BRING BACK ANIMAL TRIALS
We've always suspected that hardened animal rights activists are agents of a new medievalism: dim-witted hippies who want us all to wallow in a pre-enlightenment Dark Age. And the news this week that the couple whose twins were mauled by a fox have been receiving death threats from these heroes, after quite understandably erecting fox traps in their backyard, has only confirmed our suspicions. But perhaps it's time that we gave these quasi-fascists what they really want—proper rights for animals. Maybe it's time society resurrected the half-forgotten medieval tradition of the animal trial.
Unlike Crufts, the animal trials of the middle ages were not simply a matter of pinning a rosette on a pug with braids, or forcing a collie to jump through a hoop of fire. They were serious affairs, where an animal accused of a crime would be brought to court, appointed a defence attorney, and tried for their sins, as much as any human ever was. Indeed, in many parts of Europe, animals had exactly the same rights under the law as humans. In prison, awaiting trial, they were entitled to the same allowance of the king's bread, and their jailers charged the same fee for their board.
The spectre of pigs eating babies isn't something Dr Spock found much time for in his childcare manual, but because of the proximity with which humans lived with their livestock it wasn't uncommon in the middle ages. In fact, pigs, more than any other animal, bore the brunt of such prosecutions. In 1386, in Falaise, France, a sow dressed in human clothes was hung at the gallows for just such a crime. The executioner had donned a new pair of gloves, in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, and the condemned sow was ordered to be mutilated around the head and hind quarters.
"Moles, locusts, serpents, flies, field-mice, caterpillars, and eels" were all listed in what is still the best work we have on the subject, AP Evans' 1906 book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. In 1587, a French court heard the argument against "a large number of beetles", who had been duffing up a local vineyard in St Julien. Indeed, some of the accused were brought into court to listen to the reading of a document instructing them to "leave the district within three days, or else…"
Some lawyers made whole careers out of defending the lower animals. In Autun, 1510, Bartholomew Chassenee sealed his reputation at the bar by defending a pack of rats against charges of destroying the barley crop. Summonses were issued. But Chassenee argued that the rats, being so numerous, couldn't have possibly all been served summonses. He then invoked the ancient principle that no one ought to risk life and limb to attend court. The rats, by doing so, would be put into contact with their mortal enemy: the cat. Clearly, no trial could proceed. The case was dismissed. The rats tried to rebuild their shattered lives.
In Toulouse, a man and a donkey found themselves in the dock together, in what must have been an awkward coda to the coitus they had been found engaged in. The man was hanged but the donkey was spared after the court was brought witnesses who established that it was neither a willing nor compliant victim.
Indeed, such clemency often found itself being extended in unusual ways. The long established principle of diminished responsibility on account of youth was brought into play in the trial of one pig, whose six piglets were spared the death sentence handed down to their mother on the grounds of the bad example she had set them.
The idea of trying animals seems to have arisen from a certain vagueness in ecclesiastical philosophy. Were men and animals morally the same? No. But man was—some pointed out—appointed by God to rule over animals. Hence the trials. The livestock litigators even had a Bible verse to back up their views: "If an ox gore a man or woman, that they die, then the ox shall surely be stoned." (Exodus: 22:28). More commonly, though, trials weren't actually of the animals themselves, but of evil quasi-human spirits that had possessed them.
The year of the first trial listed by AP Evans is 824, when some moles were excommunicated in the Valley of Aosta. But, bizarrely, trials persisted even into the 20th century. In 1906, the year his book was released, the Swiss tried two men and a dog for murder and robbery. The men received life sentences. The dog was afforded no such luxury. It was put to death. Bad dog.
Yet still this upended anthropomorphic tendency continues. Judging by their new album cover, Klaxons would have us believe that a cat deserves equal right to apply for NASA training as a human. If that is how they feel, then perhaps their feline friends ought to remember that with equal rights, come equal responsibilities.