Imagine charging a horse with murder, reckless endangerment, or vandalism for things like bucking its rider off, causing death or injury, or kicking the neighbors fence down. Insane, right…wrong!! For centuries, animals, including insects faced criminal charges across many parts of Europe. Now, I personally think that most insects need to be executed…no trial necessary!! The earliest documented case was a pig, who after being found guilty, was executed at Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1266. At that time it was believed that animals knew right from wrong, like humans do. I don’t think they were far off, because animals do seem to know when they have done something wrong, but I’m not sure that they understand guilt over of an accidental death or injury.
Nevertheless, these trials went on as part of several legal systems until the 18th century. Animal defendants appeared before both church and secular courts, and the charges ranged from murder to criminal damage. Human witnesses were often heard and in Ecclesiastical courts the animals were routinely provided with lawyers. If convicted, the animal was usually executed or exiled. Several books were written about these trials. E.P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, published in 1906, and Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama were two such books. Kadri shows that the trials were part of a broader phenomenon that saw corpses and inanimate objects also face prosecution…which takes weird to a completely new level. Some people think that modern day punishment of children and the mentally ill is rather an echo of those strange earlier rituals.
Several thoughts have come to my mind concerning these animal trials. For instance, animals can’t talk, so how were they supposed to testify or speak in their own defense? Also, were these trials held in a courtroom or a stable…for obvious reasons? And, if the offending animal belonged to someone, not the person who was the victim, how were they compensated for the loss of their animal? After all, they didn’t commit the “crime” that their animal was accused of. This is such a strange practice, that I have to wonder who came up with the idea originally anyway, and were they sane…or more likely insane.