In 1451, a Swiss farmer was concerned about unwanted trespassers in the ponds of his property, fearing that they would harm the much-needed population of salmon. He took his complaint to the Bishop of Lausanne, who listened intently to the man’s concerns and ordered that some of the trespassers be brought in to appear before the court. It wouldn’t be practical to try to round them all up for their court date, since the offenders were in fact leeches. My name’s…
Europe has a surprisingly rich history of putting taking animals to court. According to E.P. Evans’ “The Criminal Prosecution and Capitol Punishment of Animals,” there were two types of animal trials, at least in Europe, Thierstrafen and Thierprocesse. Theirstrafen were for capital crimes which could warrant the death penalty, i.e. homicide, committed by pigs, cows, horses, and other domestic animals, presided over by a secular tribunal. Thierprocesse were judicial proceedings in ecclesiastical courts against vermin like rats, mice, locusts, and weevils. The purpose was to expel the vermin from orchards, vineyards, and cropland by means of exile, exorcism, or excommunication.
In 1650, four sentences were handed down against a plague of locusts in an abbey in Santa María de Párraces, Spain, the last sentence calling for the locusts’ excommunication and ordering them to leave the region within 14 hours. Bishop Alonso Fernández de Madrigal excommunicated another plague of locusts, condemning them to confinement in a cave, and a bishop from Córdoba excommunicated some swallows that had stayed inside their parish. These were really pyrrhic victories, to make the people feel better. While Evans’ book lists nearly 200 such cases, the animals in thierprocesse cases never really seem bothered by the ruling. Domestic animals barely listen to us, what do we expect the wild ones to do. Either way, it was thought to be important that the an imals have their day in court.
Why not just exterminate the offending critters? We’re good at that. Since even weevils and rats were considered God’s creatures, the destruction they caused must also be part of his plan, so destroying them would be to act against God’s will. But if the animals were tried in a church court, and excommunicated or otherwise condemned, then it was kind of okay. For example, in the 1480s, the Cardinal Bishop of Autun in France ruled against some slugs which were ruining estate grounds under his purview. He ordered that for three days, announcements be made to the slugs that they were to leave the area or be cursed. They didn’t leave, so it was game-on for the gardeners to get rid of them.
On the purely legal side of things were the cases against livestock, typically for murder. Apparently, pigs are just mad for murder when it comes to humans and most cases involves them eating the victim, whole or in part. This was a time when both animals and children might roam field and streets freely and accidents did happen. Pigs may not “eat everything” as people think, but they will *taste anything, and god help you if you happen to be made of meat. It reminds me of a line from a Zora Neal Hurston story where the family’s sow gets into the kitchen where toddler Zora is alone and her mother panics, even though the sow was less interested in eating Mrs. Hurston’s baby than the other way around. Evans describes one, fairly typical case in 1379 in which two herds of swine were feeding together when a trio of pigs became agitated, and charged the swinemaster’s son, who died from his injuries. All of the pigs from both herds were tried, and “after due process of law, were condemned to death.” On appeal, all but the three instigating pigs were later pardoned. The courts really do seem to have tried to try animals in the same way they would humans, which is less woke than it sounds when you remember how readily death sentences were handed out in those days. I’ve never tried to hang a pig, but given their incredibly muscular necks, I imagine it doesn’t go well.
Also high in the ranking of crimes animals could be charged with beastiality, although those cases were actually known to go in the animal’s favor. Both the human and the animal might be put to death, but sometimes the case could be made that the animal was not at fault as it didn’t consent, so it wasn’t punished. If they were convicted, they might be imprisoned right along with the human who got them in that mess in the first place. In those cases, the owner was charged for the animal’s care and feeding as a sort of second-hand punishment.
For as much as I’d like to say that animal trials are “a brutish fossil, symbolic of a decayed era gratefully forgotten,” and I’ve got stickers for anyone who can identify that movie quote without googling it, cases persistently pop up in more recent times. In Tennessee in 1916, an elephant named Mary murdered her trainer –strangest verse of The Cell Block Tango ever– and was hanged with a crane. In Nigeria in 2009, a goat was arrested after a mob of vigilantes told police it was a shape-shifting car thief. No word on how that case turned out.
Of all the critters, creatures, and creepy crawlies that plagued late-medieval France, none could hold a candle to the weevil rychites auratus. Not to be confused with the palmetto weevil, rhynchophorus cruentatus fabricius, the largest weevil species. You might say R. auratus is the lesser of two weevils [sfx rimshot, groans]. Meh, I’m working.
