Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Animals in the Dock

A donkey on trial in a court of law.
In this series of blog posts about animal performers, today the focus shifts subtly to animals that were the centre of attention - because they were on trial. This bizarre idea was a result of believing that Satan could possess an animal and the practice reached a peak in ecclesiastical courts during the middle ages.
The cases below give some idea of how seriously these trials were taken, with defense and prosecuting lawyers, a jury and a system of acquittal or punishment.

A postcard of the St Julien region of France.
Case Number One: Weevils
In 1587 the vineyards of St Julien, France, were being destroyed by weevils. In response to the demands of wine producers to protect their livelihood, the local authorities put the weevils on trial. Lawyers were employed to prosecute the case, which went something like this:
Prosecution: Insects were created before man and their purpose was to serve him as loyal minions. That they were gluttonous meant they were willfully disobeying God's directive and as such should be excommunicated.
Defense: The inhabitants of St Julien were sinful and the weevils were innocent messengers, employed by God to demonstrate his displeasure.
The Verdict? The debate raged for 8 months. Ultimately a compromise was reached whereby the weevils would be given 'sanctuary' in a field of their own. No comment exists of the practicality of this solution!

Case Number Two: A Reactionary Parrot
The French revolution was a dangerous time for people, and birds! In Paris, a parrot faced trial for 'counter-revolutionary activities'. In a crowded public place the bird repeated, "Vive le Roi, Vive les nobles" [Long live the King, long live the aristocracy] The bird was duly arrested, along with his two lady owners, and brought before the revolutionary tribunal.  Fortunately for the ladies, in the courtroom the bird became taciturn and refused to speak other than to whistle. The women were threatened with the guillotine, but ultimately, were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

A pig in the dock, on trial.
Case Number Three: The Blasphemous Pig
In 1394 a sow stood accused of blasphemy. The unfortunate creature had strayed into a church, where she had eaten a communion wafer left out on the altar. Such disrespect could not be tolerated, but when it came to deciding a punishment the priests had a theological problem. When the sow ate the sacred wafer had her flesh transubstantiated into that of Christ's?
Eventually, the pig was executed, by which time there was no trace of wafer in her gut - much to everyone's relief.
Case Number Four: Mitigating Circumstances
Animals on trial were so widespread as to be popularized in plays. One such work was Les Plaideurs [The Pleaders] by Jean Racine. In this comedy a dog is put on trial, accused of stealing a chicken. The dog is found guilty and given a life sentence of hard labor on a galley. But the defense lawyer produces a litter of puppies, the 'children' of the accused, and pleads with the judge not to make these innocent creatures homeless orphans. The judge is duly humbled and the dog acquitted.

A different sort of dog trial!
And finally…The apposing argument to putting animals on trial was that they cannot discriminate good from evil and have no concept of what is a crime, thus punishing them was pointless. In 1717 the Pope forbade the excommunication of animals and few trials took place after this date.

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