The law is an ass: 8 famous animal trials from history

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow on trial
A sow on trial in at Lavegny in 1457 from The Book of Days.

Animal trials, which peaked in the 14th to 16th centuries, were serious, official proceedings, some of which lasted months and featured respected lawyers on both sides who would enthral the court with erudite arguments.

It was believed by many medieval authorities that ‘crimes’ committed by animals were the devil’s work and letting them go unpunished would provide an opportunity for the devil to take over human affairs.

Here are eight famous animal prosecutions from history that saw pigs, dogs, rats and even insects on trial. That's almost a whole farmyard-full.

Note: The incidents below have not been invented or embellished. They are all genuine cases documented by contemporary records and sources.

1. Going the whole hog

In courts throughout history shouts of ‘you swine!’ from the public gallery have no doubt been heard on many an occasion. In one particular court in 15th-century France, though, this cry would have been quite literal, as it actually was a pig in the dock.

On a farm east of Paris in the spring of 1494 the infant child of a cowherd was badly mutilated in the face and neck by a ‘young pig’. The case was prosecuted by Jehan Levoisier, a ‘licentiate in law’. The judge’s verdict declared that ‘the said porker, now detained as a prisoner’, was to be ‘hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoinant to the gallows’.

2. I smell a rat!

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz (1480-1541) was an influential lawyer and later politician who shuffled around the important centres of Renaissance Europe.

In the ancient French town of Autun in the early 16th century De Chasseneuz defended an unspecified number of rats which had, having destroyed local barley crops, been summoned to court. De Chasseneuz then beguiled the tribunal with a series of successful pleas for adjournments, such as the rats being too old and infirm to attend. He also implored the townsfolk to keep their cats indoors, as the presence of the felines in the streets was also preventing the attendance of his ‘clients’ the rats. The owners of the moggies being unwilling to impose a kitty curfew, the case was dismissed.

While domesticated animals tended to be tried in secular courts, ‘vermin’ such as rodents and insects were tried in ecclesiastical courts. This is because the former were considered to be under human control, while for the latter ‘supernatural’ intervention was needed to bring them to justice.

3. A cockerell in the court

In 1474, a court in Basel, Switzerland, sentenced a cock to be burned at the stake for the ‘crime of laying an egg’. The condemned cockerel was roasted alive at the Kohlenberg in a ceremonious occasion that drew a large crowd. The executioner was said to have found three more eggs inside the wretched rooster, but this is clearly the ‘bull’ part of this cock and bull story.

4. Are you a man or a mouse? Or a mole?

Variously described as moles or field mice, or perhaps both, in 1519 the Alpine community of Stelvio suffered such severe agricultural damage from these furry felons that they took the matter to court. Hans Grinebner was appointed to defend the crop-killing creatures, the judge allowing for all legal arguments to be presented so that the diminutive defendants would have ‘nothing to complain of’. The prosecutor naturally spoke of the great harm that had been done to the livelihoods of the farmers, while Grinebner suggested to the court that his clients’ stirrings in the fields were good for the soil and disruptive to destructive insects. The rodents’ brief managed to sway the judge in the end, who let them off with banishment and the promise of ‘safe conduct’ against local cats and dogs on their way out.

5. You reap what you sow

Many legal proceedings against criminal critters, especially in medieval France, concerned pigs. A grimly illustrative case is of a sow executed in Falaise in northern France in 1386.

The marauding pig had attacked a child, who later died. An official trial was held, and lawyers acted for and against the killer she-hog. The animal was found guilty and on the day of execution was led into the town square dressed in a man’s clothes. In the spirit of ‘an eye for an eye’, the wretched creature was first maimed and mutilated with a knife before being hanged.

Savage swine were on numerous occasions condemned to death for killing people, but mitigation was occasionally accepted. Six sucklings were in one 1457 case reprieved of a murder charge, owing to their age, while their sow mother was executed.

6. Beetle's about

Even insects were not immune to prosecution. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe there were many cases of court-sanctioned bug bashing, with church authorities acting as a sort of holy pest control company; Pope Stephen VI even once sprayed a ‘pesticide’ of holy water around Rome’s rural outskirts. Pulpit pronouncements were often used in conjunction with trials, and on occasion the insects would even be ‘told’ in writing or verbally that they would like it much better in a neighbouring village.

In 1478, in Switzerland, seed beetles were prosecuted for wreaking havoc on crops. After much public reprimanding of the insects and head-scratching from local dignitaries, the Bishop of Lausanne issued a cease-and-desist order to the bugs. The insects ignoring this, the Bishop then ordered the antagonistic arthropods to leave the land within six days, proclaiming that these creatures were not passengers on Noah’s Ark and so were open to excommunication. If they refused to leave, they were ordered to appear in Avenches to explain their refusal to budge.

The records do not mention whether they turned up in Avenches, but the following year they were back, and the church blamed the pests’ continuing presence on the ‘sins’ of the people. Sins which they could offset by coughing up more tithe money, incidentally.

7. A (Spanish) fly in the ointment

In Mainz, Germany, in the 14th century, local people brought a prosecution against some Spanish flies. The Spanish fly, a blister beetle, is dangerous to livestock and ruinous to vegetation, hence the furious Rhineland farmers were happy to see the church court weigh in on these mischievous minibeasts.

In view of ‘their small size’ the judge appointed for them a learned defender who represented his clients with great dignity.

As in the case of the seed beetles of Switzerland, the ecclesiastical court banished them, kindly approving an allocated plot of land for the creepy crawlies to retire to. It is not known if the puny prisoners made it to their reservation, but any failure in this case was likely pinned on the townsfolk’s lack of piety.

8. 'Ruff' justice

An early 18th-century German chronicle relates an incident of a drummer’s dog in an Austrian town biting a councillor’s leg. The military musician cravenly handed his poor pooch over to the judicial authorities, who sentenced the hound to a year locked inside the public ‘Narrenkötterlein’. Used like a pillory, this small iron cage in the town’s main square served to let the townsfolk ridicule local ‘fools’, criminals, blasphemers, and breachers of the peace.

Written by:

James Brigden