Beasts Before the Bar

Quaint court scenes of yesteryear show that ignorance of the law was once no excuse even for an animal.

Dog in prison

The innkeeper's dog that bit the leg of a village councilman shared its cell with two human prisoners during its one- year sentence.

G. Frederick Mason

Positive proof was lacking, however, and they were released to their owner after he had furnished bail for their reappearance in the event that new evidence was uncovered. The man apparently believed in the inheritance of criminal tendencies, because after worrying about the matter for three weeks, he brought the piglets back to court, openly repudiated them, and refused to be answerable for their conduct in the future.

Swine were not the only animals guilty of criminal offenses. Cattle and horses occasionally ran afoul of the law and received precisely the same treatment as human criminals. Not only was the court procedure the same in each type of case; the same methods of execution were employed. The more common forms of capital punishment were hanging, beheading, or burning at the stake. Whenever possible, the animals were dressed in human clothes before the sentence was carried out.

Homicide was not the only crime for which animals were tried and punished. Jail sentences ranging from a few weeks to several years were not uncommon in cases of the willful injury of a human being, by dogs, horses, cows, or other animals. In one Russian village a "he-goat" butted an important official while he was fastening his shoe, and as punishment the goat was banished to Siberia.

A German innkeeper's dog showed such poor judgment as to bite the leg of a village councilman. The animal's master was jailed at once, but he complained so vigorously against this miscarriage of justice that the judge ordered his release. After all, the innkeeper argued, why should he languish behind bars while the real culprit went free? Appreciating the logic of this approach, the court arranged for the incarceration of the dog for a period of one year. The sentence was duly served, and the animal shared its cell with two human prisoners.

Medieval methods of dealing with wild animals were, of necessity, more complicated. It was often impossible to capture and keep in jail the untamed creatures that sometimes brought harm to men. Nevertheless, the death sentence was occasionally imposed. In 864, the Council of Worms decreed death by suffocation to a swarm of wild bees that had stung a citizen to death. When animal culprits were not available for physical retribution, action of a different sort was possible. Insects and other pests that indirectly harmed a man by destroying his property could, with appropriate assistance from the clergy, be excommunicated. This extreme measure was not usually resorted to until milder alternatives had been exhausted.

It was customary for example, to implore a swarm of locusts or a colony of rats to depart and cease whatever depredations they may have been committing. In some cases formal provisions for sanctuary were arranged, and the animals were notified by a Crier that they could take and maintain possession of a particular plot of land which had been set aside for their use. Usually the threat of excommunication was employed in an attempt to force the undesirable visitors to move away.

After the Middle Ages the Church grew less willing to participate in such animistic rituals as the excommunication of animals, but laymen continued to rely upon the efficacy of direct appeal to the presumed intellectual and emotional natures of lower animals. Sometimes the approach was informal and persuasive. In an old issue of the Journal of American Folk Lore there appears a copy of a letter dated October 30, 1888. It is addressed very correctly to “Messrs. Rat and Co.” The writer begins with fervent expressions of his esteem for the rats and mentions his fear that they must find their present quarters at No. 3, Pine Street quite unsuitable for winter occupancy. He points out that the building was intended only as a summer residence and therefore is draughty and poorly supplied with food. By fortunate coincidence there is at No. 36, Sea Avenue a large, well-built house where the rats can live snug and happy.” The cellar is well stocked and a near-by barn contains large stores of grain. (Directions for reaching the address are included.) Having thus demonstrated his good intentions, the author of the published letter politely suggests that the rats take advantage of his well-meant advice. If they fail to do so, the letter concludes, “the undersigned, who owns the property at No. 3, Fine St., will be forced to use Rough on Rats.”

The ethical propriety of adjuring the vermin to move to a neighbor’s house seems not to have concerned this gentleman. At that, he was only repeating, with minor modifications, the medieval offer of sanctuary. The more attractive the new abode, the better the chances of acceptance. Peasants in some parts of Europe followed a similar practice in attempting to get rid of cabbage worms. It was customary to go out into the garden and invite the worms to depart, calling out, “In yonder village is church-ale.” Church-ale signified a festival which, the peasants must have assumed, no lively cabbage worm could possibly resist.

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