A Testament to Our Arrogance
Although they’re usually dismissed as historical oddities, medieval and early modern animal trials were remarkably commonplace legal events. A rebellious, law-breaking animal—or, in some cases, a menacing swarm of them—were subject to the same legal proceedings as humans were, replete with access to due process and, if need be, the gallows.
Pigs, who tended to roam through villages at more or less free range, were the most common animals to stand trial in secular courts throughout Europe and, to a lesser extent, European colonies including British America. They were also the most likely farm animal to be maimed or executed, usually in public, by the state for abuse or murder of children, a not unlikely statistic given their size and proximity to domestic space when babies were left on the ground.
For anyone seeking to spice up the study of history, these trials are silk roads of utter weirdness. In many cases prosecutors valiantly attempted to elicit confessions from the accused; the animals were sometimes dressed as humans before being paraded into the courtroom; and in several instances lawsuits were dismissed because the animals were too geographically dispersed to be properly summoned (as, for example, locusts who made an afternoon lunch of a farmer’s wheat crop). I imagine this all sounds a little crazy, but as I research these cases for a magazine article (due next week), I’ve developed a hypothesis about these extraordinarily entertaining revelatory trials.
Legal scholars and historians have offered a handbag of explanations for what, from a contemporary perspective, appears to be the epitome of absurdity. They’ve argued that animals who attacked humans were often considered cursed by witches and thus deserving of death. They’ve claimed that citizens feared any and all disruption to the established hierarchy that solidified public order and, in turn, needed a show trial to reaffirm the fate of those—human or non-human, who dared upend it. They’ve noted that the Bible warranted the trials. It’s worth reiterating that all these transgressions applied to humans as well.
These explanations are partially convincing. What the literature generally fails to take seriously, however, is the prospect that humans put farm animals on trial (in secular courts) because, to a meaningful extent, they truly (and correctly) believed these animals could make choices. That is, they believed these animals had some level of moral agency.
It’s not necessarily an easy claim to prove, and I’m taking a roundabout course in the article I’m writing, but there’s a lot to suggest that when humans were deeply enmeshed in environments that required constant and often intimate interaction with animals, they were able to see in animals what we have, over time, and with industrialization and urbanization, completely lost the ability to see. Agency.
When I read writers such as Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe—and even Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Temple Grandin—I’m reminded of this disconnect, as well as its historical significance. Between roughly 1800 and 1900—as I’m coming to learn from research I’m doing for a book on the cultural origins of factory farming—a number of forces removed humans and farm animals from each other’s presence. As I’ve argued in recent posts about the importance of keeping companion animals, being in constant contact drives home the undeniable fact of animal agency, emotional intelligence, and basic sentience. At the same time, an equally formidable range of forces has, since 1850, created the impression that farm animals were machines, automata whose genetics were in hands of humans, who could mold them to their will.
Curiously, with the technologies of the last century and a half, we’ve managed to construct a view of animals that diverges from the more accurate view of animal agency popular from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. Human societies have a tendency to think teleologically, seduced by the fiction that we’re getting better, faster, stronger, smarter, more just. Our treatment of animals as legal subjects—in essence, giving them virtually no standing in today’s courts—gives the lie to this self-serving myth.