March 2, 2012
Law and Order, Then and Now: Animals and inanimate objects, including human corpses, put on trial
And what for? In the history of animal trials, typically to adjudicate criminal complaints based on their behavior. Today's animal rights advocates who are campaigning against breed-specific legislation might want to take note that in the annuals of animal litigation, defendants -- the accused animal -- oftentimes enjoyed the benefits of due process. In Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness, reports
All over Europe, throughout the middle-ages and right on into the 19th century, animals were, as it turns out, tried for human crimes. Dogs, pigs, cows, rats and even flies and caterpillars were arraigned in court on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. The trials were conducted with full ceremony: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid — a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defence.
For an animal found guilty, the penalty was dire; execution was not uncommon. However, Humphrey adds
[T]he outcome of these trials was not inevitable. In doubtful cases the courts appear in general to have been lenient, on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt”.
Humphrey explains that much of his souce material comes from a book he found in the Cambridge University Library, E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906) (Open Library link). His article, adapted from several sources by permission, was published in The Public Domain Review as an illustration of the value works in the public domain may have for scholarship.
In this article, Humphrey asks "What was the purpose of these lengthy and extravagant procedures? A desire for revenge cannot have been the only motive." Humphrey cites to cases reported by Evans where inanimate objects were brought up on charges.
In Greece, a statue that fell on a man was charged with murder and sentenced to be thrown into the sea; in Russia, a bell that peeled too gleefully on the occasion of the assassination of a prince was charged with treason and exiled to Siberia.
Humphrey also argues that the protection of society cannot have been the only motive either.
Evans tells of the bodies of criminals, already dead, being brought to trial. Pope Stephen VI, on his accession in 896, accused his predecessor, Formosus, of sacrilegiously bringing the papal office into disrepute. The body of the dead pope was exhumed, dressed in the pontifical robes and set up on a throne in St. Peter’s, where a deacon was appointed to defend him. When the verdict of guilty was pronounced, the executioner thrust Formosus from the throne, stripped him of his robes, cut off the three benedictory fingers of his right hand and threw his body “as a pestilential thing” into the Tiber.
Humphrey reaches the following conclusion:
Taken together, Evans’ cases suggest that again and again, the true purpose of the trials was psychological. People were living at times of deep uncertainty. Both the Greeks and medieval Europeans had in common a deep fear of lawlessness: not so much fear of laws being contravened, as the much worse fear that the world they lived in might not be a lawful place at all.
Social chaos vs some sort of system of governance defined by law cannot be dismissed because they are based on Humphrey's examination of the strange world of bringing to law courts animals and inanimate objects which exhibit no criminal intent and even corpses for trials of possible crimes. Law and order is a cultural phenomenon that remains alive today. Quite likely it is based on a fear that the society we live in must be a lawful place. [JH]