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‘The Law is an Ass’[1]

Image by Lenora.

One of the strangest practices that developed in the early medieval period was that of animal trials.

Animals were only brought before the law and punished if they affected people or society; animals killing other animals for food was seen as a part of the natural order of things – pretty sensible or there would have been no animals left.

For some reason the majority of cases seem to have taken place in France, maybe animals and insects held an unusually strong grudge against the French. Whatever the reason the industry surrounding animal courts and lawyers specialising in bestial crimes flourished there. Eventually it was decided that it was unfair that animals were being sentenced without the chance to prove their innocence. Obviously the animals and insects were unable to arrange their own defence and so under Francis I (1494-1547) it became illegal for an animal to be tried without a defence lawyer present to act as an intermediary between the animals and the injured human parties[2]. This practice was to some extent adopted in other mainland European countries.

There seems to have been two main types of charges; that of a single animal or small group of animals attacking an individual person and that of large numbers of a species causing harm to a community or society.

The punishment meted out depended on the crime. If an animal or insect could be identified as the culprit they could face a death sentence i.e. death by hanging, burning at the stake or decapitation.

The Death Sentence

Although dressing animals up in human clothes, appointing them a lawyer and conducting a trial is no longer employed, putting down animals which have injured or killed humans is still in use. Whereas today it seems to be dogs that are often in the news for attacking people, in the past it was pigs who dominated the animal trials.

A famous case occurred in Falaise in France where a sow was accused of killing a child and then devouring it. The sow was tried and found guilty of murder and condemned to be killed by the sword. Since the child’s head had been eaten as well as an arm, the sow’s foot was cut off and its face mutilated before it was dressed in men’s clothing and led away to face the executioner[3].

Trial of a sow from The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, Public Domain.

Another occasion also in France, three sows were accused of killing the swineherd, Perrinot Muet. The sows were duly convicted but as if the case wasn’t strange enough two entire herds of swine were accused of being accessories to murder since they had heard Perrinot’s screams, ‘rushed’ to the scene of the crime and ‘witnessed’ his death. After appealing to the Duke of Burgundy, Prior Humbert de Poutier managed to get the death sentence dismissed against the herds[4]. This weird judgement was based on medieval law codes that stated that any living creature in the vicinity of certain serious crimes e.g. murder, rape and sexual assault could be seen as an accomplice and decapitated[5]. What did people expect the animals to do; fight the perpetrators, go for help or raise an alarm? It seems in these situations only Skippy, Flipper and Lassie would have survived.


Sentences of banishment or exile were also used where the crime was not considered as severe or where the prosecutors felt sympathy for the perpetrators.

In Russia a he-goat was exiled to Siberia after butting an important official whilst he was tying his shoe[6] and in 1519 a community in Western Tyrol brought to trial some mice which were causing grave damage to the harvest. The defence lawyer argued that the mice served the community by eating insects and enriching the soil. Despite losing the mice were treated with leniency and kindness. Although they were ordered to leave immediately a fourteen day reprieve was granted to any pregnant mice that were unable to travel or any young that could not make the journey unaided[7].

Sometimes the situation was beyond the power of the law courts to deal with and the church was called in to intervene on behalf of the complainants. The church wielded two unique weapons; these were the power of excommunication and anathema.

Excommunication and Anathema

An excommunication in full swing. Public domain.

Excommunication involves ejection from the church and exclusion from its services and communion[8]. Anathema was a more severe form of excommunication and was often used to cast out the devil or his agents. Anathema involved using curses and denouncements to ban a person or thing from the light of the church and was implemented in religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority[9].

The problem with excommunication was that how can you eject something from an institution that it is not a part of in the first place? The other difficulty is that it suggested that animals and insects have souls, something the Catholic Church at that time denied. That is why anathema was often seen as a more powerful and appropriate punishment.

How the excommunication or anathema was implemented could vary. Sometimes it was on the spur of the moment and at other times a representative was appointed to argue on behalf of the accused.

The Power of a Saint

In general the success rate of these judgements against insects, mammals and birds is unknown but in one case the records definitely confirm a win.

St Bernhard of Clairveaux Jorg Breu the elder. 1500. Public domain.

In 1121 St Bernard Clairvaux, initiator of the Cistercian Order and fervent proponent of the 2nd Crusade was preaching at the monastery of Foigny which he had founded when a swarm of irreligious flies entered without permission. These flies showed no respect for the solemnity of the occasion and proceeded to irritate St Bernard and distract his parishioners. The infuriated saint reaching the end of his tether suddenly addressed the flies and announced in a prophetic voice “I excommunicate you”. The next morning all the flies were found dead on the floor and had to be swept out[10].

