A few animal trials have already been discussed, but there are many others that are noteworthy. Animals being tried for crimes was a serious and common practice, particularly in medieval Europe. Convincing people that everything was under control—its control—was also crucial from a legal standpoint. Naturally, penalizing “theft” for whatever the species did to support the idea of property.

Although the charges varied from case to case, they all shared the trait of being utterly ridiculous. Here are ten of the worst offenders, ranked by the species in the dock, in increasing order of craziness.

10.Primates

Upon discovering a monkey on a beach during the Napoleonic Wars, a few English people became suspicious right away. Its appearance coincided with the adjacent French ship wreckage, of which this was the lone survivor, washed ashore on rubble, soaking through, and uglily shaped. Taking this monkey for a Frenchman, they had never seen any real ones, only propaganda cartoons with tails and claws. It didn’t help that it was costumed like a human sailor in its role as the mascot of the French ship. Following a hurried trial on the beach, they executed it by hanging it from a fishing boat’s mast after finding it guilty of spying. Unlike the other items on this list, this was extrajudicial, or mob law. Sadly, though, it wasn’t unusual. Even though it was frowned upon, individuals frequently punished animals by breaking the law on their own.

In this case, disturbingly, there might be more to the story. One theory holds that a child used as a “powder monkey” to prime the cannons with gunpowder was the one who was hanged instead of the monkey. In any event, Hartlepool’s residents are still referred to as “monkey hangers” even if they have grown to love the moniker. In actuality, H’Angus the monkey serves as the mascot for their football team. Additionally, a mayoral candidate in 2002 who looked like a monkey won by promising free bananas for students.

9.The queen of termites

The Portuguese brought their madness to Brazil when they arrived, embarrassing themselves in front of the locals by accusing some termites of destruction. The litigants were, ironically, Franciscan friars, that is, adherents of a man who, fifty years before, had preached animal brotherhood and sharing. Nevertheless, they attempted to banish the termites for consuming their food and furnishings.

The defense attorney who made the strongest comparison to Saint Francis was the one who said that the termites had an unquestionable right to food, just like all other creatures of God. He even said that their diligence was a source of envy for the slothful gray friars. Besides, the termites were on the area before anyone else, he claimed.

The trial was finally concluded with a “compromise” in January 1713. The termites would have a protected area put up by the friars’ cloister where they could live in peace. The termite mounds were informed of the ruling as follows: “As soon as the prelatic judge’s order was officially read in front of the termite hills, they all emerged and marched in columns to the designated place.” This was, of course, taken to be evidence of their obedience to God.

8.Weevils are evil

Weevils were no longer welcome after destroying a few vines in a small French village. But their attorney was competent. As the trial came to an end in the spring of 1546, the judge commanded the villagers to plead with God for forgiveness, saying that God was the “supreme author of all that exists” and had made the earth for all of his creatures. In addition, the hamlet celebrated three masses “around the vineyards in a solemn procession with songs and supplications.” And for a while, it appears to have worked.

The weevils reappeared forty years later and were tried once more. This second case, which took place over several months and was recorded on 29 folia with a lengthy Latin title, was brought before “the prince-bishop of Maurienne,… the reverend lord his vicar-general and official.” Once more, the argument went that since weevils had the right to consume plants, people were to blame for calling God’s wrath upon themselves. Applying human rules to insects is “absurd and unreasonable,” according to the defense. However, the local vine farmers who represented the plaintiffs asserted that the weevils were under human control.

While each side considered the case, the lawsuit was continually postponed. Ultimately, the legal team representing the weevils retorted that, despite their subjectivity to humans, we have no power to punish them, particularly by excommunication. That was God’s responsibility. After the trial lasted for two and a half months, the populace was told to set aside some area and fence it off so the weevils might live in peace. However, it was unsuccessful. The matter returned to court after a month. Under pain of excommunication, the plaintiffs pleaded with the judge to order the weevils to return to their cage. The defense team countered that there wasn’t enough food for the animals and that the enclosure was excessively bleak. Once more, the case was repeatedly postponed, and a verdict wasn’t obtained for another 1.5 months. Weevils devoured the last page of the court documents, so we’ll never know what it was.

7.Bovines

Cows were often accused of attacks because to their size, weight, and temperament. For example, a bull that broke free from a French farm in 1314 killed a man by being gored. Then the troops of the Count of Valois arrested it, put it in jail, and gave it a hanging sentence. Unfortunately, this was after the bull had been slain, and the judgment was reversed because the Count had no jurisdiction in Moisy.

There are plenty more instances of murderous cows being executed by hanging. But like horses, cows and bulls were usually confiscated instead, due to their high worth. The law that states that “if an ox or a horse commits one or more homicides, it shall not be condemned to death, but shall be taken by the Seignior [feudal lord] within whose jurisdiction the deed was perpetrated” was actually written in Burgundy in the 12th century. The Seignior would then sell the animal and pocket the proceeds. The commandment went on, “But if other beasts or Jews do it, they shall be hanged by the hind feet.”

Generally speaking, killed animals were never consumed as meat, not even the organic grass-fed cows of the pre-industrial world. Eating an animal was thought to “smell of anthropophagy,” or cannibalism, after it “had become the peer of man in blood-guiltiness and in judicial punishment.” Thus, they would often be interred alongside offenders who are human. However, there were some outliers. A cow that was murdered in 1578 in Ghent, Belgium, is one example; the victim was compensated by selling the cow’s flesh to a butcher. However, her head was impaled close to the hanging.

