There is a difference between killing an animal for meat, skin, or sport, and killing it for it’s supposed crimes. We wrestled with a number of questions this Wednesday. Is it cruel, even by the standards of the day? To what extent did people think that animals were answerable for their crimes? Why not try the owner of the animal instead of the animal itself? And why were some animals, at some times tried for crimes, and not others?
We should first understand that the trials and executions were not mob violence, but conducted from the top-down, with lawyers, bailiffs, and executioners, sanctioned by bishops. They were, by all accounts, order and regulated. Nor were animals written off as entities possessed by demons, but seemed to be genuinely taken to account for the things that they had done. Dinzelbacher, argued, as others in our readings did, that animal trials and executions were a method for the community to cope with unusual and disordered events. They were not scapegoats per se, but an effort by the authorities to try to impose a semblance of moral order over creatures that were compelled to serve man.
There are several dimensions to the questions raised, which I will try to take one by one. There are obvious symbolic and biblical aspects of the animal trials. The book of Genesis clearly points out that all animals were divinely created to serve man, and for an animal to rise up and kill or maim a human was a disordered and disturbing event. And domestic animals were tried much more than wolves and bears, perhaps reflecting the degree to which beasts of burden were held to higher standard than wild animals.
We must also ask if the animals were being anthropomorphized, acting as stand-ins for humans that were summoned and asked to defend themselves in court. And there is a sense of moral outrage, of some basic law being violated when a pig eats a baby, of the power relations that must be reasserted by the humans. Indeed, one can argue that the trials were held to reassert human power and dignity, and to draw more thickly the line between humans and animals. In doing so, authorities condemn our own animalian instincts; holding humans to a higher standard. (Even if we in the modern era see the trials in a ghastly light, deliberately crueler than anything an ox or wolf could dish out.)
One must also ask if the trials were held to censure “guilty” animals, or to put down beasts who were a clear threat to the humans in their midst. Although if the latter, why not simply put down or butcher the animal? Why all the formalities of human law?
Beyond the religious and legal, there is an ecclesiastical element in the trials and condemnations. Plagues reminded humans of their own fragility, compared to the will of God. Pests were condemned, banished, exorcised, and in some cases, formally excommunicated. This puzzled some of us in class, myself included. How can animals, who by all accounts are not in communion with God, be excommunicated? If there is a doctrinal answer, it is a tricky one. Animals are part of God’s larger creation, reflections and unconscious followers of His natural order, in de facto communion with their creator, in a way that humans with free will are not. “Sinful” animals were excommunicated without much thought to the larger implications, though they may trouble us scholars now.
There is also the disturbing spectacle of the executions themselves. Not simply butchered, animals were carried to the gallows backwards on the cart, and hanged in full view. Designed (obviously) for humans, the punishment would sometimes leave the animals kicking for days. They were criminals being executed, in every sense possible, down to the contemporary descriptions thereof.
Our readings this week pivot upon Evan’s research, and some of the faults they have stem from him. Evans is far from dispassionate, his animals rights agenda is fully evident, the 191 trials he lists mostly occur in the early modern era, and they include some gaps. The earliest trial he lists is in 1266, although there is a glancing mention of ones in the 8th centuries. He leaves out some ecclesiastical decisions, some secular, and only really concerns himself with domestic animals, leaving my earlier question about trials of wild animals unfulfilled. There’s no evidence about how animals were treated as free agents rather than the property of other humans, or how a trial can help heal the community and give recourse, even if it’s the kind that can’t really help. There are other problems, Enders notably uses one law code for her argument.
My question, which I voiced in class, has to do with the implicit argument of all of the readings. Why were some animals tried and not others? We get the sense that not all animals who sinned against a community or killed a human were formally tried, certainly an agrarian society that lives in close contact with all sorts of animals would expect some unfortunate losses**. Dinzelbacher,, Beirnes, Cohen, and Enders all take for granted the notion that an animal trial was held in a period of great and trying strife and social upheaval in a community. They were ordered by town authorities to make sense of senseless and disordered events by formally executing an easy target. By this, some sense of cleaning and moral order are somehow restored, even if they couldn’t realistically deter animals in any rational sense.
But why, then, were these trials spaced out over time, and not clustered in periods of greater social strife and stress? We cannot find any statistical connection between year and location of trial, not the less because we rely largely on Evan’s research. If this hypothesis is true, wouldn’t there be more trials during the Black Death? More in Germany during the Protestant Reformation than France during the reign of Henri IV***? Despite the arguments of our writers this day, the research we have so far seems to point to the trials as random events, not moored to greater social strife beyond the village.
We study medieval animal trials because they are interesting, and because they are an uncomfortable and inscrutable aspect of the treatment of animals during the middle ages. Their symbolism and ritual is fascinating, even if the darker motives behind them are harder to extract. But the current research can be spotty, and raises just as many questions as we can answer. But at least we don’t hang rats because we can’t find the aforementioned answers.
- Emily B
*Please excuse the pun in the title. I watched too much Monty Python as a child.
**Domestic pigs, especially, are large, uncontrollable and violent. They can bite through bone and kill farmers regularly. Not to be ghoulish, but it’s difficult to imagine that they only ate a few babies over the years. I encourage people who dislike pigs are much as I do to watch the movie Snatch or the television show Deadwood to get awful (although fictional) accounts thereof. Not nice animals at all.
**These are early modern examples, for which I apologize. I concentrate in the modern era, although one can easily substitute periods of calm versus those of strife.