Animal Trials

August 31, 2020

Animal Trials

Image: Unknown author - The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, Public Domain,

Adela Davis

In 1522, Bartholomew Chassenée took on the case of his career. The French district of Autun had made a complaint, and the defendant required Chassenée’s legal expertise. The charge was wanton destruction of the area’s barley crop, and the accused was to be tried before the ecclesiastical court.

Unfortunately for Chassenée, his client neglected to appear at the trial:

In view of the bad repute and notorious guilt of his client, Chassenée was forced to employ all sorts of legal shifts and chicane, dilatory pleas and other technical objections, hoping thereby to find some loophole in the meshes of the law through which the accused might escape, or at least to defer and mitigate the sentence of the judge.[1]

Chassenée’s legal gymnastics sound impressive. Even more so when you realise that his clients were rats.

At first, he argued that, as the defendants ‘were dispersed over a large tract of country … a single summons was insufficient to notify them all’. This seemed reasonable to the court, and so another summons was issued from every pulpit in the region. When the rats still failed to show, Chassenée petitioned for more time—the court had clearly underestimated the effort involved in a mass rodent migration. Their third absence elicited perhaps the most remarkable justification yet:

He excused the default or non-appearance of his clients on the ground of … the serious perils which attended [the journey], owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats.[2]

The case was adjourned once more, but with no date given for resumption, the court made a default judgement in the people’s favour.[3]

Two hundred years later, in Vanvres, a man named Jacques Ferron and a female donkey faced prosecution for the crime of bestiality. The court sentenced both to death, but the people of Vanvres objected. Respected citizens signed a certificate attesting that:

They had known the she-ass for four years, and that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to any one.[4]

The people’s testimony persuaded the court, and the donkey was acquitted. It is unlikely that Jacques was so fortunate.

Animal trials may now seem like a bizarre relic of the past, but stories like these would have been unremarkable to the average villager in medieval or early modern continental Europe. The most authoritative record of animal trials to date was published by E.P. Evans in 1906. This compendium chronicles 200 trials in a 1000 year period, and scholars generally agree that his work only reflects a small fraction of the true number of trials that took place. The practice seems to have peaked in prevalence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cases were concentrated in France, spreading out to Italy, Germany and Switzerland. However, Evans also lists trials in Portugal, Russia, Brazil, and Canada, amongst other places. The range of animals tried was astoundingly diverse, with over twenty-five species documented: from pigs (the most common, by far) to caterpillars, eels, and dolphins.[5]

There were two categories of animal trial. Ecclesiastical courts dealt with crimes committed by vermin, such as destruction of crops or property. Anathema or expulsion were common sentences. Secular courts tried domesticated animals accused of murder or bestiality. Defendants were usually found guilty and executed.[6]

Why? How did humans of the past think it was perfectly reasonable to accuse animals of crimes; provide them with sincere legal counsel; and pour community resources into expensive, time-consuming trials?

Early commentators adopted an attitude of cultural positivism. Evans himself took this view, characterising the trials as,

The childish disposition to punish irrational creatures and inanimate objects, which is common to the infancy of individuals and of races.[7]

Even leaving social Darwinism aside, this theory holds no water historically. The practice was most popular during the Enlightenment period, when people were supposedly leaving the shackles of primitive thinking behind.

Later scholars generally agree that early modern people were not ascribing moral agency or legal intent to animals. Instead, they analyse the sociological and historical contexts to make sense of the phenomenon. Every researcher takes a different tack. Animal trials were a meeting ground for folk traditions and scholarly ideas; a reinforcing of the boundaries between animals and humans; a deliberate scheme by the Church to increase tithing; a way of asserting control over an uncontrollable world; a deterrence to other animals; a warning to the owners of dangerous animals; or perhaps just pure animal cruelty.[8] Some ‘throw their hands up in despair’ and declare the whole line of enquiry fruitless.[9]

The reality is that the later theories probably all hold some merit. As criminologist Piers Beirne has stated,

Each [alleged explanation], seeking global status, ignores the fact that the purpose of any given animal trial—if, indeed, there was one— would no doubt be subject to a variable configuration of temporal, national, gender, class, religious, and other factors.[10]

Despite the lack of consensus among scholars, there is one common thread. Many researchers highlight the medieval Judaeo- Christian ‘Great Chain of Being’: God, Church and State, humans, animals, plants. According to this line of argument, animals harming humans was seen as an unacceptable subversion of the Great Chain of Being. This cosmological disturbance needed to be addressed, which could be accomplished through animal trials.[11]

There is some evidence to support this view. Firstly, the parallels with Exodus 21:28 are unavoidable:

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.

Perhaps the biblical precedent motivated or justified the practice to some extent. Moreover, the fact that ecclesiastical courts believed they had the power to banish vermin suggests that they understood the Church to have some authority over animals.

However, it would be too simplistic to draw a causal link between the medieval Judaeo-Christian worldview and animal trials. As Esther Cohen has observed, if maintaining boundaries between species was central to upholding the Great Chain of Being, why then anthropomorphise animals in human legal proceedings?[12]

Not only this, but animal trials were not limited to Judaeo-Christian societies. The ancient Greeks tried animals and inanimate objects. In the early 19th century, the Code of Malacca specified that a buffalo or cow that gored a person to death while tied in the forest should be killed, while the owner went unpunished. W.W. Hyde lists further examples from Central Africa and New Zealand.[13] The tendency to prosecute animals seems to have a deeper source than medieval Christian theology.

