Friday 8 March 2013

'I Pronounced this Pig Guilty of Murder' by Karen Maitland

With horsemeat much in news recently, it’s made me think about way animals were regarded in past centuries and what it reveals a lot about how people viewed their world and their place in. Take, for example, the medieval animal trials.

In the Middle Ages, animals could be arrested and tried in court in exactly the same way as humans. In 1457 a sow was convicted in court of the murder of five year old John Martin and was sentenced to be hanged, but the prosecution could find no evidence that the six piglets, though blood-stained had actually assisted in the murder, so they were released on condition that they should be returned to court if their future conduct proved criminal. Likewise, of the herd of pigs that trampled a swineherd in Burgundy in 1379, only four were executed for leading the charge.

While in the 1200’s a lawyer, Henry de Bracton, successful argued that a horse was guilty of rape for having mounted a nobleman’s mare without consent and should therefore be castrated.

In the Middle Ages all kinds of animals were taken to court. The citizens of Saint-Julien-de-Maurienne in France three times sued a mass of flies which had ruined their vines. The townspeople lost their case when a lawyer argued that God had commanded the flies to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ therefore they were legally permitted to eat the vines. Other lawyers successfully defended rats, the animal not the human variety, using a similar arguments.

Many of the trials centered around the belief that animals could be demons in disguise, or, in the case of a badger, according to Abbot Guibert of Nogent in 1120, it was actually the devil himself.  And where pests such as weevils, caterpillars, locusts, moles and flocks of birds were found guilty of destroying crops or food on the orders of the devil, formal rituals of excommunication were carried out against them. While in 1474, a cockerel was put on trial for 'the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg,' which the people feared contained a cockatrice or basilisk .
If a witch was sentenced to be executed, it was believed she couldn’t die until her imps or familiars were named and killed first, so many an innocent cat, hare or toad was put into a box and burned alive, or else tortured in order to make their ‘mistress’ confess. In the St Osyth witch trials of 1582, Ursula Kemp confessed that her black lamb, Tyffin, which was one of her imps, spied on her neighbours and told her all their secrets.

But it’s easy to understand why you might stage an elaborate public execution of an animal if you believed it was a demon and therefore capable of malicious intent. But why go to the trouble of trying an animal that had simply mauled someone? It was time-consuming and very expense to put the animals on trial just as it was for a human. When a bull was sentenced to be hanged for murder it took two days just to build a scaffold and pulleys. So if you thought he was dangerous why not simply kill him, as you would if you were going to slaughter him for meat?
I think the reason was that an animal turning on a human was regarded as treason. Animals were considered a lower a form of life in the order of creation and just as when a servant killed their master, or a wife killed her husband, such a crime was not simply murder it was considered petty treason and punished as such. In the case of a wife killing her husband she could be burned to death.  So it maybe that the public trial and execution of animal was seen as warning to the people not to try to overthrow the natural order and rebel against your betters or you too could find yourself hanging from the gallows like that unfortunate pig.

I wonder what historians looking back on our century will deduce about us from who or what we put on trial.


Simon Jones said...

Great post - such lunacy was not confined to the Middle Ages. In 1916 they hanged an elephant for murder in Tennesee!

Paeony Lewis said...

What an intriguing post.

Sarah said...

Reminded me of a Julian Barnes novel, where the woodworm that ate through the legs of the bishop's chair, so that the chair collapsed when the bishop sat in it, were tried for heresy. Possibly a real case, then.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

What a fascinating post Karen and you make it all sound so plausible but how does one explain it still happening in 1916 in Tennessee?

bnachison said...

There was an interesting article on Slate a few weeks ago on just this topic. Always fascinating!

Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent post - but maybe also, when a pig had eaten a baby, for example, it gave the people the chance to vent their anger? Like when the fox bit the baby in London and people called for a cull?

Marjorie said...

I wonder whether the 'executed' animals were butchered afterwards?
And to what extent it might be a roundabout way of punishing the owner, by depriving them if their livestock.

(and in the cases where the animal was defended by a lawyer, who paid the lawyer? vine eating flies can't have much cash, surely?)

A very interesting topic.