6.Canines

Dogs were already treated like people, therefore they weren’t like cattle. They were even covered by the weregild (insurance paid by their assassins to their owners), just like women and serfs. Dogs, along with cats and cocks, might testify in court under Old Germanic law if, for instance, they were the only animals present when their owner’s home was broken into. In this instance, the homeowner would represent the house in court with three straws from the roof thatch and their dog.

But to Christian sensibilities, having intercourse with them was just as awful as having sex with a Jew. In reality, the court declared that the burning alive of a Parisian man for “coition with a Jewess,” or “sodomy,” was “precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog.” (The woman was, of course, also burned alive.) There are other examples, but one sticks out: A guy from Chartres was given a hanging sentence in 1606 for sodomizing a dog, but he fled before they could carry out the sentence. Authorities therefore hung a photograph of the rapist in place of the victim, who was slain by a blow to the head.

However, dogs weren’t always executed. Occasionally, they were merely detained. In 1712, a councilor was bitten in the leg by a drummer’s dog. Rather than being put to death, the dog was given a one-year sentence of imprisonment in the Narrenkötterlein, an iron cage situated above the marketplace.

5.Cattle

Animals were entitled to appeals, just like people were. For instance, a donkey who was given a hanging sentence was spared when her penalty was reduced to a tap on the head following an appeal to a higher court.

An acquittal may result from an appeal. A donkey that had been found guilty of luring her rapist was cleared in 1750 when the parish priest of Vanvres produced a document confirming the donkey’s moral qualities. It stated that he and other well-behaved parishioners were “willing to bear witness that she is a most honest creature in word and deed and in all her habits of life.”

Not so popular was another donkey, or rather a mule. It was ordered to burn at Montpelier in 1565 after being raped by a man. Even worse, the executioner decided to amputate the animal’s feet before burning it since it was “vicious and inclined to kick” (vitiosus et calcitrosus, according to court records). This was an extrajudicial mutilation for which he was probably reprimanded. Courts disliked having their hired goons add more time to their sentences.

4.Moles

Rats were given a “writ of ejectment [or]… letter of advice… to induce them to quit any house,” as recently as the 19th century. It was also rubbed with oil to draw the rats’ attention because there was a good probability they wouldn’t read it. A letter from Maine even shows pity for the rats, suggesting that they move from 1 Seaview Street to 6 Incubator Street, where they may dwell in a barn or a cellar that is full of grain or vegetables. It concluded by warning the rats that poison would be used to exterminate them if they stayed.

Rats were called to court centuries earlier, in the 1500s, after they devoured all the barley in the French province of Autun. The court made plans to punish the rodents in light of their knowledge that they would not appear. But as their defense attorney pointed out, there were too many rats in Autun for one summons to be effective because not all of the rodents could see it. A second summons was reluctantly issued by the judge, who also directed it to “be published from the pulpits of all the parishes” throughout the province. Then, when they still did not show up, their defense attorney claimed that the rats’ journey was too risky due to the presence of cats along the route. This implied that they “may refuse to obey the writ and have the right of appeal.”

3.Woolly Bear-Caterpillar Caterpillars

Five Italian communes complained about caterpillars destroying their harvests in 1659. In the wilderness, the summons were fastened to trees. The caterpillars were also granted the same rights as humans “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in court, despite the fact that they did not appear for the trial—so long as their rights did not conflict with those of humans.

Speaking of fascinating insects, bees were also tested. A hive was sentenced to suffocation in 864 by the Council of Worms, which was really the Rhineland city rather than the species, for fatally stinging a human. This was to be done right away, before it could yield any honey, which would be “demoniacally tainted” and unacceptable for Christian consumption due to the “murder.”

2.Moles

The slugs of Autun were “generously forewarned” for their massive crop damage in 1487 with three days of public processions, during which they were told to go “under penalty of being accursed.” As absurd as it sounds, the same thing occurred at Beaujeu the next year; slugs were warned three times that they would face excommunication if they failed to leave the region. It did not matter if slugs thought of themselves as Church members. For ecclesiastical courts, excommunication had a crucial legal function: it rendered an animal unkillable.

In France, prosecutions of snails occurred in 1487, 1500, 1543, and 1596. However, it’s unclear how they were disciplined.

1.Pork

One of the animals that was prosecuted the most often was the pig. Their unsupervised wanderings around the towns, gorging on anything they could find, including children and consecrated wafers, was one of the causes of this. The latter is the case in many instances, where the pigs were typically hanged. For instance, “a sow with a black snout” was hanged from a tree in 1567 after consuming the head, left hand, and upper chest of a four-month-old infant. In a different case, the plaintiff specifically brought up the fact that a pig murdered and consumed a child “even though it was Friday,” which was a grave aggravating element since it went against the Catholics’ ban on meat.

“An eye for an eye” was the penalty at times. A pig that ripped off a child’s arms and face in 1386 was found guilty of hanging after it was “mangled and maimed in the head and forelegs.” It even had a man’s outfit on for the event. Burial alive was another particularly painful penalty for pigs. The practice of burning people alive was more common, but some judges were kind in this regard, directing that they simply be “slightly singed” before strangling them to death and setting their corpses ablaze.

Pigs were frequently imprisoned before being put to death, sometimes for weeks at a time, and in the same facilities as people, just like dogs, cows, and other animals.

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