Criminal trials of animals have been recorded to have taken place in Europe since the thirteenth century. Animals that were accused of crimes could be prosecuted both by secular and ecclesiastical courts, and, if found guilty, they faced execution or ex-communication. The scholarship of these Medieval animal trials has long relied on one particular book: The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals written by Edward Payson Evans. Since its release in 1906, sixty different editions have been published and it has been cited in over 500 scholarly books and articles. Evans’ work has had a huge influence on the study of Medieval animal trials, and it would be very difficult to find any article on the topic that does not reference Evans. His compilation of animal trial cases has been particularly important to scholars.
The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals consist of two long chapters discussing the medieval prosecution, trials, and the subsequent punishment of animals. However, it is Appendix F, a list consisting of 191 entries that chronicle these cases that have been implemented and cited the most by scholars. However, the list does not provide any details on what type of trial it was. Instead, it tells us where the information about the cases was collected from, dates, what animal was being tried, and the place. There is no clarification regarding if these were secular or ecclesiastical procedures or the nature of the crime itself. This article will examine how Evans’s account of some of the included trials differ from the original sources to assess if Evans’ work is a reliable source for the study of Medieval animal trials.
To compile the 191 cases in Appendix F, Evans used seventy nine unique sources. For many of the recorded trials he uses the same sources, and several of them have not been properly referenced. For example, he cites ‘Lerouge: Registre secret manuscrit’ thirty five times, but no further information about who or what it is can be found. Lerouge is not mentioned in the bibliography or any other appendix. In total, Appendix F includes fifty four unverifiable cases. Additionally, the majority of the trials in Evans’ list come from secondary sources, and only four come from actual archival sources. Hence, what he presents is often an interpretation of another scholar’s interpretation, rather than an interpretation of a primary source.
One of the cases recorded in Appendix F is the ex-communication of rats that occurred in 1711 on the Danish island of Als. Evans originally discovered this event in an article by German jurist Karl von Amira, who found the case in a Danish journal. The original Danish article describes how rats were abundant in Als, and that they were destroying the land. A ‘ghost doctor’ advised the people of Als to condemn the rats to disappear. Subsequently, the inhabitants held a trial for the rats, who were sentenced to either reimburse the people for the damages they had caused or stay away from the land. Whilst a trial allegedly did occur, it was not an ex-communication per se. As a matter of fact, the Protestant revolution had already reached Denmark by the 1520s, and the Protestant church, as a rule, does not participate in the practice of ex-communications. Von Amira does specify that it was not an ecclesiastical trial, but rather a secular one interceded with prayer-like elements. Yet, Evans uses excommunicated and anathematized interchangeably throughout the book. This suggests that Evans is rather selective with the information he relays from his sources and is not that careful with his word choices. Furthermore, he employs a rather ahistorical approach when handling them by not taking historical circumstances into account.
This particular trial against rats in Als had been recorded before. However, it had been labelled as folklore. The Danish scholar Mathias Thiele, in the process of collecting Danish folk tales, included it in his Danmarks Folkesagn – in the same paragraph as he discussed a similar case from Viborg. This case had followed the same structure, but instead of a ‘ghost doctor’, it was an elderly woman who suggested holding a trial to get rid of the rats. Thiele collected the case from a book by Swedish botanist Carl von Linne’s student Pehr Kalm, who on his travels wrote down folklore legends. Neither the case from Als nor Viborg comes from actual court records, but rather journal articles and books based on secondary sources and folktales.
There is a third Danish rat ex-communication case from 1805-06 on the island of Lyø, which sounds very similar to the Als and Viborg trials. It has recently been written about in an anthology about Lyø island, recorded under a chapter about folklore and travelogues. The Lyø trial followed the exact same pattern as Als and Viborg: a crofter known as a ‘rat man’ told the people they could free the island of rats by putting them on trial. Thus, it appears as if the story of rats being ex-communicated in Denmark stems from retellings of the same original folktale where the details have been changed slightly, creating multiple versions of the story. This, again, asks the question of how thorough Evans was whilst compiling his sources.
