several sensible (and academically safer) frameworks. The dominant explanation from legal scholars and historians is that, in a society of people who believed deeply in a divinely determined order of being, with humans at the top, any disruption of God’s hierarchy had to be visibly restored with a formal event. Another hypothesis is that animal trials may have provided authorities an opportunity to intimidate the owners of animals—especially pigs—who ran roughshod through the commons. A sow hanging from the gallows was, in essence, a public service announcement saying, Control your pigs or they’ll die sooner than you hoped.
While these explanations go partway toward elucidating animal trials, none of them fully clarify the practice. They hardly explain why citizens went to great pains to create space for humans to judge animals for their actions. Correcting hierarchical order or sending a stern message to animal owners could have been accomplished much more easily and cheaply with summary execution. What the trials strongly suggest is that pre-industrial citizens deemed the animals among them worthy of human justice primarily because they had, like humans, the free will to make basic choices.
Judges routinely considered animals’ personal circumstances before making a legal decision. Take the exonerated piglets in the opening anecdote. The judge deemed them innocent not only on technical grounds (no witnesses came forth to confirm that the piglets attacked), but also because the pigs were immature, and thus poorly positioned to make clear choices. Furthermore, they were raised by a rogue mother, he indicated, and thus unable to internalize the proper codes of conduct for village-dwelling piglets.
Intentions mattered as well. In a 1379 case, also in France, the son of a swine keeper was attacked and killed by two herds of swine. The court determined that one herd initiated the attack while the other joined in afterward. The judge sentenced both herds to death because their evident cries of enthrallment during the melee were said to confirm their expressed approval of it, whether they were directly responsible or not. A sow hanged in 1567 was convicted not only for assaulting a 4-month-old girl, but for doing so with extra “cruelty.”
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.