The first complaint against the insects was made by grape growers in 1545, which resulted in a proclamation for the public to atone for their sins in hopes the weevils would leave…and it worked. A generation later, the weevils returned and the town was forced to take them to court. Lawyer Antoine Filliol was appointed the weevils public defender — it’s hard to carry cash in a carapace, so they reasoned the weevils wouldn’t be able to pay for representation. Filliol argued that his clients had been placed on Earth by God, along with the food they needed to survive, and it wasn’t the bugs’ fault that that food just happened to belong to the local farmers. The prosecution, who I will picture being played by Sam Waterston and his glorious eyebrows, contended animals were meant to be subordinate to man and the weevils weren’t toeing the line. The villagers believed their sins brought the pests, but the pests were part of God’s plan, but-but humans are supposed to have dominion over animals, so they should be able to do with them what they damn well please. This back-and-forth stalemate is the central theological paradox of animal trials. Hrmm, maybe I’ll recast the DA as Linus Roach, he’s got a real skill for nuance.
The citizens of St. Julien sought a compromise by providing the weevils with some land, complete with water supply, near town, like planting a sacrificial garden for the deer and raccoons, in hopes they’ll stay out of your main garden. It worked about as well. Filliol, the weevils’ attorney, argued that he couldn’t accept that deal on behalf of his clients because the land was barren and thus wouldn’t sustain them, though the prosecution argued that there were in fact trees and shrubbery. Again, our details become sparse — we know that the trial lasted an astonishing 8 months, but we don’t know the verdict — but it’s probably safe to assume it went like similar trials and the insects were told to pack their bags.
Pope Gregory IX, who sat in the fancy chair from 1227 to 1241, was not a cat person, to put it mildly. He believed tubby tabbies, coy calicos, and pernicious Persians embodied Lucifer himself. Gregory based his theory on “evidence” from papal inquisitor (read: professional torturer of people and writer-down of screamed things) Conrad of Marburg, who “documented” evidence of people worshipping the devil and his black cat. In 1233, Gregory issued the Vox in Rama, an official papal decree declaring that Satan was half-cat and sometimes took the form of a cat during Satanic masses. Any color cat, apparently, not just black cats.
If the pope was against something, the Catholics were against it too, and this is 300 years before Martin Luther’s hammer or Henry VIII’s divorce, so “the Catholics” meant basically everybody in Europe. In addition to sweeping cat hunts (be careful you don’t Spoonerize *that) and, I’m sorry to report, burning them, people began killing any cat that came on their property, to avoid being accused of being friendly with said cat. The feline population took such a hit from this, and the bubonic plague-induced killings a century later, that there is still evidence of it today — Europe’s current relatively small black cat population is a direct result of that breed being targeted specifically.
Pope Gregory wasn’t the only pontiff to want to throw down with Nature’s most eff-around-and-find-out species. Pope Innocent VIII came to power in the late 1400s, just in time for Western Europe’s witch-hunting craze. For more context, watch the Witch-smeller Pursuivant episode of the first Blackadder series. If it’s your first Blackadder, subsequent seasons are much better, but don’t have Brian Blessed, so… Because the powers that be dictated that the cat composed one of the main identifiers of a witch, the Church officially excommunicated the entire species. Cat-hating, hunting and burning was back in vogue.
And it had more staying power than I’d like. Around the Belgian city of Ypres, nothing pleased the townsfolk more than throwing the animal off the bell tower of the local church. When business went bad, the people made sure that there was always a few extra cats tossed out off the window. With time, the killings became a ritual, taking place on ‘Cat’s Wednesday’, in the second week of Lent. The barbaric practice continued until 1817 when the last killing took place. The last cat reportedly survived the fall and scampered off as fast as it could before it could be caught again. From then on until the First World War, Cats’ Wednesday was celebrated simply by ringing of the church bells. In 1938, a group of young altar boys organized a sort of cat parade. Each was carrying a toy cat. When they reached the church, they first had a feast and then one of the boys climbed up the bell tower and threw down the cat toys. The ‘Festival of the Cats’ remained mostly a local festival until the 1950s when folkloristic parades became the new rage all over West Flanders. On the second Sunday of Lent in 1955, the first magnificent parade was organized with 1,500 extras, all dressed in gorgeous costumes. Since then, every three years the city has been celebrating Cat’s Festival.
