Saturday, May 23, 2015


The question arose in class on Thursday, why are we even discussing the so-called ‘medieval animal trials’? While there is certainly evidence that some very odd trials were conducted, we can say little conclusively given the very limited nature of that evidence; namely, just about everything we know of animal trials is based on and structured by the research of one man at the turn of the twentieth century, E.P. Evans. This presents a number of problems, that of trusting a single conveyor for all of this information aside. Our idea about where and when the trials were conducted is biased by where Evans concentrated his research.  It is questionable whether the two types of trials described and exemplified in Evans’ research, the trying of individual domesticated animals through criminal court systems and that of vermin in ecclesiastical courts, are indeed variations of the same phenomenon. What’s more, as Beirnes makes a point of saying, Evans’ research and the presentation of his findings was motivated by contemporary concerns for animal rights and penal reform (41). That said, by no means do I think these concerns of Evans should disqualify his legacy, but they do help to situate it.
Taking Evans’ data as it is, though, the question is begged of why animal trials are even spoken of as a medieval phenomenon. While it does seem to begin to occur with some frequency in the 13th century, the record is thin, and the heyday for animal trials, in fact, were the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. On this count, we seem to be discussing an early modern phenomenon rather than a medieval one—if such a distinction means anything at all. Furthermore, the culmination of this “medieval” phenomenon, as represented in the records we have, coincides with the burgeoning of the very enlightenment ways of thinking that one would think would militate against it.
I want to see if, for a moment, we can put generalizations about all of Europe and the Middle Ages aside and think about the facts as best we have them of these animal trials, and see, based on what we know of the practices, what we can say. To restrict this exercise even more, I’ll only consider criminal trials of animals, the particular cases of which I think we can more readily believe to be instantiations of the same phenomenon. Ok, really, my aim is to defend Enders’ article, “Homicidal Pigs and the Antisemitic Imagination.” I was rather surprised by the wholesale dismissal of Enders’ argument in class, which I find, even forfeiting her more ‘precarious’ claims (which, honestly, I don’t feel compelled to do), to be more than plausible.
For one, I do not think we can deny that the trial of a sow is a humanizing process. As many of our readings pointed out, the courts went to great lengths to give individual animals going through the judicial system the same treatment as human beings. Questions of will and guilt aside, the trial of a violent animal involved the ascription of human qualities to the animal on trial (209). The law punishes transgressions, but its domain being the human, it cannot punish an animal for being an animal—which wouldn’t appear to be a transgression anyhow. Nor, though, can it punish an animal for being somewhat human (on the face of it, this would be an improvement), lest the order of the world be quite upset. The law takes care of criminals; only humans are criminals. Thus the whole process of making animals on trial human enough such that they can be condemned for their inhumanity, for their animality. Notice that it is a very human barbarity which is recast and naturalized in the animal as it is put on par with the human criminal.
The connection between the humanization of animals on trial and the animalization of humans appears too obvious to me to ignore. Are they anything but two sides of the same coin? What was it that human criminals were punished for but the transgression of the boundary between human and animal? This is the very sophistry Enders talks about by which “humanity” is defined and nourished (204).
Another thing: a couple of the readings raised the question of whom the trials and executions of animals were conducted for. Did people think that other animals could gain some kind of moral instruction from witnessing the execution of one of their peers? Probably not, but here’s what we can say with confidence: the trials and executions of individual animals were conducted and watched by human beings. Who do you think was affected by and internalized the spectacular production of humanity and inhumanity and its violent consummation?
Now the big question in regard to Enders’ argument: the connection between homicidal pigs and the antisemitic imagination. If humanity is defined, precariously, by its opposition to animality, marked off by the dividing line between these categories, then what of the people who are unwelcome in the human community? Is it at all a stretch (as seemed to be implied in class) that Jews would be identified with the animal (as evidence shows they were) and that there would be some sort of connection between the trials and execution of humanized animals and the public attitudes toward animalized humans (as the striking parallels indicate)? I want to join Ender in pushing against a focus on the “symbolic importance” (Cohen 75) of animal trials, a focus which can obscure the very real effects of violent public ritual. That said, we should also keep in mind that the same ritual can have different effects and meanings for different members of a community. There is a camp in anthropology that views rituals as arguments made in the public sphere. Though they may be condoned by authority, tradition, or majority, by the nature of their being arguments, they leave room for both agreement and disagreement.
        I have more to say on this, but I just want to end by re-iterating a point I was trying to make in class. The claim was brought up, and it was also in one of the readings, that it is inappropriate to think of animal trials as animal cruelty because the animals received due process of law and were in all respects treated as humans—indeed, we can think of this treatment as quite charitably kind. I could hardly disagree more. A cruelty/kindness model so far from saturates the possibilities of treatment as to be useless. We would not say, ‘oh, at least that Christian fellow and his Jewish lover got due process of law before being completely degraded and burned alive’ (Enders 223). I struggle to see the resemblance between institutionalized cruelty, incorporation into a system which is biased against you, and kindness.



