Putting animals on trial for crimes, appointing them legal representation, and having them stand defense in court sounds like a barbaric and nonsensical practice. But this is all part of the complex, foundational history of our modern justice system. If you’re interested in pursuing liberal arts, humanities studies, or law, you may want to dive deeper into these cultural and historical roots.
The most brutal and absurd legal proceedings were carried out in the Middle Ages; the medieval era between 500BC and the 1500s. Researchers have uncovered records, like E.P. Evans’ Treatise on the Criminal Prosecution and Capitol Punishment of Animals (1906) which explain how animals once met horrible ends in the name of justice.
Read on for a humanities student’s guide to animal trials in the Middle Ages.
Condemning Animals: Guilt-Free Extermination
According to Evans and similar reports, medieval law seems to have been used against animals as a means of easing the conscience of those who wanted a reason to get rid of them. These trials were often held in ecclesiastical courts, giving farmers and land-owners divine sanctions for extermination.
“Judicial proceedings were instituted by ecclesiastical courts against rats, mice, locusts, weevils, and other vermin in order to prevent them from devouring the crops,” explains Evans, “by means of exorcism and excommunication.”
For example, in the 1480s the Cardinal Bishop of Autun in France held three days of court processions to rule against some slugs that were ruining estate grounds under his purview. The slugs were told to leave the area or be cursed. When the slugs lost the case, they became “free game” for extermination. Records show a similar case occurred the next year at the same time, when a new group of slugs surfaced on the Cardinal’s farm.
Livestock animals like cows and pigs were central to life in medieval towns and villages.
An Eye for An Eye: ‘Justice’ Humanities Studies Have Moved Beyond
Graduates ofhumanities courses often go on to practice law. Shimer College offers a ‘BA to JD’ pre-law program that lets humanities students earn both their BA and law degree in only six years of study. But the law you will learn no longer features severe sentencing for “offending beasts” like bulls, goats, and particularly pigs.
Read records of pig trials in E.P. Evan’s work here.
Back in the Middle Ages, pigs were given the same horrible, bloody and public “justice” as human criminals were. In 1266 for example, a pig was burnt at the stake for injuring a swinemaster’s son. There are a few cases, however, of pigs (considered accomplices of the instigators in their packs) being pardoned and freed to oink another day.
Witchcraft and Bestiality: Mercifully Uncommon Topics in Humanities Courses
Humanities studies can give you a broad perspective of society, culture, and history, allowing you to access and analyze the justice system’s often messy and macabre roots. You’ll learn about the barbaric practices society has overcome through revolutions and the development of democracy.
In the medieval era, animals were often suspected to be involved in witchcraft and bestiality, and tried alongside humans accused of these crimes. When a Swiss town was gifted a moose in the late 1500s, the townspeople “looked upon the strange animal as a most dangerous demon,” and killed it with a poisoned apple.
But as in modern trials, sometimes a defendant’s character set them free. For instance in a 1750 case of “non-consensual bestiality” the human was killed while the animal was acquitted, “on the ground that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved.”
The right college can let you delve into the colorful history of law and justice and prepare you to best serve real justice in the modern world.
Would you like to pursue one of the humanities programs Chicago has to offer?
Visit Shimer for more information or to speak with an advisor.