Even today, the Vatican has strong opinions about pets. Pope Francis is concerned with the time, money, and effort people put toward their fur babies. “After food, clothing and medicine, the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets,” he said, referring to a study on where most people’s income goes. “That’s serious.” And though it’s unlikely that history’s most pro-natural environment pope will encourage cat bonfires, he does suggest we take a step away from the dog ice cream and cat outfits in the pet aisle. “One can love animals,” the Catechism says. “One should not direct them the affection due only to persons.” Well, Frankie, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put my 9 mo old rottweiler in a white sweater vest and tennis skirt for mixed doubles with the cats. Who says white people don’t have culture?
As Europe would learn during the Bubonic plague, when you radically reduce the population of felis catus, the population of rattus rattus goes like mad. They eat crops, soil food stores, and, through no fault of their own, spread disease. Those types of behaviors tend to make a species pretty unpopular and humans have been trying to get rid of rats, by hook or by crook, for pretty much ever. In addition to typical corrective measures, people also went after the rats legally.
Perhaps the best known of these curious proceedings not only spared the lives of the wee beasties, but made the reputation of distinguished lawyer Bartholomew Chassanee (played by Colin Firth in 1993’s The Hour of the Pig), eventually propelling him to Premier President of the Parliament of Aix in France. The country around Autun was intolerably, intransigently, and intractably infested with rats and the citizens, perhaps out of ideas, appealed to the Bishop to have the vermin excommunicated. In 1510, the Episcopal Court appointed Chassanee as counsel for the rats, undoubtedly related to his having recently before that written an article about trials of that kind. Chassanee took the job seriously. Defense tactic 1, the rats had not been properly summoned to appear. The defendant was not one rat, but all the rats in the area, therefore every single rat should be allowed to attend court and plead their case. Further, the defendants were spread so far and wide throughout the area that the summons made by the villagers could not possibly have reached them all. Whether it was the strength of the legal arguments, or maybe the judges had a soft spot for animals, but either way, the court *agreed with Chassenée’s argument.
They ordered that the matter should be adjourned and reheard after proper summons had been issued, deciding that preaching the summons from every last pulpit in Autun should be sufficient to notify every last rat. The local priests did as the court instructed, but when the next hearing date rolled around, surprise surprise, there were no rats. Chassenee was ready for this. Of course they haven’t turned up, he argued, they’re in fear of their lives. No defendant should be obliged to risk his or her life in coming to court, and that applied to rats too. After all, the rats would have to come out into the open where cats and dogs would be waiting to pounce on them. Who could blame them for staying home? The judges… agreed again and adjourned the case once more. Here is where the story takes a sad turn, for us. There is no record of what happened at the third and possibly final hearing.
But Chassenee had set a precedent that would revisit him thirty years later, when in 1540, when Chassenée was president of the Parliament of Provence, there was an anti-Protestant campaign by French Catholics. A dozen Protestant inhabitants of the town of Mérindol chose not to attend a court summons, and the court ordered that the entire town of some eighty families be burned to the ground. Well that escalated quickly. However, the seigneur of Arles made a powerful speech to Chassenée, citing the case he had made on behalf of the rats. If rats should be given the opportunity to be heard safely, surely humans should too. Chassenée was so moved by this plea (another good reason to always know you audience) that he not only called off the burning, but persuaded King Francis I to forestall the sentence indefinitely. [sfx hooray] Unfortunately [sfx disappointment], after Chassenée died, his successor arranged for the sentence to be carried out. In a cruel twist, said successor offered the townsfolk safe passage to Germany, then reneged and annihilated the whole town.
A lot of people would look at Chassenee’s defense of the rats as a waste of time and resources, but I prefer to look at it as a case of justice really being for all, or, as Horton said, a person’s a person, no matter how small. But… did it really happen? The main issue with our understanding of the strange practice, according to Sara McDougall, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the sourcing. “The sources are 19th century scholars who didn’t bother to give a whole lot of explicit information on where they found the stuff,” she says, “With a lot of the medieval ones we know that some of them were either made up or they were textbook cases that were kind of a way to keep students from falling asleep.” In an even stranger reasoning for an fake animal court story, McDougall says that one of the most famous cases of beasts on trial, involving a bunch of rats, was “completely made up just to defame the lawyer who supposedly defended the rats.” Oh well. I now quote the movie Secondhand Lions, “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most.”
