Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/September 1880/Legal Prosecutions of Animals



AMONG the strange practices of olden times nothing can be conceived more truly absurd than the trial, by legal proceedings; of animals accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, which prevailed, more or less, from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and present a curious picture of the habits of thought during those periods.

The trials in question were conducted with all the solemnity of the law. In every instance advocates were assigned to defend the animals. Domestic animals were tried in the ordinary criminal courts; wild animals of a noxious description, such as rats, locusts, caterpillars, and such like, were subjected to the ecclesiastical courts. The first excommunication fulminated against animals is recorded in the twelfth century. St. Foix, in his "Essais Historiques sur Paris," states that the Bishop of Laon pronounced in 1120 an injunction against the caterpillars and field-mice, on account of the ravages they made on the crops.

The mode of trial in the criminal courts was this: The accused animal was committed to prison; the procureur, or officer who exercised the functions of prosecutor at the court, after hearing witnesses and taking down their depositions, and the crime of homicide being proved, the judge condemned the animal to be strangled, and hung by the back-legs to an oak-tree, or a gibbet, according to the custom of the country. In the case of damages done to property, the inhabitants of a district suffering therefrom, experts were appointed by the court to survey and report on the subject. A lawyer was then appointed to defend the animals, and show cause why they should not be summoned before justice. They were then called three times, and, not appearing, judgment was given against them in default. The court then issued an admonition, warning them to leave the district within a certain time, at the expiration of which, if they were still contumacious, they were to be anathematized with all due solemnity. Instead, however, of feeling the effects of this terrible sentence, it is recorded that in some instances the noxious animals, contrary to "withering off the face of the earth," became more abundant and destructive. This the lawyers attributed neither to the injustice of the sentence, nor want of power of the court, but to the machinations of Satan, who, as in the case of Job, is at certain times permitted to tempt and annoy mankind.

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century there are numerous examples of proceedings in the criminal court in the case of pigs (and sows, more particularly) who had devoured children. As one may see at present in certain localities, these animals in the middle ages ran about the streets of villages, and were, it would seem, more addicted to a liking for human flesh than, happily—grace to the refinements of time—they are now. In the "Annuaire du Département de l'Aisne" (1812) are full details of the sentence pronounced on a hog (June 14, 1494) by the Mayor of St. Martin de Laon, for having défacié and strangled a child in its cradle. The sentence concludes thus: "We, in detestation and horror of this crime, and in order to make an example and satisfy justice, have declared judged, sentenced, pronounced, and appointed, that the said hog, being detained a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be, by the executioner, hung and strangled on a gibbet near and adjoining the gallows in the jurisdiction of the said monks (of St. Martin de Laon), being near their copyhold of Avin. In witness of which we have sealed this present with our seal." This was done on the 14th day of June, in the year 1494, and sealed with red wax, and upon the back is written, "Sentence on a hog executed by justice, brought into the copyhold of Clermont, and strangled on a gibbet at Avin."

In 1497 a sow was condemned to be beaten to death for having eaten the chin of a child belonging to the village of Charonne. The sentence declared that the flesh of the sow should be thrown to the dogs, and that the owner of the animal and his wife should make a pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Pontoise, where, being the day of Pentecost, they should cry "Mercy!" after which they were to bring back a certificate. The execution of these animals was public and solemn; sometimes they were clothed like men. In 1386 the judge at Falaise condemned a sow to be mutilated in the leg and head, and afterward to be hung, for having torn the face and arm and then killed a child. This was a Draconian method of punishment. This sow was executed in the public square, clothed in a man's dress. The execution cost ten sous, six deniers tournois, besides a new glove for the executioner.

Bulls shared with swine the same mode of trial and punishment; horses, also, guilty of homicide had a similar ordeal. The registers of Dijon record that in 1389 one was condemned to death for having killed a man.

