In the Middle Ages, animals were put on trial just like human beings. A wide range of crimes could be committed by these animals including murder, being an accomplice in bestiality, and damage of crops and property. If found guilty, larger animals would be punished with execution or exile, while smaller ones would be excommunicated or denounced by a church tribunal.
One of the most well-recorded animal trials took place on January 9, 1386, in Falaise, France. A young pig had been detained for attacking a 3-month-old baby in its crib, biting and tearing at its face, which eventually resulted in the infant’s death. The pig was arrested for murder and taken to prison. It was then placed on trial in a court, the same as that used for people!
The pig was found guilty and sentenced to be “mangled and maimed in the forelegs”, followed by execution by hanging. On the day of the execution, the pig was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, and a pair of drawers, and taken to the gallows in the market square. The executioner was provided with new gloves so that he would leave the execution with clean hands, thus showing that he incurred no guilt in the shedding of blood.
Illustration depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted. (InverseHypercube / Public Domain )
Based on the documented evidence, the pig was the most commonly tried animal during the Middle Ages. This was mainly due to the fact that pigs were given greater freedom to roam around the streets than other animals and that they existed in much greater numbers. Nevertheless, many other animals were tried for various offences, including bulls, dogs, goats and roosters.
Many scholars have attempted to make sense of this bizarre phenomenon. One explanation, for instance, is that some animals were believed to have moral agency and therefore, like human beings, could be held responsible for the crimes they committed. However, the exact reason for these strange happenings may never be fully understood.
Top image: A caged pig. Source: Jasmine / Adobe Stock
By Joanna Gillan