Could a theological take on animal trials shed some light on this phenomenon? What does the Bible say about the relationship between God, humanity and creation, and could it help us understand some of the dynamics at play in animal trials?

1. An inherent ‘speciesism’

The special quality afforded to human life is present from the beginning of the biblical story. God creates man and woman in his image and sees that it is very good. They are given a unique role: to fill, subdue, and have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-31). The value of human life is reinforced throughout the Bible, but particularly relevant here is God’s reiteration of the creation mandate to Noah, after the Flood, in Genesis 9:5-6.

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

Even the spilling of human blood by animals is offensive at this point in the Bible. In God’s created order, humans are precious and distinct from the rest of creation— there is an inherent ‘speciesism’ in the world as the Bible portrays it.

2. A distorted ‘speciesism’

Humanity’s good stewardship over the earth, as established in Genesis 1-2, is completely upended at the fall. The ground is cursed, work is painful, and humanity’s relationship with creation is frustrated (Genesis 3:14-19, Romans 8:22). There are two ways we see this frustration manifested: impotence and abuse.

The man works but the ground brings forth thorns and thistles. Pests, droughts, fires, and floods destroy lives and livelihoods. Animals maim and kill humans in tragic accidents. Humans are unable to express their stewardship over the earth. But this does not stop them from trying. Could animal trials be read as an ultimately futile attempt to assert authority over a frustrated creation? Not in the medieval sense, whereby ‘lower animals’ that killed ‘higher animals’ had to be eliminated ‘because they threatened to turn the fragile hierarchy of God’s creation upside down’.[14] Rather, in the true biblical sense, whereby the hierarchy of God’s creation has already been turned upside down but humans nonetheless seek authority and control.

The other impact of the fall on humanity’s relationship with creation is abuse. This is authentic speciesism—humans exploiting their authority at the expense of animals. According to E.P. Evans, animal trials were a clear example of this. They were ‘the outcome of an extremely crude, obtuse, and barbaric sense of justice’.[15] Others disagree, pointing out that while medieval justice was brutal, at least it was equally brutal for humans and animals.[16]

Whether or not historical animal trials were abusive, animal cruelty has always been and is still a problem across the world. In the view of some recent scholars, modern societies are worse offenders than medieval ones:

Late medieval and early modern courtrooms have been displaced by the euthanising practices of twenty-first-century animal shelters and animal control officers … Nowadays, animals are far more likely to be executed silently, invisibly and without advocates for offences such as homelessness, overpopulation, aggression and the lack of a fashionable pedigree. Speciesism rules.[17]

In light of this, Jen Girgen wonders whether ‘it is time for a return of some form of the animal trials of years past’.[18]

Animal trials are painted by some as a potential tool for suppressing animal abuse. Maybe the idea has some worth, just as most would say trials have some worth for humans.

However, is there a possibility of finding a total and lasting solution to these twin issues of impotence and abuse? There is if the problem lying at their heart can be fixed—humanity’s rebellion against God’s good order. The Bible’s answer is the ultimate reconciliation between God, humanity and creation that was inaugurated by Jesus’ death on the cross (Colossians 1:20) and that will be fully realised at his return (2 Peter 3:10-13). Then, the vision of true restoration and perfect peace promised in Isaiah 11:6-9 will become reality:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.


Adela Davis is the Communications Officer at New College. She studied history and psychology at UNSW, and is the author of Something Borrowed, Something Blue: 50 Years of New College, UNSW: 1969–2019.



[1] E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (E.P. Dutton, 1906), pp18-19.

[2] Ibid., p19.

[3] W.W. Hyde, ‘The Prosecution and Punishment of Animals and Lifeless Things in the Middle Ages and Modern Times’. University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register Vol.64, 1916, p707; and Peter T. Leeson, ‘Vermin Trials’. Journal of Law and Economics Vol.56, 2013, p816.

[4] Evans, op. cit., pp150-151.

[5] In recent years, Evans’ methodology has been called into question, so some of the more exotic cases should be taken with a grain of salt. See Piers Beirne, Murdering Animals: Writing on Theriocide, Homicide and Nonspeciesist Criminology (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018), pp88-93.

[6] Katie Sykes, ‘Human Drama, Animal Trials: What the medieval animal trials can teach us about justice for animals’. Animal Law Review Vol.17, 2011, p280.

[7] Evans, op. cit., p186.

[8] Esther Cohen, ‘Law, Folklore and Animal Lore’. Past & Present No.110, 1986, pp14,16- 17,37; Leeson, op. cit., p812; Paul Schiff Berman, ‘Rats, Pigs, and Statues on Trial: The Creation of Cultural Narratives in the Prosecution of Animals and Inanimate Objects’. New York University Law Review Vol.69, pp290,321-322; and Piers Beirne, ‘The Law is an Ass: Reading E.P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals’. Society & Animals Vol.2, 1994, pp29, 38-39.

[9] Beirne, Murdering Animals, p114 (note 4).

[10] Beirne, ‘The Law is an Ass’, p39.

[11] Beirne, Murdering Animals, pp82-84; Cohen, op. cit., p15; and J.J. Finkelstein, ‘The Ox that Gored’. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol.71, 1981, pp71-73.

[12] Cohen, op. cit., p16.

[13] Hyde, op. cit., pp696,715.

[14] Beirne, Murdering Animals, p84.

[15] Evans, op. cit., p41.

[16] Graeme Newman, The Punishment Response (J.B. Lippincott, 1978), p93.

[17] Beirne, Murdering Animals, p112.

[18] Jen Girgen, ‘The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals’. Animal Law Review Vol.9, 2003, p133.  

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