A bit on medieval animal trials

This evening, I’m part of a pre-performance conversation for a play called Twelve Angry Animals, written by Reginald Rose. The talk’s at 6pm, and the play at 8.

Jessica Grindstaff, Phantom Limb Company
Naama Harel, Columbia University
Catherine Young, Princeton University
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and CUNY Grad Center
Joshua Williams (moderator), Tisch Drama

We were asked to talk for about 8-10 minutes, more or less informally. Here’s what I just wrote:


I’m here to talk about medieval animal trials. The key thing to note here is how spotty the records are: some medieval people sometimes in some places put animals on trial, and what kinds of trials the animals were subjected to depended on the kinds of animals being tried. It’s much harder to punish a swarm of insects or rats for eating what we’d rather they hadn’t than it is to execute a pig or a horse for taking human life. In the former case, we’re likely to witness abjurations — cursing that is — directed against a swarm that isn’t likely to take any notice of it. But the very apparent ineffectiveness of the curse suggests that the curse’s purpose concerns something other than the targeted swarm. I’ll come back to that at the end of my remarks.

First, though, I want to stress that it’s not that medieval people were, sometimes, more credulous than we are, whoever we are, or more willing to extend animals the benefit of the doubt. If anything, your average medieval trained thinker – the kind of people more likely to leave records than most – is much more skeptical about animal responsibility that anyone familiar with modern ethology. The key point here is that mainstream medieval thinkers universally denied nonhuman animals a rational soul: without a rational soul, they could have no moral responsibility. So, Philip de Beaumanoir, author of a thirteenth-century French law book, observes that, yes, people do “punish animals when they kill someone: for example if a sow or other animal kills a child, they hang it and draw it.” “But,” Philip writes, “this should not be done, for dumb animals have no discrimination of good and evil, and for this reason the punishment is lost on them, for punishment should be executed to avenge the offense, and so that the offender will know and understand that he has a certain penalty for a certain crime.” More about that later (and, not incidentally, thanks to Julie K. Chamberlin, whose recent dissertation I helped supervise, for guiding me towards this book!) For now, let’s just observe that Philip says, yes, if I were to deliberately drive my horse into a crowd of children, I should be held liable. If my horse wanders away from me and injures someone, I should pay for the damages; but if it kills someone, I can’t be tried for murder, and neither can it. And if a horse is unruly, I might even use that unruliness at my defense.

What’s notable to me is that Philip feels compelled to consider the problem. It’s not unheard of to want to punish an animal in the same way you might punish a human. Let me offer another example: a twelfth-century cleric, Gerald of Wales, in his History and Topography of Ireland, considers the case of a certain Parisian lion that a woman, Johanna, fell in love with. Lion and woman were both executed. But, Gerald insists, “the beast is ordered to be killed, not for the guilt, from which he is excused as being a beast, but to make the remembrance the act a deterrent, calling to mind the terrible deed.”

People are going to execute animals, Philip and Gerald both know that. The question is why? We can get a sense of why by looking to medieval England, where, to my knowledge, you’re not going to find any animals on trials. It’s not that English horses were less unruly, or its lions less alluring, than those on the continent. It’s that the English crown already had a legal system in place to deal with the problem, namely, the Deodand. Any case of accidental death would attract the attention of the coroner. He would investigate the death, determine what had caused it – maybe a ladle that’s too short, a cartwheel that shattered, a hungry pig meeting a helpless infant – assess the monetary value of the cause, and levy that as a fine to be paid to the crown. Whatever the cases of accidental death, the king eventually got it all under control, ensuring that he remained his realm’s master of life and death.

Or let’s look at the late medieval Low Countries. New data on animal trials has been scarce. Many researchers have been content to rely on already published material, or even to reach back to that foundational, but slightly credulous work on animal trials by E. P. Evans, published in 1906. But we have a bright spot, and that’s a history doctoral student at Yale, Mireille J. Pardon, who’s working on violence and social control. I’m drawing from a paper I heard her give this May in Kalamazoo, at the big medieval conference. While looking at as yet unedited and unpublished late medieval archives of punishment in Bruges, Pardon compiled some shocking statistics: for the period she was studying, she found that 335 people had been executed in the city, and 64 animals; in greater Bruges, 127 humans, and 45 animals. You can do the math on the ratios. No wonder that clerics complained about the execution of animals: in some places, they may have been quite common!

I’m struck by one of the records Pardon quoted: it’s about a certain master Jacques, paid for having “fait justice,” done justice. on two pigs, which had killed a child.

Justice for whom or for what?

Banishing rats is less about the rats that the banishing. It’s a performance of disapproval; it’s lodging a complaint; it’s asserting, publicly, that what’s happened isn’t okay. And what’s the point of executing an animal? It’s not to frighten other animals into respecting our lives more than they’re accustomed to do. I doubt even master Jacques believed that he was dissuading future pigs from consuming future children. Rather, the point is to do justice. A person who’s been killed has been harmed, in a couple of ways: they’ve been killed, of course, but they’ve also been disrespected. And a human who’s been killed by an animal is doubly disrespected, because animals are, in themselves, made for our use, at least according to mainstream medieval thought. That’s why I believe that executing animals doesn’t have much to do with the animals; it has to do with repairing a harm to the human community. It has to do with recognizing the dead human as having been murdered. It’s about restoring dignity to humans by reasserting their unique condition as the one form of murderable life.

Of course, historically speaking, and indeed in the present, most humans don’t get that recognition. Any discussion of humans, as a whole, is going to run aground on the actual conditions of life for most humans. But we can observe, too, that the point of execution can, logically, have little to do with the executed animal, or person: they’ll be dead, and that’s the end of their possibility of regret. The execution is about repairing the injured dignity of the community, and to that, we can ask whether we might find other, more effective, and more morally difficult methods of getting dignity back.

Thank you. I’m looking forward to the discussion.