Animals on Trial

Animals on Trial

Strange justice: the animals who went on trial in the Middle Ages

In modern times, you would be surprised to see a sheep or a cow dragged in front of a court to stand trial. However, during the Middle Ages and beyond, there was a lengthy legal tradition of calling animals to the stand. From the thirteenth century until the eighteenth, there are many recorded cases of animals in the courtroom. All kinds of creatures, from farm animals to insects, faced the possibility of criminal charges for several centuries across many parts of Europe. The earliest extant record of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Such trials remained part of several legal systems until the 18th century. Animal defendants appeared before both church and crown courts, and the offenses arrayed against them ranged from murder to criminal damage. Human witnesses were often called to the stand, and animals were routinely provided with lawyers in religious courts (this was not the case in secular courts, but for most of the period concerned, human defendants did not enjoy this privilege either). If convicted, it was usual for an animal to be exiled, or even executed. Yet some animals were able to win their freedom through the legal process. In 1750, a female donkey was acquitted of charges of bestiality due to witnesses to the animal’s virtue and good behavior. However, her human co-defendants were sentenced to death.

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