Let Us Now Praise Infamous Animals

St. Clair, Jeffrey

Publisher:  CounterPunch
Date Written:  03/08/2018
Year Published:  2018  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22900

In medieval Europe (and even colonial America) thousands of animals were summoned to court and put on trial for a variety of offenses, ranging from trespassing, thievery and vandalism to rape, assault and murder. The defendants included cats, dogs, cows, sheep, goats, slugs, swallows, oxen, horses, mules, donkeys, pigs, wolves, bears, bees, weevils, and termites. These tribunals were not show trials or strange festivals like Fools Day. The tribunals were taken seriously by both the courts and the community.



Though now largely lost to history, these trials followed the same convoluted rules of legal procedure used in cases involving humans. Indeed, as detailed in E. P. Evans' remarkable book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), humans and animals were frequently tried together in the same courtroom as co-conspirators, especially in cases of bestiality. The animal defendants were appointed their own lawyers at public expense. Animals enjoyed appeal rights and there are several instances when convictions were overturned and sentences reduced or commuted entirely. Sometimes, particularly in cases involving pigs, the animal defendants were dressed in human clothes during court proceedings and at executions.

Animal trials were held in two distinct settings: ecclesiastical courts and secular courts. Ecclesiastical courts were the venue of choice for cases involving the destruction of public resources, such as crops, or in crimes involving the corruption of public morals, such as witchcraft or sexual congress between humans and beasts. The secular and royal courts claimed jurisdiction over cases where animals were accused of causing bodily harm or death to humans or, in some instances, other animals.

When guilty verdicts were issued and a death sentence imposed, a professional executioner was commissioned for the lethal task. Animals were subjected to the same ghastly forms of torture and execution as were condemned humans. Convicted animals were lashed, put to the rack, hanged, beheaded, burned at the stake, buried alive, stoned to death and drawn-and-quartered. In 14th century Sardinia, trespassing livestock had an ear cut-off for each offense. In an early application of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, the third conviction resulted in immediate execution.

The flesh of executed animals was never eaten. Instead, the corpses of the condemned were either burned, dumped in rivers or buried next to human convicts in graveyards set aside for criminals and heretics. The heads of the condemned, especially in cases of bestiality, were often displayed on pikes in the town square adjacent to the heads of their human co-conspirators.

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