Thursday, May 21, 2015

Were animals considered to be morally responsible?

     In class, I suggested that perhaps, to understand medieval animal trials, one had to distinguish two types of guilt as applied to the animal defendants. The first type only concerns whether the accused in fact performed the deed in question, while the second type concerns whether the accused has a moral responsibility for doing that deed. I'm sure we all agree that an animal can be guilty in the first sense, but that the second sense is rather murkier. My thought was that maybe medieval courts distinguished between these two types of guilt—that they tried some or all animals with the end of determining their guilt in the first sense, while tacitly acknowledging that the second sense was less applicable to beastly defendants.

     In this model of law, a convicted animal would be punished not in retribution for its moral failing, but because it was a member of society, and the preservation of societal order required that disruptors of that order be punished. (Note that I do not at all mean the "upsetting of social hierarchy" proposed in our reading, merely violation of the common peace.) Since the end of class, however, I have had doubts about whether my aforesaid hypothesis is actually any good. It would go some way toward reconciling the trials of animals with the thinkers who objected to the idea of animals' being able to commit crimes, yet there are various cases where such a model would not seem to fit.

     There is the case of the sow whose piglets were spared "on account of their youth and their mother's bad example." Surely these can only be considered mitigating factors in that they mean the piglets could not have known better; they hardly affect whether or not the piglets ate of the child. Similarly in modern life, we are lenient to human offenders for their youth, but we would never think of refusing to replace a lightbulb because it burned out soon after we bought it. The piglets, then, must in some way be considered more like the juvenile offenders than like the lightbulb.

     And again, there is the case of the man who had intimate relations with a she-ass. If merely the commission of the act were sufficient for conviction, the trial would have been a foregone conclusion. Yet, as witnesses testified to the jennet's good character, she was spared—again on grounds of moral responsiblity, not of mundane facts.

     A new hypothesis which I think might cover all of these cases is as follows: perhaps the medieval idea was simply that, for every evil deed done, someone must be held morally responsible. Not every participant in the deed, but at least one. This would account for the immunity from prosecution of oxen and horses, since as we saw their owner is the one punished by the beasts' confiscation and auction. The owner, then, bears the moral responsibility. Pigs, probably for some of the reasons we discussed in class, were considered more independent agents—it was thus that they were so frequently held guilty on their own, and their owners not punished. In the case of the piglets, the sow was the one to bear the moral responsibility for the deed to which she had led them. (One may wonder what would have happened in court had the piglets done the deed on their own.)

     I'm a bit happier with this hypothesis than with the last one, but it still doesn't account very well for the treatment of wild animals or the ecclesiastical actions against vermin. I wonder if any of you have thoughts in those directions?

—Luke Bretscher


  1. Thanks for this interesting blog! I wrote about a similar topic in regard to St Francis's comments to the birds in my blog: Beasts and Burdens: Speaking to the birds Fascinating topic

  2. It seems to me that your hypothesis is fairly sound as regards the secular trials. It makes more sense than trying to claim that the trials are trying to maintain any form of hierarchy. However, it is unclear with that hypothesis why an ox who gores somebody gets sold off to a new master, but a pig who does the same thing is executed. It seems that the accepted purpose of the animal has to have some importance. The animals used for transport are maintained, while those kept primarily for meat are executed. Perhaps the discussion we had in class as to why the bodies of the pigs were not eaten is appropriate, since the flesh had been corrupted.

    So with that in mind, my hypothesis for how blame is separated between the animal and the owner is in the purpose of the animal. in a murder trial, say eating a child on accident, the consideration is whether or not the animal can fill its intended purpose. If it can, the owner is punished. If it can't (e.g. a pig), the animal is punished.

    The other issue I see looking at the hypothesis regards the separation between the ecclesiastic and secular courts. After all, eating an entire field is certainly harmful to the owner of that field, and violates social rules on stealing. However, there is no physical punishment for the criminal animal. I don't have any idea why that is the case; it was just an element of our discussion that your hypothesis didn't address.

    A final question: Wild animals were not subject to any court of law, and so were not tried. Why were pests? After all, especially with rodents, they are wild animals as much as squirrels are.