  1. There are two things here that I'd like to essentially agree with and expand upon: first, that the two kinds of trials really can't be considered the same type of thing, and second, that we can't consider homicide animal trials to be "kindness."

    First, the ecclesiastical version of animal trials. In looking at the instances where ecclesiastical courts anathematized pest animals and attempted to drive them out through religion and prayer, it might help to look a bit at the plague pamphlets from the early modern period for some perspective. We were discussing in class whether these animals were considered animals or if they had been sent by Satan and were demons... and if so, what do we make of the plots of land given to them, or the fact that they were given fair trial? What, also, do we make simply of the fact that, rather than driving them out with pitchforks or killing them or whatnot, these people seemed to hope to drive the animals away through prayer? I don't think we can necessarily explain these things as all one coherent idea, but we might be able to explain parts, and then perhaps we can see how they got put together (though I have not managed to do that in this comment).

    The reason that I mentioned plague literature was for the discussion seen in plague pamphlets about remedy for the plague and the plague's causes. Though the plague was a terrible malady, it wasn't considered to be sent by Satan- or, if it was, this was only, in a sense, a secondary cause (as would the physical causes have been, such as miasmic humors in the air or the movement of the planets)- ultimately, all things were sent by God. God allowed plague, or initiated plague, for God's reasons. Therefore, it made absolutely the most sense to, yes, attempt to remedy the secondary causes by secondary means, but also to attempt to rectify the ultimate cause- sinfulness. As we know, locusts, for example, were their own "plague" of sorts. If they came, it was by God's allowance, so prayer and repentance and all of that was the most sensible course of action. However, that still leaves the truly odd bits about providing them with a defense, telling them to vacate, and providing them with alternative land. Perhaps, because, unlike with plague, there was a physical sort of object that one could direct one's attention toward, that resulted in the setting of the ecclesiastical trial, and then the accoutrements of a human-type trial of this kind just sort of followed. Since perhaps God was thought of the cause rather than Satan, there would have been less problem with treating them this way: after all, these are still God's creatures. Alternatively, rather than the lawyer and alternative land just being accidental attachments, since sinfulness was largely associated with order, these trials were even an attempt at a display of order that in itself could be remedial?
    I think, as this post points out, a lot more hands-on, primary research is needed before we can really say anything concrete about this.
    [continued in next post]


  2. Pt. II:
    The second category seems a lot more obvious, at least on a surface level, looking at it in connection with human trials and executions. As you point out, yes, human trials were, in a sense, a punishment of animality in human beings. And as to the audience, murder was still being punished, and human beings were seeing this. As W.A. points out at the end of the Renard post, and as one of our readings argued, this may have been a "soothing" ritual of justice being done. It makes it sound too casual when one calls it "soothing," however. Public executions were arguably an essential community healing mechanism. As Luke phrases it, "perhaps the medieval idea was simply that, for every evil deed done, someone must be held morally responsible." I think the answer to that might be yes, and they had to be seen to be punished. I think you're right: we can't say that this is a kindness to the animals by giving them "due process." I think that it's the community using the mechanisms they have in place to do a kindness to themselves, to feel as though things have been set right again in the ritualized, orderly way that they do. Given that, in human trials also, this was also often associated with torture- no, not kind.