It seems as, by just mentioning the word ex-communication, it was enough for Evans to include it as an example of animal prosecution. Appendix F includes an ex-communication of turtledoves in Canada at the end of the seventeenth century. His source is a travelogue from Baron La Hontan, who writes:
“We resolved to declare war against the Turtle-Doves which are so numerous in Canada, that the Bishop has been forced to excommunicate ‘em other than once, upon the account of the Damage they do…”
This is all La Hontan mentions of excommunicating turtledoves, and it is clearly not a serious ex-communication. Rather, it sounds more like the Bishop condemned the turtledoves out of annoyance, not as a ritual to properly try to excommunicate them.
Another of Evans’ noted court cases is the trial of a goat in 1482 Paris. However, there are some curious details regarding this event. Firstly, the goat was not the primary defendant in the case. It was put on trial solely due to its owner being prosecuted for being a witch. Secondly, Evans does not appear to include other witch trials – if he did, there would be cats on the list as they were the most common familiar. Finally, and most importantly, this trial is from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a completely fictional story. Strangely, this trial is still included in the list, especially as Evans states at the beginning of Appendix F that some early cases of ex-communications of animals are not included due to them being from legendary sources. Yet, he includes The Hunchback of Notre Dame without questioning it. Another fictional work, an extract from the play Les Plaideurs by Jean Racine, appears in one of the book’s appendixes. This poses the question, was the purpose of Evans’ book really to create a factional work on the criminal prosecution of animals?
Evans proclaims that the animal trials were ‘…an extremely crude, obtuse, and barbaric sense of justice.’ The entire first chapter reads as an attack on the Medieval treatment of animals with repeated remarks about the absurdity and cruelty of it. There is also an instance where Evans fabricates details regarding a trial, claiming that in a 1386 trial of a sow in Falaise, the sow was not only sentenced to be executed but was also to be mutilated and wounded. This, according to Evans, was meant to be representative of the fatal injuries the sow had inflicted on a child. However, the receipt for this trial does not mention this, instead, it solely states the sow’s crime, the cost of the execution, and the price for a new pair of gloves for the executioner. This not only suggests that Evans wanted to portray the trials as cruel, but it also shows that Evans was willing to bend the truth and his sources to fit his narrative. Furthermore, Piers Beirne has argued that the aim of chapter two of The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals ‘was to oppose and to ridicule the penal implications of criminal anthropology.’ Evans’ language throughout the entire book clearly illustrates his detest for how animals were treated, both in the middle ages and in modern days. Thus, the book could be meant as an addition to the animal rights discussion that was transpiring. Evans was openly in support of Henry Salt, an influential pro-animal rights activist, and opposed Cesare Lombroso, one of the pioneers of criminal anthropology.
As the aforementioned examples show, Evans was rather selective and generalizing when he noted cases of animal trials. This further shows that Evans should not be used as a source unquestioned. The examples investigated in this article only cover a minority of cases. However, they still show that scholars should use more caution when using Evans as a source. He repeatedly leaves out important details from the original texts and uses several unreliable and unverifiable sources. The fact that he included The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Plaideurs should make any serious scholar vary of the credibility of Evans’ list of trials. Furthermore, he fails to apply any wider historical and legal perspective, like acknowledging that the Protestant church did not normally perform ex-communications. Furthermore, he never discusses the multiple medieval law codes that classify animals as property and how that would play into them being prosecuted.
Many scholars have attempted to explain why the animal trials happened, instead of asking if they did. Whilst there are certainly records of some of these trials, we also need to look at where those records came from. Were they stored with records of human trials? Or have they been placed there later by someone who assumed that was where they belonged? We cannot know with certainty that these trials were serious proceedings. Perhaps it was entertainment for a bored clergyman or practice in writing records for a scribe-to-be. We cannot get away from the fact that these trials appear to be anomalies and most other sources that mention them label them as folk tales. Putting an animal on trial is not in any law codes, we have no irrefutable records or sources on why they occurred, and the records we have of them are not always reliable or very detailed. Hence, we must reconsider the current scholarship on Medieval animal trials which has repeatedly blindly trusted Evans’ Appendix F. Before scholars continue to refer to them as factual, we need to properly examine if they happened as Evans’ suggests, or if they might be no more than folktales from a time when fables and legends prevailed.
Written by Ebba Andersson
Beirnes, Piers. “The Law is an Ass: Reading E.P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals”, Society & Animals, 2 no. 1 (1994), 27-46.
Cohen, Esther. ‘Law, Folklore and Animal Lore’, Past & Present, 110 (1986), 6–37.
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von Amira, Karl. Thierstrafen und Thierprocesse. Innsbruck: Wagner, 1891.