Nowadays, it is pretty easy to file a lawsuit against someone who did something wrong: either to us personally or if they broke specific laws set by the government. However, things were highly different during the 14th to 16th centuries.
It was a time when it was not just humans that could be placed on trial but also pigs, dogs, rats, grasshoppers, and even snails, who people thought did something against people, properties, or God. And animals were no exemption. Here are cases when animals were summoned for trial.
One time in 15th century France, a “young pig” was placed on trial after the infant child of a cowherd was severely mutilated in the face and neck by this murderous swine on a farm east of Paris one day during the spring of 1494.
The case was prosecuted by Jehan Levoisier, who was a licentiate in law, as he claimed. Perhaps not having the ability to defend his actions, the judge declared his verdict,
We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed, that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoinant to the gallows and place of execution.
This was not a unique case, at least in that era, as child-killing swine were apparently a common threat, and numerous pigs had been strung up on the gallows to prevent them from possibly killing the children.
Barthélemy de Chasseneuz was known as an influential lawyer and politician. Not only that, but he was also famous for being the defender of rats in the early 16th century when these furry friends had got into the barley crop and eaten the town’s entire livelihood. The people were not pleased, and a tribunal was called to excommunicate these rats.
They summoned them to the court, but none showed up for their court date, which would honestly be more surprising if they did. The tribunal felt it was a blatant disrespect and was ready to try them in absentia. However, the young, ambitious lawyer in the form of de Chasseneuz stood to represent the absentees, which the tribunal agreed to, although begrudgingly so.
After a few weeks, they again summoned these rats, and when they still didn’t show up, de Chasseneuz argued that they asked the rats to travel through miles of cat-infested territory without even trying to ensure they would be safe. Again, the tribunal adjourned, and this time the case was dismissed.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the church authorities acted as pest controllers, not by using some ancient pesticide but through court-sanctioned bug prosecution. Pope Stephen VI, for instance, used holy water around Rome’s rural outskirts to repel these bugs. They would also release pulpit pronouncements along with trials and sometimes even urged these insects verbally or through writing that they would like the neighboring village much better.
In Switzerland in 1478, seed beetles were prosecuted after they caused havoc on the crops. They tried to reprimand these beetles publicly, but it looked like they were not listening. So, Bishop Lausanne issued a cease-and-desist order. He gave them six days to leave their land, even bashing them by saying they were not even passengers on Noah’s Ark, so they could condemn and excommunicate them as they wished. He also threatened that if they still refused to abandon their village, they would be ordered to appear before the court in Avenches to have them explain their actions.
It was not clear whether the beetles appeared or if they were at all summoned in Avenches, but when they came back the year after, the church started blaming the people by claiming that these pests appeared due to their sins and that the only way to cleanse was by offering bigger tithes.