Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Wild Justice": did medievals think animals were rational beings?

Today I read a fascinating and surprisingly lengthy article on Maisonneuve about the history of animals being tried and sentenced to death for murder or bestiality in the medieval justice system. I don’t have much to say on it, but the suggestion that the medievals placed man and animal on nearly the same footing is interesting, to say the least. Here's the link: Wild Justice, by Drew Nelles.

An excerpt:

Ever the opportunists, some lawyers built their careers by defending animals. A sixteenth-century French jurist named Bartholomew Chassenée made his name as the counsel to some rats who were accused, in an ecclesiastical trial in Autun, of decimating the area’s barley crops. Rats being rats, Chassenée could hardly rely on his clients’ sympathetic qualities to get them off the hook. So, like numerous lawyers before and since, he built his argument on technicalities: the defendants couldn’t be expected to appear in court, as Evans says, “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”

Chassenée went on to a legal career of some renown, and is said to have defended animals in many other cases. He even published a treatise, De excommunicatione animalium insectorum, on the theology and legality of anathematizing animals, in which he cited Jesus’ command to burn “every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit.” “If, therefore, it is permitted to destroy an irrational thing, because it does not produce fruit,” Chassenée wrote, “much more is it permitted to curse it, since the greater penalty includes the less.” (Jesus’ anger at inanimate objects wasn’t unique. Ancient civilizations like Greece and China would “execute” guilty items like killers’ knives or fallen statues.)

But Chassenée’s biblical logic points to a frequent tension in ecclesiastical animal tribunals: neither the jurists nor the church could ever decide whether the vermin were Satan’s hordes or the earthly agents of a vengeful God. Lawyers defending the creatures typically argued that they were holy punishments, and therefore immune to the church’s retribution; indeed, in such situations, the rats and the church would presumably be on the same team. The church agreed or disagreed depending on which was more convenient—or more profitable. In one case, during a blight of locusts in France, a refreshingly straightforward decree ordered residents to pay “tithes without fraud” and “abstain from blasphemies” until God destroyed the pests. The case was called “The People versus Locusts.”

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