Speaking of unbelievable things, there is one excommunication of a cat (excommunicat-ion?) that deserves to be mentioned, but is a mere footnote in the wildly whimsical life of the man who both owned the cat and performed the excommunication. This is where being a good story-teller would really come in handy. The pure-fact version of the story is “a priest excommunicated his cat for hunting, therefor doing work, on the Sabbath.” But if you tell it like, your podcast is only going to be five minutes long. If I were Mark Chrysler of The Constant, which everyone should listen to, I would have been teasing you about the cat story for ten minutes already. So let me tell you about the priest, rather than the cat, and that may be the first time in my life I’ve chosen to talk about a human rather than a cat, the darling of Cornwall, even though he was from Plymouth, the man who invented the modern Harvest Festival, dressed in purple like he was cosplaying Prince at a Gogo Bordello concert, became addicted to morphine, believed birds were the thoughts of God, may have hanged a mouse if one author is to be believed, and who spent his spare time pretending to be a mermaid.
Robert Stephen Hawker was born in 1803, the eldest of nine children, and was raised by his grandparents after age 10. At 19, while still in college, he married a woman 22 years his senior, who was thought to have financed his university education. The couple honeymooned at Tintagel, a place that kindled his lifelong fascination with Arthurian legend and inspired him to write The Quest of the Sangraal. He published what I’m led to believe was quite a popular poem, The Song of the Western Men, also known as Trelawny. Hawker published it anonymously in 1825 and it took no less than Charles Dickens to attest to his authorship.
In 1834, 31 year old Hawker became the vicar of Morwenstow, near the town of Bude, where his real fame began, not for his writing or scholarship, but for his eccentricities and deservedly so. His biographer Sabine Baring-Gould wrote: “One absurd hoax that he played on the superstitious people of Bude must not be omitted. At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826 [aged 22 or 23], he swam or rowed out to a rock at some little distance from the shore, plaited seaweed into a wig, which he threw over his head, so that it hung in lank streamers halfway down his back, enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and, otherwise naked, sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand-mirror, and sang and screamed till attention was arrested. Some people passing along the cliff heard and saw him, and ran into Bude, saying that a mermaid with a fish’s tail was sitting on a rock, combing her hair, and singing. A number of people ran out on the rocks and along the beach, and listened awe-struck to the singing and disconsolate wailing of the mermaid. Presently she dived off the rock, and disappeared.
“Next night crowds of people assembled to look out for the mermaid; and in due time she re-appeared, and sent the moon flashing in their faces from her glass. Telescopes were brought to bear on her; but she sang on unmoved, braiding her tresses, and uttering remarkable sounds, unlike the singing of mortal throats which have been practised in do-re-mi. “This went on for several nights; the crowd growing greater, people arriving from Stratton, Kilkhampton, and all the villages round, till Robert Hawker got very hoarse with his nightly singing, and rather tired of sitting so long in the cold. He therefore wound up the performance one night with an unmistakable ‘God save the King’, then plunged into the waves, and the mermaid never again revisited the ‘sounding shores of Bude’.”
It was that same biographer, Baring-Gould, who also suggested that Hawker hanged a mouse for breaking the Sabbath, but Baring-Gould is known to be, as one source put it, economical with the truth. The tale was probably mixed up with another story that he publicly excommunicated one of his cats for catching a mouse on the Sabbath. He had ten cats, who often made up his congregation. His other pets included a ‘highly intelligent’ pig called Gyp and a stag called Robin, which was in the habit of pinning visitors to the ground, despite Hawker declaring it “tame”.
He was also known for his compassion, giving proper burials to sailors who had washed up on the shore and he aided in the rescue of the crew of the Martha Quayle 1863. Toward the end of his life, you could usually find him in a little hut he made on the beach out of driftwood, in which he would write poetry, which you can visit if you’re ever down Cornwall way.
And that’s… William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, wasn’t about to let those leeches kill the farmer’s salmon with impunity. He ordered them to confine themselves to a specific part of the lake. When the leeches proved to be contumacious, or willfully disobedient, Saluces recorded in his memoirs, they were solemnly exorcised. And according to one contemporary source, it worked; the leeches began dying off until the ponds were free of them. Maybe there’s something to it after all. Remember… Thanks…