  3. Pigs and wolves (those legendary adversaries) certainly make a fascinating contrast here. Both are large, intelligent and potentially dangerous; both walked a troubling line between the domestic and the wild, especially when pigs interbred with their free-roaming counterparts (boars) and wolves interbred with their tamer relatives (dogs). In a late medieval urban context, as towns swelled and then burst through the confines of their ramparts, these boundaries became particularly troubling, both theoretically and practically – historians like Michel Louis have speculated that many late medieval and early modern “wolf attacks” were in fact the work of feral dogs or wolf/dog hybrids. I'm convinced less by the specifics of any of our authors, and more by the general hunch many of them seem to have that the desire to incorporate certain animals within a human sphere of justice – despite their abject unsuitability for such a position – is part of the anxiety over boundaries and jurisdiction that Europe experienced in the three centuries between the Black Death and the end of the Thirty Year's War. Both royal and ecclesiastical authority were opened to radical challenges in this period, and so questions of responsibility – who answers to whom? What is guilt? Who, or what, is harmed by a crime? This last is a particularly interesting question that the animal trials tested in different (and, I would argue, never fully satisfactory) ways. Is a roving, baby-eating pig an affront to an individual mother, to her community, or to divine order? Different answers, or combinations of answers, have radically different consequences. Modern legal systems seem to have largely eliminated appeals to heavenly plaintiffs, but animals are still tricky boundary cases. The recent row over Johnny Depp's dogs (brought illegally into Australia) called up a fascinating set of responses – save the innocent puppies! protect Australia's fragile ecosystem! take moral umbrage at those who fly private planes! - that have some surprising consonance with the range of concerns we encounter in these earlier animal trials.

  4. Adam, I'm not sure what you mean about whether an animal can serve its intended purpose. An ox that has killed someone can still pull a plow, and a pig that has killed someone can still be fattened up and eaten. To me that doesn't seem sufficient to explain why the ox is allowed to continue working—if for a different owner—and the pig is executed. It seems to me more that the animals were punished if they were considered to be independent agents. Oxen and horses were both relatively closely supervised (perhaps because oxen are dimwitted and horses are delicate), which could be a reason for blaming the owner for the misdeeds. Pigs were let to roam free (perhaps because they are clever and sturdy), which casts them more as independent agents.

  5. I need more persuading that the pigs weren't considered under the responsibility (writ?) of their human owners in the same way that the oxen and horses were, but it is interesting to think that pigs were somehow considered responsible for themselves in a way oxen and horses weren't. There is definitely an ambiguity with pigs: they live with human beings, and yet do no work (unlike dogs, oxen, horses, even cats, who were typically kept as mousers), but they do not need minding in quite the way sheep do. One wonders why their owners weren't expected to keep them penned. Perhaps we need to know more about the way in which pigs were kept--or not? Particularly why they were allowed to roam around the towns making it possible for them to eat babies! RLFB

  6. Looking back on the trial readings, I still have trouble coming to terms with how these trials were viewed within the society. I think the distinction here between the two types of guilt is spot on, at least in the way I can most rationally reconcile the treatment and trials of animals. While there are the stories of harming animals until they confessed, I find it incredibly hard to believe people truly felt the animals had a moral charge or could be morally responsible.

    And yet, the further research here shows that could very well be the case! I’m stunned that these “cases” turned on the fact that certain piglets were spared because of their youth. “Of course,” I imagine a barrister saying, “an older pig would have known better!” Wow.

    So, I suppose I buy into the notion of “someone had to be held morally responsible.” In a society which was presumably more religious than litigious, it makes sense that guilt was two-fold. It also makes sense that the understanding of criminal acts would be charged with a moral element. Perhaps logic in that time frame dictated that every wrong doing was also lined with sin.
    This may be overly simplistic, but is it possible that the animals were being tried in this manner because it’s the only way people thought to do it? If it was good enough for the humans, was it good enough for the animals. I think this is a bit of an outlandish claim, considering there isn’t exactly precedent for subjecting animals to the same treatment as humans in other cases. But it would at least give me an explanation!