  3. I am very interested in the blurring effect you cite between human and animal. As you say, the trial of the sow is a humanizing process. “The connection between the humanization of animals on trial and the animalization of humans appears too obvious to me to ignore,” you say, and it is true. It may not be that humans were punished for transgressing the boundary between humans and animals. The problem may be more deeply rooted than this. It may be that subjects were punished because the boundary between human and animal was not strong. In a desperate attempt to reinforce this boundary, subjects were tried, and tortured. It seems that the trial of animals is just an extension of a blurring of categories, Christian and Jew, human and animal. It is also indicative of a broader climate of anti-Semitism in Europe at this time. In 1391, pogroms swept across the pogroms swept the Iberian Peninsula. Christians killed thousands of Jews in over 70 cities. This changed the religious demography of the Iberian Peninsula. The number of Jews was reduced to between a quarter and a half of what it was before 1391. Before the massacres that began in 1391 and lasted over 20 years, Christians could identify the difference between themselves and Jews. Jews were killed, they were forced to convert. Slowly, the Jews disappeared. And as the Jews disappeared, so did Christians’ ability to distinguish themselves. There was no longer an other to vilify, no longer a Jew that was impure in spirit, that was a threat to the good faith. There were only old Christians, conversos, and a gnawing panic that Christian identity could not be preserved. This panic stemmed from insecurity. To try to put the insecurity to rest, Christians attempted to bring Jews more and more into the fold. They were hyperaware of any Jewish behavior, so much so that they made it up. People begin to denounce “Jewish” behaviors—wearing clean clothes or refusing to buy an apple on Saturday. This is an example of the insecurity, of the panic. Society was paranoid. And so, lines between groups of people are blurred. These trails seem to me to be the extension of this paranoid society, so keen to drive “the other”—whatever that other may be, Jewish, animal, or both—out of its ranks that it will completely gut itself. It seems to me to be a classic case of good fences make good neighbors. Animals were just as susceptible to victimization in this paranoid society as Jews were, since distinctive imaginations with distinctive characteristics did not exist, being eroded by those, Christians, who wished to drive out the other. By attempting to drive out the other, the society creates paranoia. These animal trials are just one consequence of this.

    --B. Alderete Baca

  4. I appreciate your desire to defend Enders' argument, but I still contend that she does not have enough evidence to make her case. B. Alderete Baca rightly points in her comment to the ways in which Jews were forced out of Christian society in the later Middle Ages, but note that she is talking about the events in Iberia--and Enders gives only one example from Iberia, and that from a Muslim text. If we are going to condemn an entire culture for its prejudices, we need to make sure that we do not fall into the same (all too human) trap of blurring the boundaries between ourselves and those whom we would exclude (here, those Christians who for reasons that we are still struggling to understand, put pigs on trial for killing infants). Medieval Christians were, as we have seen, very sophisticated in their use of metaphor and symbol. It is therefore all the stranger that, if the pigs really were stand-in Jews (or vice versa) Enders was not able to find more explicit evidence of this equation (the Burgundy customary, her one other piece of solid evidence, does not mention pigs). RLFB

  5. I would like to reiterate RLFB's criticism of Enders and again express a point that was made in class: the weakness of her argument stems from the amount and type of evidence she uses, namely one source from an author not part of the relationship she discusses. However, even if her methodology is flawed, it does not mean the type of claim she tries to make should be ignored. Like you, until class I myself very much wanted to believe Enders' claim, because it simply makes the most sense. As you point out, the punishment of animals as some sort of "example" falters as an argument when one realizes that other animals were not viewing the trial or the punishment (although it is interesting that while the specific animals on trial were assumed to be aware of the purpose of their torture and punishment, their animal friends and relatives, by not being witnesses to the execution, seem to not have had that same awareness). Using a specific animal as a stand in for a person or group of people is entirely logical, especially given the vast amount of morality and symbolism ascribed to animals that we have discussed and will continue to discuss. Enders focuses solely on pigs, but what of the dogs, cows, mules, or even sheep that Evans lists? The symbolism of those animals in the context of their specific trials must be analyzed as well before the overarching theme of Enders' argument can be completely refuted. Of course, it would also be helpful to have a more complete data set, as you point out in your post. But I certainly do not think that simply because the evidence does not hold for one type of animal symbolism in a specific region of Europe that considering other animal symbols is a worthless project. RAE