Bond Dogs Made Free, or, If You’re A-Listenin’, Thomas Walsingham’s a-Talkin’

“This proclamation made the people of St Albans, who had been in revolt for a long time in their struggle for liberty, the slaves of a detestable and loathsome servitude. And as they had no one willing to carry out the task for them, they were compelled to re-hang their fellow citizens in iron chains with their own hands. The corpses were now oozing with pus and pullulating with worms and their decaying, fetid flesh gave forth a most noisome stench. That men who had unjustly usurped the name of citizen should be given this task and duty had a certain justice about it, for they could be called, as in fact they were, hangmen, incurring by this action everlasting disgrace. It was no accident that men who preferred to hold back the truth and perjure themselves rather than betray their fellow traitors should be compelled to hang up those same traitors. Even their dogs gained what their masters did not deserve. For the dogs were given freedom when their masters removed the chains by which they had been tied up, while the chains themselves were then used for hanging men, with the masters of these very dogs performing the hanging and by this action, as I have said, remaining in the most abject slavery. And it was of course right that perjurers and slanderers hated by God should be shown by the judgement of God to be worse than their dogs, seeing that their dogs were set free, while their masters themselves were still bound to perform the tasks of the most demeaning servitude. These things indeed took place at St Albans around the time of the feast of the finding of the bones of Alban the martyr, a fact that showed that he had been offended by the sins of the rebels, who had fallen headlong into manifold misfortunes in consequence.”

(from here, 166-67, on the events of 1381)

Sounds to me like this monk could have used an editor.

Even more interesting than the freed dogs: corpse-hanging. It’s commonly said that medieval animal trials treated animals as if they were responsible actors, as if the sow and her piglets who killed and ate a teenage swineherd in fourteenth-century France had chosen to do what they knew was a wicked deed. I’ve argued, by contrast, that animal trials are the sake of the dead human, not the supposedly wicked animal: condemning the animal to death returns the human to the status of having been murdered by ensuring that its killer is put on trial. The trial, here as elsewhere, is less about the rationality or choice or guilt of the defendant than it is about protecting the dominant social order.

Corpse-hanging makes this particularly obvious. The corpses are of course not being treated as rational actors. Whatever choice they made is long past. Rather, they’re being exhumed and hanged not so much to punish them as to balance or cancel out their disruption of the dominant social order: if something has been violated, something must be set right.

Advertisements