In legal history, an animal trial was the criminal trial of a non-human. Such trials are recorded as having taken place in Europe from the thirteenth century until the eighteenth. In modern times, it is considered in most criminal justice systems that non-human creatures lack moral agency and so cannot be held culpable for an act.
Historical animal trials
Animals, including insects, faced the possibility of criminal charges for several centuries across many parts of Europe. The earliest extant record of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Such trials remained part of several legal systems until the 18th century. Animal defendants appeared before both church and secular courts, and the offences alleged against them ranged from murder to criminal damage. Human witnesses were often heard and in Ecclesiastical courts they were routinely provided with lawyers (this was not the case in secular courts, but for most of the period concerned, neither were human defendants). If convicted, it was usual for an animal to be executed, or exiled.
Translations of several of the most detailed records can be found in E.P. Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, published in 1906. Sadakat Kadri's The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama (Random House, 2006) contains another detailed examination of the subject. Kadri shows that the trials were part of a broader phenomenon that saw corpses and inanimate objects also face prosecution; and argues that an echo of such rituals survives in modern attitudes towards the punishment of children and the mentally ill.
Commonly tried animals
Animals put on trial were almost invariably either domesticated ones (most often pigs, but also bulls, horses, and cows) or pests such as rats and weevils. Creatures that were suspected of being familiar spirits or complicit in acts of bestiality were also subjected to judicial punishment, such as burning at the stake, though few, if any, ever faced trial.
According to Johannis Gross in Kurze Basler Chronik (1624), in 1474 a rooster was put on trial for "the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg," which the townspeople were concerned was spawned by Satan and contained a cockatrice. It is arguable whether it is actually possible for a rooster to lay an egg.
Alleged werewolves were put on trial on several occasions, particularly in sixteenth-century France, though the allegation in such cases was always levelled against human defendants.
In popular culture
- The film The Hour of the Pig, released as The Advocate in the United States, centers on the prosecution of a homicidal pig. Several episodes reflect historical events, and its scriptwriters evidently consulted actual trial transcripts, though the plot revolves around a historical conceit - Colin Firth plays the swine's defence lawyer, but there is no recorded instance of a lawyer representing an animal charged with murder. (There are several cases, by contrast, where lawyers appeared for creatures in ecclesiastical courts - and several rats and beetles, for example, won famous court victories as a result.)
- Julian Barnes describes a trial against a woodworm in his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
- Cohen, Esther (1986), "Law, Folklore and Animal Lore", Past and Present (Oxford University Press) (110). ISSN 00312746
- Evans, E. P. (1906, 1987), The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, Faber and Faber . ISBN 978-0-571-14893-6
- The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906) at the Internet Archive
- PDF (1.18 MB), Society and Animals, Volume 2, Number 1 (1994)
- PDF (178 KB) (2003)
- Nicholas Humphrey, PDF (120 KB), Chapter 18 of The Mind Made Flesh, pp. 235–254, Oxford University Press (2002)
- Animals on Trial (MP3), BBC World Service documentary podcast, broadcast on 15 March 2011
- Bugs and Beast Before the Law in The Public Domain Review