It does seem that even though excommunication could be performed by any clergyman, effectiveness was more likely when performed by someone high up on the religious ladder.

The curse of the caterpillars

Caterpillars for some reason in particular seemed to have raised the ire of our medieval ancestors.

One of the earliest recorded excommunications took place in 1120 and was carried out by the Bishop of Laon when he issued a letter biding the annoying caterpillars to vacate the area. The caterpillars were apparently working in cohorts with some field mice as they were also named. It is really interesting that the formulae used by the bishop to deliver the proclamation was the same as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims which cursed priests who continued to marry ‘in spite of the canons’[11]. So in France it seems that rebellious priests and mutinous caterpillars warranted the same treatment!

Further decrees of excommunication against caterpillars were issued in 1480 by the spiritual court of Autun responding to complaints from the inhabitants of Mussy and Pernan, in 1543 in Grenoble, in 1585 by the Grand Vicar of Valencia who ordered the caterpillars to vacate his diocese and on the 9 July 1516 when Jean Milon, an officer of Troye passed this damning sentence,

after having heard the parties and granting the request of the inhabitants of Villenove, we admonish the caterpillars to retire within six days; and in case they do not comply, we pronounce them accursed and excommunicated [12]

In general it is not known how the caterpillars felt about these denouncements but in the case of the caterpillars of Valence in 1587 they stuck their suckers in and refused to budge[13]. It seems that the loss of the comfort of the church was less important than the pleasure of some tasty greens.

The Leeches of Geneva

In 1451 a pile of leeches were brought to court on the order of William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, to listen to the accusations against them. How this worked I have no idea as they don’t have ears but anyway it was against the rules to issue any legal edict without representatives from those accused being present. The leeches had been threatening the destruction of fish, in particular salmon stocks in Lake Geneva. The edict confined them to one specified part of the lake. It seems that the leeches on this occasion were not excommunicated as they obeyed and caused no further trouble[14].

Noah’s Ark Stowaways

Sometimes the ingenuity of the arguments given by the lawyers prosecuting and defending insects and animals smacked of brilliance and their arguments had a weird logic to them.

    An Inger…? Image by Chickenstein.

In 1478 the community of Berne in Switzerland asked for judicial help against a plague of insects called ingers which were destroying their crops. A proclamation made from the pulpit gave the ingers six days to leave and if they failed to do so they had to appear at one o’clock at Wifflisburg to face trial before His Grace the Bishop of Lausanne or his deputy. When the ingers did not appear they were appointed Thruing Fricker as their defence lawyer. The clever prosecutor dismissed Fricker’s statement that as one of god’s creatures they were allowed the right to live. He instead argued the opposite pointing out that ingers had survived the flood as stowaways aboard the Ark as they were not listed amongst the creatures invited by Noah. The prosecutor won and it was decreed that the ingers should be banned, exorcised and accursed and that wherever they go their numbers should decrease[15]. Maybe it worked, as I have never heard of ingers! If anyone has please let me know.

The Weevils’ Revenge

Probably the most drawn out animal court case concerns the weevils of Saint-Julien. In 1545 a lawsuit was taken out against weevils who were destroying a local vineyard. A preliminary judicial judgement was successful and the weevils left. Unfortunately forty-two years later they returned. This was seen as the weevils breaking the agreement. I think that this is very unfair considering weevils have a life span of at the most two months, which means at least 252 generations had passed between the original and 1587 miscreants. Even if weevils have an oral tradition it would have been unlikely this 252nd generation of weevils would have been aware of the original judgement. Nevertheless the new trial went ahead. It was finally decided that the accused should be given another piece of land where they could live in happiness and comfort although the opposing lawyers could not agree where that should be since the prosecutors’ choice was deemed as unsuitable. It is unclear what the final decision was as possibly in revenge of theirs and their ancestors’ blackened reputation either the weevils or some of their friends ate the pages outlining the trial summary and the court proceedings[16].

The Rat Attorney

Image by Lenora.

