Deliver Us From Weevils — The Time a Town Put a Bunch of Insects on Trial

Something was bugging the people of St. Julien. The “something” was a bug. A bunch of them, actually. Weevils were threatening the peace and prosperity of the French town.

Criminal trespass to property. Destruction of property. Theft. Intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The offenses committed by the perpetrators made a list larger than the offenders themselves.

It was the mid-sixteenth century. The good people of St. Julien had put up with a lot, but their patience was at the breaking point. An infestation of weevils had wreaked significant damage to the vineyards, threatening the economy of the community.

Holding wrongdoers accountable for their misdeeds is not a novel concept, even when the culprits are non-human. History is filled with notable examples of animal trials, such as the cases documented in this article.

In 1545, the good people of the community had enough and persuaded local law enforcement to bring charges against the weevils. They were arraigned in the ecclesiastical court in St. Jean-de-Maurienne on charges of despoiling the vineyards of St. Julien. Since the insects failed to demonstrate sufficient financial ability to retain their own counsel, the court-appointed a defense attorney to represent their interests before the court. That was a fortunate move, as far as the weevils were concerned. The attorney persuaded the presiding cleric to dismiss the charges against his client. The court determined that the weevils were not at fault. The real blame rested with the people of St. Julien, and the weevils were merely acting as agents of divine retribution. The court ordered winemakers to repent of their sins and pay their overdue tithes. Three special Masses were held, after which the parties left the courtroom.

One of the defendants in the 1587 case.

Just two years later, the problem resurfaced. The weevils had returned to the vineyards of St. Julien in full force. Charges were again filed against them, and the case was set for trial.

Defense counsel had a pretty good argument on behalf of his clients. Pointing to the book of Genesis from the Bible, he said his clients were undoubtedly numbered among “every thing that creepeth upon the earth” to whom the Lord had given “every green herb for meat.” That being the case, no less of an authority than God Himself had permitted the weevils access to the grapes of St. Julien.

The prosecution was not persuaded. The same scriptural authority cited by the defense also placed mankind in authority over all animals. That being the case, the weevils were obligated to leave man’s vineyards alone.

The court suggested mediation. The parties considered a number of alternative dispute resolution solutions. One offer that was proposed would have given the weevils uninterrupted access to a tract of land outside of the town in exchange for their pledge to remain on the other side of the municipal limits. The church offered to enforce this arrangement by promising the swift excommunication of whichever party would dare violate the terms of the agreement. This bold effort at resolving the conflict failed, however.

The trial People of St. Julien vs. A Bunch of Weevils dragged on for eight months. At last, after all the evidence was submitted, the court recessed for deliberation.

On the day set for the announcement of the verdict, the courtroom was packed. Attorneys, defendants, and witnesses eagerly waited to hear the fate of the weevils.

What was the verdict? Alas, we shall never know. The trial record remains, except for the vital final page that proclaimed the court’s decision. The last page of the record was devoured by insects.

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