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Condemned pig

Posted in Absurd, Animals, Historical articles, History, Law, Oddities, Religion on Sunday, 31 January 2016

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This edited article about legal systems first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.

Animal justice, picture, image, illustration

Top: A sow and her piglets are summoned to appear before the court; Bottom: A court official reads out the charges to a cow accused of trampling a boy to death

Imagine your surprise if you saw a pig, a cow or even a wild animal such as a fox or a badger, being led into court to be tried by a judge and jury! If you had lived on the Continent in medieval times, such a spectacle would not have surprised you in the least, for in those days it was quite common for both domestic and wild animals to be brought to court, there to be tried, sentenced or acquitted, according to the jury’s verdict.

These animal courts were not staged for fun. They were conducted in all seriousness, with eminent lawyers acting for plaintiff and accused, exactly as they do when people are tried in our courts today.

Not long ago a bird was blamed for causing a thatched cottage to be burnt to the ground. It was suggested that the bird had taken a still smouldering cigarette end into the thatch for use as nest-building material. If the same thing had happened in medieval times it would have been the solemn duty of the ecclesiastical court to publicly declare the bird to be under notice to quit the district forthwith.

Fantastic, admittedly – but none the less true. The position was that civil courts had jurisdiction over all domestic creatures, including farm animals, whilst the church, or ecclesiastical courts, could call to trial and pronounce sentence on all forms of wild life, from wolves and rats down to insect pests such as ants and house flies.

One of France’s most eminent jurists, M. Chassensee, made his name for his masterly defence of the rats in the Diocese of Autun, in the 15th century. The rats were accused of appearing in great numbers and annoying the townspeople and were therefore summoned to appear before the local ecclesiastical court.

The defendants were described as “dirty animals of grey colour living in holes.” As the rats failed to appear in answer to the summons, the prosecution demanded sentence right away. But Chassensee argued that All the rats in the diocese were interested parties and they, too, should be called to give evidence. The curate of every parish was therefore commanded to issue a general summons. Still no rats turned up.

Contempt of court? Certainly not, argued Chassensee. Some were too old and some too young to make the journey. The rest of his clients, he explained, were quite willing to attend, but were afraid to come out of their holes because of “evilly disposed cats belonging to the plaintiffs.” This resulted in a stalemate and the case was therefore adjourned, sine die, or indefinitely!

One of the strangest of all medieval trials took place at Basle, Switzerland, in 1474, when a cockerel was accused of the diabolical crime of laying an egg! It seems that in those days it was believed that a cock’s egg in the hands of wizards or witches was a thousand times more dangerous than, say, an atom bomb in our day.

For the crime of delivering, or making available, such a satanic object, the luckless rooster was hastily tried, sentenced and publicly burnt at the stake, together with the egg!

A sow and her six piglets were summoned to appear before a court at Lavegny in 1457 on a charge of having killed – and eaten – a two-year-old child. The sow was condemned to death by hanging, but the defending lawyer managed to get the piglets off with a caution, stressing their extreme youth and the fact that they had been undoubtedly influenced by the bad example of their mother.

In 1713, a colony of ants in Brazil were charged with undermining and carrying off flour from a store. They were represented by a learned counsel, who argued at great length before a church court sitting in the monastery of Saint Pridade. A verdict was returned against the ants and sentence was actually proclaimed aloud by one of the friars sent out to the ant hills for the purpose!

At Sauviot, France, in 1543, a whole hive of bees was summoned on a charge of stinging a man so severely that he nearly died. But by the time the case was due to be heard, the bees had swarmed. The court was bound to admit that the offenders were now dispersed among other hives in the district and even the defendant had to confess that he wouldn’t be able to recognise his attackers, even if he saw them. Completely baffled, the civil court handed the case over to the ecclesiastical court, which managed to satisfy the defendant by calling down a curse upon every bee in the district!

Incredible as it may seem, as recently as the early part of last century, writs of ejectment were served on rats in some parts of the United States, ordering them to quit premises within a stated time. To make sure the rats should not overlook the writs, it was customary to smear the documents with grease, roll them up and stuff them down the rats’ holes, presumably so that they should read, mark, learn and inwardly digest their contents!

Researches by French antiquaries have actually brought to light records of ninety-two cases of animals tried in their courts between 1120 and 1740, the last being the case of a cow brought to court on a charge of murder. It was alleged that the cow had trampled on a boy sleeping under an apple tree and killed him. A court official duly went to the field, read out the charge, then arrested the animal. After the trial, the cow was put to death in full view of the populace.

An unusual charge was made against a pig at Montaign in 1394. Sacrilege was the alleged offence, for the porker was said to have gobbled up a consecrated wafer. The court was appalled by the gravity of the “crime” and imposed a death sentence forthwith and without more ado.

At Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1451, leeches were a plague. A number were caught and brought to court for trial. The sentence was that they, and all their relatives, should leave the district within three days. It would seem that the leeches failed to understand what was expected of them. At any rate, they made no move to shake the dust of the place off their feet, but carried on plaguing the locals as usual. Priests were therefore called upon to exorcise them. If old records are to be believed, from that very day the leeches started to die off and before long were completely exterminated.

At Oviedo, Spain, in the year 1450, a clothes-moth was brought before a full court assembly and solemnly charged with damaging a valuable tapestry. The moth was pronounced guilty and ordered to be decapitated, and the whole moth tribe banished from the kingdom. A technical miscarriage of justice perhaps, for it is the larvae, not the moth, that does the mischief!

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