In the "Mémoires de la Société Royale Académique de Savoie" is a singular account of the law proceedings, instituted in 1587, against a species of beetle that made great ravages in the vineyards of St. Julien, near St. Julien de Maurienne. In 1545 these insects had made an irruption into this territory. Two lawyers had been selected, one by the inhabitants, and the other to defend the animals, and, wonderful to relate, the beetles suddenly disappeared, and the lawsuit was accordingly abandoned. It was, however, resumed forty-two years afterward, in 1587, when they reappeared and committed great ravages. The court addressed a complaint to the vicar-general of the Bishop of Maurienne, who named a judge, and also a lawyer to plead for the insects, and published an order prescribing processions, prayers, etc. After several legal discussions the inhabitants of St. Julien were informed that it was necessary to provide a piece of land outside the vineyards, where the beetles could live without infringing on the vines. The land was to be of a certain extent, and to contain trees, herbs, etc., in sufficient quantity, and of good quality. The concession was made June 29, 1587, and on July 4th the counsel for the inhabitants presented a request to the court that, in default of the defendants accepting the offer, the judge would order the vineyards to be respected under certain penalties. The advocate for the animals demanded time for deliberation, and, the trial being resumed in September following, he declared that he could not accept on the part of his clients the offer that had been made to them, inasmuch as the locality in question was barren and did not produce anything. This was denied on the other side, and arbitrators were appointed to decide the question. The result is not known, as the manuscript containing the case leaves off at this point, but sufficient particulars have been given to show the extremely absurd and curious proceedings on this subject.

No district could commence a legal process of this kind unless all the arrears of tithes were paid up to the Church, and this circumstance gave rise to the well-known French legal maxim, "The first step toward getting rid of locusts is the payment of tithes." It seems that the clergy and the lawyers agreed very well together in these matters. Chasseneuz, a celebrated lawyer of the sixteenth century, writing on the subject of trying animals by law, in order to console the Beaunois for the plague of locusts (vulgarly called huberes), informs them that the creatures of which they complain were nothing in comparison to those that infested India. These last were no less than three feet long, and their legs were armed with teeth so powerful that saws were made of them! The best means of deliverance was to pay promptly and truly the tithes of the Church, and to cause a female (barefooted) to walk round the infected place.

The same means indicated by the lawyer for the inhabitants of St. Julien de Maurienne were employed very often, and successfully, according to some writers; thus, a famous councilor of Zurich, Félix Malléolus, or Hemmerlin (died 1457), relates that Guillaume de Saluces, who was Bishop of Lausanne from 1221 to 1229, ordered the eels of Lake Leman to confine themselves to a certain part, from which they were not to go out. He relates, also, that in the diocese of Constance and in the neighborhood of Coire were consigned, "en une région forestière et sauvage," larvæ and Spanish flies, that had been previously cited before the provincial magistrate, who, "taking into consideration their youth and diminutive size, appointed an advocate to defend them."

The summonses against offending animals were served by an officer of the criminal court, who read these citations at the places frequented by them. Though judgment was given by default on the non-appearance of the animals summoned, yet it was considered necessary that some of them should be present when the citation was delivered; thus, in the case of the leeches tried at Lausanne, a number of them were brought into court to hear the document read, which admonished them to leave the district in three days. The citation contained a description of the animals; thus, in a process against rats in the diocese of Autun, the defendants were described as dirty animals in the form of rats, of a grayish color, living in holes. This trial is famous in the annals of French law, for it was on that occasion Chasseneuz (who wrote a work in 1588, on the excommunication of animals), the famous advocate, won his first laurels. The rats not appearing on the first citation, Chasseneuz, their counsel, with true legal subtilty, argued that the summons was of a too local and individual character; that, as all the rats in the diocese were interested, all the rats should be summoned. This plea being admitted, the curate of every parish in the diocese was instructed to summon every rat for a future day. The day arriving, but not any rats, Chasseneuz declared that as all his clients were summoned, including young and old, sick and healthy, great preparations had to be made, and an extension of time was necessary. This also being accorded, another day was appointed, and again no rats appearing, Chasseneuz objected to the legality of the summons under certain circumstances. A summons from that court, he argued, implied full protection to the parties summoned, both on their way to it and their return home; but his clients, the rats, though most anxious to appear in obedience to the court, did not dare to stir out of their holes on account of the number of evil-disposed cats kept by the plaintiffs. Let the latter, he continued, enter into bonds, under heavy pecuniary penalties, that their cats shall not molest my clients, and the summons will at once be obeyed. The court acknowledged the force of this plausible plea, but the plaintiffs refusing to be bound over for the good behavior of their cats, the period for the attendance of the rats was adjourned sine die, and thus Chasseneuz and his clients came off victorious.

