{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

Animals on Trial: Formal Legal Proceedings, Criminal Acts, and Torts of Animals

Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny, from "The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character," ed. Robert Chambers, 1867Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny, from The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, ed. Robert Chambers, 1879. https://archive.org/stream/b22650477_0001#page/128/mode/2up

At present, one of the projects that I am working on involves the compilation of British and Early American Trials, 1500-1900 for digitization.  Initially, this may sound a bit dry or perhaps too highbrow.  It may indeed be highbrow, as it draws in a very special enclave of scholars. But the subject is certainly far from dry. Now certainly among the trials you will find tales of adultery, libel, regicide, and conspiracy–all great subjects for drama.  In fact, every one of the titles, in some way or another, is eye-catching.

None, however, was more intriguing than the case of The trial of farmer Carter’s dog, Porter, for murder…I found it odd that a dog was being subjected to a trial.  I shared this with Andrew.  He asked the question that led to this blog post:  “can a dog stand trial?”

Well, apparently the answer is a resounding yes–at least historically.  An article by Anila Srivastava titled “‘Mean, Dangerous, and Uncontrollable Beast’: Mediaeval Animal Trials” states that

While most contemporary Western legal systems treat animals as chattels to be acquired, controlled, and disposed of at their owners’ pleasure, animals have historically been treated as partial legal persons to allow the legal system to respond to the unpredictable and sometimes fatal harms they cause.


Most of the documented animal trials took place in the area of Western Europe that now encompasses France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, from the late mediaeval to early modern period.  Legal scholars, historians, and theologians have documented animal trials taking place as late as the early twentieth century and as far afield as Brazil, Russia, and Canada.  These animal trials were not simply overblown revenge rituals arising spontaneously from the collective desire for retribution and catharsis after a local tragedy.  They were formal legal proceedings in which animals, either as individuals or groups, were put on trial.

Another recent article that provides a sobering approach to the transgressions of animals and their adjudication is The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals” by Jen Girgen.  This article

analyzes the role of the animal ‘offender,’ by examining the animal trials and executions of years past. The writer argues that although the formal prosecution of animals as practiced centuries ago may have ended (for the most part), we continue to punish animals for their ‘crimes’ against human beings.  She suggests that we do this primarily to achieve two ends:  the restoration of order and the achievement of revenge, and concludes with a call for a renewed emphasis on ‘due process’ for animals threatened with punishment for their offenses.

As you can see from this passage, this is certainly not a subject that is taken lightly.  On the contrary, much of the scholarship and criticism that surfaced from a cursory search is quite often rooted in a serious exploration of legal historiography and is brought forth in contemporary legal analysis.

Chambers, Robert, ed. "The book of Days:  A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Inclusind Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Litreature, and Oddities of Human Life and Character." London:  W & R Chambers, 1879.

Chambers, Robert, ed. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Inclusind Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature, and Oddities of Human Life and Character. London: W & R Chambers, 1879. https://archive.org/stream/b22650477_0001#page/n6/mode/1up






























In a book titled The Book of Days:  A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, edited by Robert Chambers (1879) a section titled “St. Anthony and the Pigs:  Legal Prosecutions of the Lower Animals” contains some possibly comical accounts of the trials of animals and vermin and their legal proceedings.  In fact, just so you get a sense of the anthropomorphic aspects of the animals in these proceedings here’s a vignette about the sow included in the image that opens this post:

Among trials of individual animals for special acts of turpitude, one of the most amusing was that of a sow and her six young ones, at Lavegny, in 1457, on a charge of their having murdered and partly eaten a child.  Our artist has endeavoured to represent this scene:  but we fear that his sense of the ludicrous has incapacitated him for giving it with the due solemnity.  The sow was found guilty and condemned to death; but the pigs were acquitted on account of their youth, the bad example of their mother, and the absence of direct proof  as to their having been concerned in the eating of the child. (Chambers 128-9)

The most striking aspect of this excerpt is the human-like attributes prescribed to the sow and the piglets.  The solemnity of the proceeding is also the one that provides the feel of deadpan humor.  Given that some of the events resulted in tragedies, it is at the very least, if comical, humor noir.

Another fascinating incident involved a rooster which laid an egg.  Yes, you read that correctly.

At Basle [sic], 1474, a cock was tried for having laid an egg.  For the prosecution it was proved that cocks’ eggs were of inestimable value for mixing in certain magical preparations; that a sorcerer would rather possess a cock’s egg than be master of the philosopher’s stone:  and that, in pagan lands, Satan employed witches to hatch such eggs, from which proceeded animals most injurious to all of the Christian faith and race.  The advocate for the defence admitted the facts of the case, but asked what evil animus had been proved against his client, what injury to man or beast had it effected?  Besides, the laying of the egg was an involuntary act, and as such, not punishable by law.  If the crime of sorcery were imputed, the cock was innocent; for there was no instance on record of Satan ever having made a compact with one of the brute creation. (Chambers 129)

Jen Girgen, who is aforementioned addressing the historical and contemporary prosecution and punishment of animals, contends that there are in essence two types of trials: ecclesiastical and secular.  In simple terms, the church was involved when animals affected food stuffs.  The other characteristics of ecclesiastical trials of animals involved more spiritual or supernatural aspects like anathematizationmaledictions, sorcery, and even excommunication.  Secular courts were involved when the lives of people were at stake.

The subject and the books that examine it are loaded with countless tales of animals and other non-human life, their misdeeds and the remedies, supernatural and not, available to the humans. In these, I am certain that readers of all sorts will find a treasure trove of tales and conversation pieces. Should you wish to delve further into this subject for research, below is a bibliography.  Each case provides descriptive narrative and entertaining anecdotal accounts, which are more fascinating than one could imagine.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.