One of the most successful animal lawyers was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, a French jurist and theologian who studied law in France and Italy. He worked in the service of the duchy of Milan and Pope Julius II but moved back to France after a plague outbreak where he became famous for defending a group of rats who were destroying a barley crop in the vicinity of Autun. The citizens of Autun finally applied to the Episcopal Court to get the rats excommunicated as all other means of removal had failed. The court appointed Chasseneuz to represent the rats. Chasseneuz studied the evidence and put forward an interesting argument for adjoining the trial i.e. that the rats had not been properly summoned to the hearing as not all the priests in the infected areas had issued formal citations. This approach did not result in a dismissal of the case so he then tried to delay the trial by arguing that not enough time had been allowed for the rats to present at court considering the physical peril they faced in having to negotiate the church cats[17]. I could not find a record of the sentence but this group of rats probably lost and were excommunicated.

The Deviancy of Birds

Birds did not escape the wrath of the church. Most often they were excommunicated for damaging harvest crops or livestock as in Canada at the end of the 17th century when a number of birds of prey were excommunicated, but occasionally there were other concerns.

In 1559 the Saxon vicar, Daniel Greyber, excommunicated a flock of birds which were residing in his church. Greyber was angry at them disrupting his services and even more concerned at their sexual shenanigans or “scandalous acts of unchastity”[18]. Possibly the vicar was worried about the birds setting a bad example!

Cockchafers and their Deceased Defender

Sometimes the law was ignored and insects not given their proper legal aid. For instance in 1479 in the Lausanne area some cockchafers (whatever they are) were invited to appear at the bishops’ court to face charges. Perrodet was appointed to represent them but neither Perrodet or the cockchafers showed up. Both had good excuses, the cockchafers were insects – enough said and Perrodet had been dead for six months. In their absence a judgement was given in the name of the Holy Trinity and Blessed Virgin and the insects ordered to quit the area forever[19].

Parson Hawker

One of the last known animal excommunications took place in England by the 19th century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.

Image by Lenora.

The difference between this and most of the earlier examples is that Hawker was a minister of the Church of England and not a Catholic priest. Putting that aside his parishioners saw the excommunication as an extension of Hawker’s eccentric behaviour rather than religious adherence, for instance he was known to dress on occasion as a mermaid[20].

“Four legs good, two legs bad”[21]

The list of animals that faced a legal trial is a long one and includes aside from those already mentioned snails, slugs, locusts, moles, eels, grasshoppers and dolphins. Nearly 144 excommunications and executions of animals and insects took place between 824 and 1845[22] but in reality by the 1700s animal trials had begun to fall out of favour.

Although we can laugh at it now at the time animal trials were taken completely seriously as in the medieval mind the devil was working through these creatures and so they needed to be dealt with severely.

As to the views of the members of the animal kingdom that were executed, exiled and condemned, we are in the dark but if Christianity is wrong and Hinduism right about reincarnation then we know who has had the last laugh!

Miss Piggy on trial. Image by Michell O’Connell from Spiked 9 Sept 2015


Popular Science, Dec 1882, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JSsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA248&lpg=PA248&d#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38, Number 5867, 15 January 1870, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18700115.2.10&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1

Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, Thomas A Fudge, 2016

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, Charlie Campbell, 2011

Encyclopædia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, Volume 18, (ed) Edward Smedley, 1845, https://books.google.co.uk/books

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barth%C3%A9lemy_de_Chasseneuz

Popular Science Feb 1876, Feb 1876, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CSIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA504&lpg=PA504&dq=the+bishop+of+laon+excommunicate+caterpillars&source=bl&ots=r8dx_n0saM&sig=Wq3xCjO7hpFd9NWYNoGsPww6zvw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj6lfGjyPfdAhXLKMAKHaD-ChgQ6AEwA3oECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=bishop%20of%20laon%20excommunicate%20caterpillars&f=false

The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, Edward Payson Evans, 1906

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, Chapter 18 in The Mind made Flesh, OUP 2002, http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/2002BugsAndBeasts.pdf

Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them, Matt Simon, https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-europes-insane-history-putting-animals-trial-executing/

Bernard of Clairvaux, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux

Beasts before the Bar, Frank A Beach, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/041873/beasts-before-the-bar?page=2

Robert Stephen Hawker, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stephen_Hawker

Legal Prosecutions of Animals, William Jones, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_17/September_1880/Legal_Prosecutions_of_Animals

Anathema, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Anathema

Excommunication, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens


[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Popular Science, Dec 1882

[3] ibid

[4] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[5] ibid

[6] Beasts before the Bar

[7] ibid

[8] Excommunication

[9] Anathema

[10] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[11] ibid

[12] The Popular Science, December 1882

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[14] ibid

[15] Bugs and Beasts

[16] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[17] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[18] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[19] Legal Prosecutions of Animals

[20] Robert Stephen Hawker

[21] Animal Farm, George Orwell

[22] Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People