The "Conteur Vaudois" of Lausanne publishes this strange story, which is found in the "History of the Swiss Reformation," by De Ruchat. It is not inserted as a joke, but given in sober seriousness: In 1479 the vicinity of Lausanne was infested by cockchafers; a lawsuit was commenced against them, and three processions of the inhabitants ordered. The insects were cited to appear in the bishop's court, and for counsel they had assigned to them one Perrodet, who had been dead six months! The accused and their advocate not appearing, judgment was given by default. The sentence is in Latin, and is preserved in the archives of Lausanne. The insects are excommunicated in the name of the Holy Trinity and the Blessed Virgin, and they and their descendants were ordered to quit for ever the diocese of Lausanne!

The work of De Ruchat contains another strange story. In 1364 the church of Chuttens, in the Jorat Hills, possessed a miraculous image of St. Pancrace. A pig having destroyed a child, this image was Drought out, and the child was restored to life. The pig was cited to appear in the bishop's court, and, being found guilty of willful murder, was sentenced to death. De Ruchat adds that the executioner was a pork-butcher.

With an abundant share of exorcisms, charms, and enchantments for the extirpation of vermin in olden time, England does not appear to have enjoyed the notoriety of the legal proceedings against animals which we have recorded as prevalent in foreign countries. There is, however, a curious case of the trial of a dog in 1771, near Chichester, which gave rise to a facetious parody, "A Report of the Case of Farmer Carter's Dog, Porter," by Mr. Long, a lawyer, who died in 1813. Home, in his "Every-day Book" (vol. ii.), gives an account of this mock trial, somewhat abridged from the original pamphlet in his possession, but without other alteration, together with a portrait of the dog Porter in the dock. The names of the parties engaged in the real trial are given, with those of the nicknames in the parody. The former are Butler, Aldridge, Challen, and Bridger, understood by the names of J. Bottle, A. Noodle, Mat o' th' Mill, and O. Ponser.

In Lord Fountainhall's "Chronological Notes of Scottish Affairs," a curious affair is mentioned in connection with the boys of Heriot's Hospital in 1681-'82, the year in which the Earl of Argyll was tried and convicted of high treason for refusing the test-oath without certain qualifications. The hospital boys made a mockery of the reasoning of the Crown lawyers on this subject. They resolved among themselves that the house-dog belonging to the establishment held a public office and ought to take the test. The paper being presented to the mastiff, it refused to swallow the same unless it was rubbed over with butter. Being a second time tendered, buttered, the dog swallowed it, and was next accused and condemned for having taken the test, with a qualification, as in the case of Argyll!

Charms and exorcisms for the dispersion or destruction of noxious animals prevailed from a remote period, and some of the superstitions, in a modified sense, still exist in our own country, and especially abroad. In the middle ages, history makes frequent mention of the calamities caused by plagues of insects. These were the more destructive, as agricultural science, almost in its infancy at that period, offered few remedies for preventing or mitigating the ravages. Recourse was consequently had to the assistance of the clergy, who listened to the complaint, interposed with prayers, and anathematized those enemies of mankind as the work of Satan. Thus St. Mammet, Bishop of Vienne, exorcised certain devils who had taken the figures of wolves and pigs, and had devoured children. Gregory of Tours (573-595) alludes in his "History" to talismans against mice, serpents, and conflagrations.

