Rats, weevils, pigs, caterpillars, and insects have all had their days in court. Some were lucky. They were defended by clever lawyers. Others were convicted and hanged.
The legal clock was put back several centuries at Blantyr, Malawi, in August 1971 when a warrant was issued for the arrest of a monkey that had invaded the courtroom three times and stolen bottles of ink.
The result was no different from those achieved in medieval times when animals and insects were solemnly threatened with the might of the law and lawyers waxed fat on fees paid by towns that were often ruined by such futile trials. These seem to have been based on Mosaic law as stated in Exodus XXI, 28: “If an ox gore a man or woman, that they died, the ox shall surely be stoned… but the owner of the ox shall be quit.”
Between the years 1120 and 1741 at least eighty trials of animals took place in France alone.
In 1314 a bull was hanged in the village of Moisy for goring a man. In 1494 a child in Laon was trampled to death by a pig. The beast was arrested, taken to court and tried for murder, and found guilty. The judges solemnly announced: “We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and with a view to exemplary punishment, have declared, judged, sentenced and pronounced and ordained that the said pig shall, by the Master Executioner, be hanged and strangled on a fork of wood.”
A large crowd of villagers witnessed the pig’s execution. Its owner went scot-free.
Pigs in Rheims, however, received very different treatment. When one of them ran into on French king, causing him to stumble and fall, a decree was issued banning pigs from running freely around the town. But this was contested by the Church. Eventually the clergy were granted the exclusive right to let their seine run unchecked provided they wore bells around their necks.
Lucky, too, were the piglets tried with their mother in 1457 for having killed and eaten a child in Savigny. The sow was hanged by her hind feet from a gibbet, but the young ones were assumed to be too young to know what was wrong or right and were acquitted. Their owner was duly warned that if they transgressed when they were older they would not be excused.
Occasionally wiser counsels prevailed. In 1379 Phillip of Burgundy pardoned two herds of swine for having killed a child, while in 1750 a she-ass, also condemned to death, was pardoned because of her previous good character.
Birds, too, were sometimes treated as if they were criminals. In 1474 a cockerel in Basel surprised everyone by laying an egg. It was solemnly tried, condemned and sentenced to death, having been found guilty of witchcraft.
Insects, however, were the subject of most trials of this kind.
In 1445 the town of St Julian in France was suffering from a plague of weevils and the council decided to have them banished from the community.
An indictment was drawn up and the insects were commanded to appear before the court where the council, in a spirit of fair play, had appointed counsel to defend them. Time and time again summonses were issued and as regularly ignored while lawyers drew fat fees in preparing a defense for the weevils.
After 42 years of fruitless procedure the town was declared bankrupt and the case was abandoned. The nuisance was not abated, but on May 8, 1546, another proclamation was issued and this time, curiously enough, the weevils obligingly departed.
Their descendants reappeared in 1587 and once more were criminally indicted. The same processes were followed, but this time the weevils scored an unusual legal victory. They were awarded exclusive use of a few acres of land and winegrowers had to seek other means of abating the plague.
Old records show that in 1516 a French bishop issued a very stern warning to caterpillars that had been feeding on local crops and causing a severe loss to farmers. The caterpillars were left in no doubt as to the seriousness of their offense.
They were told that: “We grant the request of the inhabitants of Villenoce, and warn the caterpillars to retire within six days, in default of which we declare them excommunicated and accursed.”
With a commendable impartiality the insects had a lawyer appointed to defend them, but no trial was ever held.
No Flies on Him
A similar case occupied the courts in 1587 when winegrowers in Saint Jean-de-Maurienne, France sued insects for damaging their crops. They were indicted and skilfully defended by a lawyer who pleaded that even insects “had a right to live” and that, even if they injured wines, they were only exercising “their legitimate rights.”
The result was that the winegrowers agreed to place a plot of land at the insects’ disposal, but only on condition that they retained a right of way across it “without causing any injury to the pasture of the said animals.”
One of the few successful attacks on insects is credited to St Bernard, who once excommunicated a swarm of flies that pestered the church and people of Foigny. As soon as he pronounced the dire penalty the flies fell dead in such numbers that they had to be shoveled out of the church!
In 1670 the German town of Munster suffered from a plague of fleas and, when burghers complained, the High Court took action. It ordered the fleas to appear and face charges of disorderly conduct. Naturally, the fleas disobeyed the command and were then declared guilty, disfranchised and banished.
At least one man won a place in a French parliament because of his skill in defending animals and insects in court. He was Bartholomew Chassannee whose first ‘clients’ of this kind were a plague of rats that infested the town of Autun in 1510. The people concerned petitioned the court, stating: “Messieurs, the poor inhabitants now on their knees before you, with tears in their eyes, have recourse to you for justice.”
Chassannee, however, was very wily lawyer. He argued that the rats were individuals and should therefore be summoned to appear individually, not as a group. He also stated that his clients had not been given sufficient time to appear before the court but would have arrived had they been given adequate notice.
By this means he obtained a postponement and then another, emphasizing, that his clients did not live together but ranged over the whole countryside around Autun. When that excuse was ignored he produced another.
If his clients tried to come to court they would, beyond any doubt, be attacked by “evilly disposed cats and dogs” and were therefore entitled to the court’s protection. He then suggested that the townsfolk of Autun should be compelled to put up a heavy bond which would be forfeited if the rats were attacked when obeying the court order.
At long last it dawned upon the people that the cost of prosecuting the rats was greater than the amount of damage they did. They withdrew the case.
Meanwhile Chassannee’s reputation as a skillful pleader had been established. He became president of the parliament of Provence, wrote a learned treatise on law and, when he died in 1550, was acknowledged to be one of the greatest legal experts of his time.
Eventually people realized that animals, birds and insects could not be brought to law and impending cases were dropped. Yet even in recent times animals have features in court cases.
In 1906, according to a New York newspaper, two bandits with a vicious dog waylaid a traveler in Switzerland and the dog killed him. The men were caught and tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The dog was sentenced to death.
At Tripoli in 1963 a court sentenced a flock of 75 carrier pigeons to death when a gang of currency smugglers was brought to justice. The birds had been used to carry banknotes from Italy, Greece and Egypt into Libya. After fining the smugglers the judge ordered the pigeons to be slaughtered on the grounds that “they were too well trained and dangerous to be let loose.”
Yet, despite such instances of creatures of the wild being beyond legal restraint, some seem to sense disapproval by human beings.
In 1962, the Three Fords Inn at Broadclyst, near Exeter, England, was infested by hundreds of shrews. Not long before Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding stated in the House of Lords that he knew of cases where rats and other vermin had left premises they were infesting after being asked to go. The landlady, Sheila Darbellay, of the Three Fords tried it on the shrews. Near enough to their nest for them to hear she said: “Please will you find another home.”
Next day the shrews had gone.
Animal Trials. Pretty crazy, huh? Well… maybe.