These pages have documented many unusual stories and facts relating to capital punishment. Regardless of your personal views on the subject, it probably goes without saying that you assume we are talking about the execution of humans. For much of human history, capital punishment was no respecter of persons or species. Animal criminals, as well as their human counterparts, faced the wrath of the executioner for any violation of the law.
The medieval legal history of Europe is filled with curious case studies of four-footed defendants facing the justice of courts of law.
The Trial of the Autun Rats
A lot of criminal defense attorneys could describe their clients as “rats.” Barthelémy de Chassenée (1480-1541) was being literal when he described his clientele this way. Chassenée (also known as Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, Cassaneus Bertalan, Bartholomaeus Cassaneus, Bartholomäus Cassaneus, Barthelemy de Chassenée, de Chassaneo, Bartholm Chasseneux, Chassanæus, Chassanaeus, Hassanaus, or Bartholomew Cassaneus) made his reputation as an attorney by defending rats in an ecclesiastical court. The rodents were charged in Autun, France with “feloniously eating and wantonly destroying” the barley crop of the province. The animals were charged to appear on a certain day to answer the charges. The court appointed Chassenée to represent them.
Chassenée knew his clients had the deck stacked against them. Rats have a notoriously negative reputation, and if they were going to face any possibility of exoneration, he would need to employ all of his legal expertise in their defense. Chassenée first argued that it was impractical and unjust to assume that one single notice of the pending proceedings would be sufficient. Inasmuch as his clients were dispersed over a large tract of country as well as in villages, fairness dictated that a second citation be published the pulpits of all the parishes inhabited by said rats. His request was granted. When, on the date and time commanded by the summons, the rats failed to appear, Chassenée argued that the difficulty of the journey, the perils of navigating past all the cats they might encounter along the way, and the long distance required to travel by many of his clients all merited leniency. The attorney made a passionate plea with the court, arguing that if a person is commanded to appear at a place that is too dangerous for travel, that person has the right of appeal and may refuse to obey the writ.
Witnesses recorded their observations that Chassenée’s arguments were just as masterful and passionate as if he were appearing before the highest courts of the land in defense of a powerful person. Although there is no clear record of the final disposition of the case, legal historians have concluded that the rats must have been acquitted.
Hearings on Homicidal Horses and Contagion-Causing Criminal Cattle
Having hoofs did not exempt animals from the justice system. Legal records tell the story of a horse condemned in 1389 by Carthusians of Dijon for homicide. As late as 1697, a mare was burned at the stake by the judgment of the Parliament of Aix.
When an outbreak of disease took the lives of many head of cattle in 1796 at Beutelsbach in Wurtemberg, Germany, investigators were determined to find out who was responsible. Suspicion quickly fell on the town bull. After a quick trial, the bull was found guilty and sentenced to be buried alive at the crossroads in the presence of several hundred persons. There is no record as to whether this was effective in bringing an end to the epizootic plague.
Sentencing Scandalous Swine at Savignysur-Etang
One of the most notable moments in animal legal history occurred at Savignysur-Etang, in Bourgogne, France, in January 1457. A sow and her six piglets were charged with murdering and partly devouring an infant.
Although the sow was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, her offspring received leniency. The court concluded they had suffered from the poor parenting of their mother. The judge also took their youth into account. These factors, in addition to the failure of the prosecution to prove the piglets’ overt complicity in the nefarious act, resulted in their acquittal.
Meanwhile, 300 miles (482 km) away, in Normandy, another pig likewise faced the consequences for criminal misbehavior. The Normandy pig was charged with having torn the face and arms of a baby in its cradle. Upon being found guilty of said charges, the animal was sentenced to be “mangled and maimed in the head and forelegs” and dressed up in a jacket and breeches to be hung from a gallows in the market square. Thus dressed in a man’s clothes, the sow was prepared to meet her executioner. The executioner was provided with new gloves, signifying that as a minister of justice, he incurred no guilt in shedding blood.
This particular event in the annals of legal history was of such significance that the west wall of the south branch of the transept in the Church of the Holy Trinity at Falaise in Normandy used to be adorned with a fresco painting of the execution.
For more examples of animal trials and executions, be sure to read The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P. Evans.
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