The suits against animals not unfrequently led to more serious trials of human beings on charges of sorcery. Simple country people finding the regular process very tedious and expensive, purchased charms and exorcisms from empirical, unlicensed exorcists at a much cheaper rate, but, if any of the parties concerned in this contraband traffic were discovered, death by stake and fagot was their inevitable fate. Still there was one animal, the serpent, which, as it had been cursed at the earliest period of the world's history, might be exorcised and charmed (so that it could not leave the spot where it was first seen) by any one, lay or cleric, without the slightest imputation of sorcery. The formula ran thus:-"By him who created thee, I adjure thee that thou remain in the spot where thou art, whether it be thy will to do so, or otherwise; and I curse thee with the curse with which the Lord hath cursed thee."

In the seventeenth century the cases of law proceedings against animals became rare, for the Church at this period had almost renounced these absurd practices. Thus, for example, in the "Ritual of Evreux," of 1606, Cardinal Duperron declares that no one should exorcise animals nor use prayers and formulas without his express permission. But the delusion was too widespread to be restrained. In Spain and Italy exorcists abounded, as in France. Azpilcenta, of Navarre, a distinguished Spanish canonist, asserts that rats when exorcised were ordered to depart for foreign countries, and would march in large bodies to the seacoast, and thence set off swimming in search of desert islands. Father Manoel Bernardes, in his "Nova Floresta" (published at Lisbon, 1706-1708), gives a long account of the trial of ants in Brazil in the commencement of the eighteenth century. The particulars are too long to be given in detail, but it appears that the monks of St. Anthony complained of the sacrilegious behavior of certain ants that ate their grain, and otherwise misconducted themselves, devouring the cloths of the altar, and bringing into the church pieces of shrouds from the graves beneath the church. The sentence was that the friars should provide a suitable place for the ants to remove to, which seems to have satisfied the defendants—it nigrum campis agmen; millions of ants immediately came out, forming themselves in long, dense columns, and proceeded direct to the field assigned to them.

In America birds of prey and insects were excommunicated. The Baron de la Houtan, who toward the end of the seventeenth century passed several years in Canada, relates that "the number of turtle-doves was so great in that country that the bishop was obliged to excommunicate them several times on account of the damages done by them." A similar infliction was pronounced in Peru against the termites, a species of white ant, that had got into a library and devoured a great number of books. In the "Voyages of La Perouse," it is stated that millions of cockroaches got into the bread-room, and recourse was had to exorcisms more than once.

The ceremonies attending the exorcism of animals were sometimes accompanied by a loud clashing of musical instruments: thus, it is mentioned in the "Life of St. Patrick," that he was unable with the most formidable interdicts to drive away a cloud of bats that had been taken for demons; but what his formulas could not effect was done by a deafening sound of cymbals, which drove them away, as may well be imagined, in great affright. The greatest of the numerous miracles ascribed to St. Patrick was that of driving the venomous reptiles out of Ireland. Colgan seriously relates that the saint accomplished this feat by beating a drum, which he struck with such fervor that he knocked a bole in it, thereby endangering the success of the miracle, but an angel appearing, mended the drum, and the patched instrument was long exhibited as a holy relic. The Rev. Alban Butler, however, in his "Life of St. Patrick," states as a popular tradition of the Irish, that the miracle was given by his staff, called the "Staff of Jesus," which was kept in great veneration at Dublin.

Ribadeneira, the Jesuit author of "Lives of the Saints," states that no venomous beasts after the miracle could live or breathe in Ireland, "and that even the very wood (of the country) has virtue against poison, so that it is reported of King's College, Cambridge, that being built of Irish wood no spider doth ever come near it."—Abridged from Land and Water.