The Bizarre History of Animals On Trial

We’ve all heard of animal trials; the controversial experiments on animals that give us our vital medicines, but also our inessential shampoos. But what about animals ON trial? Well, weirdly, that was once very much the case. In medieval and Renaissance Europe the application of logic in the legal system was paramount, despite our widely-held beliefs of backwards superstition. However, this meant the full weight of the law might be swung not just at humans, but at animals too.

Sometimes criminal animals – those that had committed some act of violence or damage – were merely exiled from the local jurisdiction, as was often the case with swarms of flies and beetles. If the Church courts got involved, they could even face the full rigour of a canonical religious trial in which their punishment was excommunication from God’s protection. However, in the case of aggressive animals taking human life, it was common for the beast to face the death penalty, unless they were draught animals, and so under the command of a human master. In this case, it was the owner who faced charges, not the ox.

But animals on Death Row was common enough to generate some intriguing situations. In the year 1499, a famous trial was held in Germany in which the defendant’s lawyer argued vociferously that his client, accused of murder, had a right to be judged by a jury of his peers. This was a sound legal point, but fortunately the judge decided this was not something he could permit, on account of the inevitable bloodbath that would entail. After all, having one bear in the courtroom was bad enough, but a whole jury of them? Well, that was a recipe for chaos. The murderous bear was tried, convicted, and dangled from a large set of gallows so the relatives of its victim could stone it to death.

Similarly, a pig was burned in 1266 for having eaten a child, while another porcine murderer was hanged in 1386. Pigs were easily swung from the ordinary human gallows, but carpenters had to be called in to erect much larger versions to snap the powerful necks of horses and bears.  Yet, despite the frequent executions, not all cases were foregone conclusions, and occasionally the nuances of the legal system allowed for bizarre (and rather wonderful) defences by lawyers looking to make a name for themselves.

In 1510, a young French lawyer, Bartholomé Chassenée, ingeniously managed to thrice delay a trial with excuses for why his clients hadn’t shown up. The rats were accused of destroying crops in the Burgundian town of Autun, and their cunning lawyer began his frustrating campaign of loophole-leaping with a charming opening argument:  when the judge complained the rats were absent from court,  Chassenée complained they had not received the summons, as they were itinerant creatures with no fixed abode. The judge was forced to agree, and the trial was rescheduled.

On the next occasion, when the rats once again failed to show, Chassenée stood up and claimed that the older, younger and unwell rats would take longer to arrive, on account of their less-healthy bodies slowing them down. Incredibly, the judge saw merit in this reason as well. But on the third occasion, when the courtroom was still devoid of any rats, you might think the young lawyer would crumple. He did nothing of the sort.

Instead, he delivered a complex soliloquy on why his clients refused to attend the trial for fear of being eaten by all the cats roaming the streets. How, he asked, could the justice system so wilfully endanger the lives of the defendants with this immoral summons? The judge was genuinely flummoxed by this, and Chassenée pressed home his advantage by proposing that all cat-owners in the town be held financially responsible for any potential assaults on rats during the trial. It was the moral duty of the plaintiffs in the case to fund the safe transportation of the endangered rats to and from the courtroom.

Inevitably, these suggestions were rejected by the outraged villagers, and the judge was forced to permanently adjourn the case. Chassenée had won a glorious victory and was immediately thrust into the limelight as a superstar lawyer. He  went onto an exceptional career defending humans, while the rats presumably lived long and happy lives chewing on the prohibited crops and generally being rodenty. It was an unexpected outcome, but that was the scope of Early Modern justice, for you.