Saturday, May 23, 2015

Renard and Animal Trials

After our discussion last class of the moral and legal culpability of animals, I thought I would look back to The Trial of Renard.  I found two passages there that I think could shed light on the relationship between justice and guilt with respect to medieval animal trials.  Of course, it’s important to note that Renard’s trial is conducted by anthropomorphized animals against an anthropomorphized animals, and is not directly comparable to the trials of pigs, rats, locusts, etc. held by real, institutional human courts.  Nonetheless, some issues raised in Renard’s trial are relevant to the real-life prosecution of non-human animals.
            The first passage is spoken by Pinte the hen, upon her arrival in court with the body of her sister, who has been killed by Renard.  After explain the circumstances of her sister’s death, she bemoans,

                        “But no force
Can bring justice to one who grins
At threats, and doesn’t care two pins
For anyone’s wrath.” (Trial of Renard, 102)

Can justice be done against someone (or something) who has no fear of punishment or respect for authority?  Renard certainly understands the horrible things he’s doing, he just doesn’t care.  Pinte’s remarks suggest that for her, force is not enough, that justice requires some notion of repentance or guilt on the part of the perpetrator.  This is a much more common-sense principle when it comes to human criminals, but it may also have been applied to offending animals.  Joy Enders cites a claim from Arthur Magnin that accused pigs would sometimes be tortured on the rack, and “the cries which [the animals] uttered under torture were received as confessions of guilt” (Enders).  Peter Dinzelbacher cites another example, a trial in Leiden, in which a dog who had bitten a child “confessed without torture” and was executed. 
            What does it mean for an animal to confess?  Is true understanding of the crime necessary for a confession to be valid?  In the case of the pigs, it seems certain that their squeals indicate intense pain rather than any understanding that they’ve committed a crime, let alone a valid admission of guilt.  It’s easier to understand a dog looking “guilty,” but there’s still the question of whether they’re able to link their punishment or scolding to a particular act of theirs.  In absence of this understanding, can the execution of the offending animal be considered justice?
The second passage is spoken by King Noble, in response to Pinte’s complaint aginst Renard:

“I feel great sympathy with you,
And wish somehow to relieve your woe.
Renard shall come if he will or no!
By what you shall see with your own eyes,
Hear with you ears, you’ll realize
How truly justice has been done.
Vengeance I’ll have on anyone
For breaking the peace and murdering!” (Trial of Renard, 104)

Here, justice is equated with vengeance.  What matters is not the state of mind of the punished, but the fact that they are punished in the appropriate degree for their deed.   Bringing comfort to the family of a victim is also a compelling reason for the trial and execution of an animal, particularly one accused of murder.  Dinzelbacher proposes that one of the reasons for animal trials might have been “comfort derived the ritual ‘magic’ of legal formalism, and public execution” (Dinzelbacher, 421).  For the animal community in the story, trying and punishing Renard would be a way to represent assert control over a dangerous individual who scorns authority.  In a similar way for the family of a child killed by a pig, the process of accusing, trying, and executing the pig might bring some sort of satisfaction.

W. A.

Bonus content:  absurd-sounding trials against non-human defendants are not yet a thing of the past,695_Pounds_of_Shark_Fins


  1. The testimony of Pinte reminded me of one other instance of animal trials that we didn't bring up in class: animals as witnesses. If an animal was present during a robbery or a murder or something, that animal could be brought to court and simply be there, and that was considered evidence in support of the case, though I can't remember when or in what countries this took place. So just another thing to puzzle over.

  2. Tempting as it is to look to Reynard for clues about what to make of the actual trials of pigs and dogs, I am not sure how far we can take the analogy, in large part because of the things that we said about the Reynard stories as somehow comments on human society or, at the very least, human conventions of storytelling: is a fox wrong for killing and eating a chicken in the same way that a pig is wrong for killing and eating a human infant? Much of the absurdity in the Reynard stories depends on the fact that the animals are behaving according to their natures even as they form human-like courts. Are trials of baby-eating pigs meant to be absurd in the same way? It seems not, and yet since the pigs were acting according to their natures, perhaps so--but are we to believe that the people involved in the pig trials experienced them as funny? The human satisfactions in the two instances seem radically at odds (humor with the chickens and fox, justice for the eaten infant with the pigs). RLFB