In medieval Europe, it was not unknown for domestic and wild animals, including insects, to be prosecuted in secular and ecclesiastical courts for a variety of crimes.

In the dock most often were pigs, frequently accused of causing injury, especially to children. In 1494, in a court at a French monastery, a pig was found guilty, and hanged for having "entered a house and disfigured a child's face, wherepon the child departed this life"1. The medieval animal crime wave was not restricted to porkers, however. In one case, a number of rats were prosecuted for destroying barley crops - although their defence lawyer, Bartholome Chassenee, tried to mitigate the sentence by arguing that separate summons would have to be issued in each parish inhabited by the rats. Also recorded are acts of fraud by field-mice posing as heretical clerics, and thieving foxes2.

Arising, perhaps, from the growing belief that animals should be held morally and legally responsible for their actions, the exact purpose of these trials is unknown. They may have been inspired by passages from the Bible3, given liberal interpretation, while Graeme Newman places the trials in the context of "a broad network of social control constructed by religious authorities in their attempt to dominate and to stabilise the social and the natural worlds."4. Some commentators have argued that they were carried out to deter other animals, but there is no supporting evidence that pig owners would take their stock out to watch public executions, or to see the animals left on the gibbet after they were hanged. It is also not clear whether this would have given medieval pigs a greater sense of civic responsibility. A more likely explanation is that the trials served to let animal owners know of their vicarious liability for their animals' actions.

The subject was given the celluloid treatment in 1993, in "The Hour of the Pig" (distributed as "The Advocate" in the US), starring Colin Firth - who went on to set hearts-a-fluttering by appearing as Mr. Darcy in a BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The cast included Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence, and Lysette Anthony - who had previously appeared in British class-sitcom, "Three up, two down", with Michael Elphick. The slow-burning (animal pyre pun unintentional) film is based loosely on documented events, notably the sparing of an ass from the hangman's noose in the opening scene.

  1. quote taken from
  2. documented in Evans, E.P. (1906) (1987). The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals. London: Faber and Faber.
  3. "If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit" Exodus, xxi, 28. In some medieval cases, guilty parties were excommunicated.
  4. Newman, Graeme (1978). The punishment response. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

  • (excellent detailed article on the subject)

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