Animal Trials by Edward Payson Evans - review by John Harwood

John Harwood

Deliver Us from Weevils

Animal Trials


Hesperus Press 146pp £9.99

In 1545, some weevils were arraigned before the ecclesiastical court in St Jean-de-Maurienne for despoiling the vineyards of St Julien. Counsel was appointed and preliminary arguments heard, until the presiding cleric ordered a halt in proceedings. The weevils, he ruled, had been acting as agents of divine retribution. The winemakers were told to look to their sins and pay their overdue tithes, and, after the saying of three special Masses, the weevils meekly departed.

But in the spring of 1587 they ravaged the vineyards again, and this time the recidivists were brought to trial. Counsel for the defence opened with what ought to have been a knock-down argument from Genesis: his clients were undoubtedly numbered among ‘every thing that creepeth upon the earth’ to whom the Lord had given ‘every green herb for meat’, and so were entitled by divine decree to the fruits of the vine. Not so, countered the prosecution: weevils were subservient to man in the order of creation and ought therefore to have left the vines alone. 

Attempts at conciliation followed. The weevils were offered a tract of land outside the town and forbidden to return to the vineyard on pain of excommunication. The trial dragged on for eight months. Whether the court resolved to throw the book at the offenders is, sadly, unknown; insects (possibly the weevils themselves) subsequently devoured the last page of the record of the trial, obliterating the verdict.

Animal Trials is an abridgement of The Criminal Prosecution and Punishment of Animals, first published in 1906 by Edward Payson Evans (1831–1917), an American historian and linguist. Many of his examples are, as might be expected, from medieval times, but a pig was tried for biting off an infant’s ears and executed in Slavonica as late as 1864.

That a pig should be slaughtered for injuring or killing a child is not surprising; what is truly grotesque is that the animal should be formally arrested, tried, convicted and hanged – sometimes dressed as a man or woman for the occasion. Several such cases are documented here, including one in which a pig was deemed to have compounded its offence by devouring an infant on a Friday. In 1379, three sows were condemned to death for killing their keeper; the rest of the herd were arrested as accomplices but pardoned by the Duke of Burgundy. One unfortunate pig was hanged for eating a consecrated wafer. In cases of bestiality, the ill-fated animal was often tried and executed along with the perpetrator, a practice that continued into the 18th century.

Small animals fared better than large. In 1510 or thereabouts, a M Chassenée was appointed to defend a party of rats charged with feloniously devouring a barley crop. Despite summonses being issued in several parishes, the rats failed to appear. The advocate contended that his clients could not safely travel to court, owing to the threat posed by numerous savage cats along the way. Whether the rats were let off with a caution is not known, but Chassenée then adapted the argument to the defence of human clients.

Outright acquittals, though rare, were not unknown. Counsel for some moles charged with damaging fields in the Tyrol in 1519 pleaded that they were actually conferring benefits upon the plaintiffs by consuming noxious insects and enriching the soil. The judge was so impressed that he granted the moles a safe conduct out of the district, with an additional 14 days’ respite for pregnant females and infants.

There was, it seems, a great deal of Jesuitical debate about whether irrational creatures could properly be tried, or anathematised, and whether their ‘crimes’ were actually instigated by demons. According to one Père Bougeant, writing in 1739 (with his tongue, I suspect, firmly in his cheek), demonic possession of animals was so extensive that the devils were obliged to undergo a sort of transmigration of souls, moving from dog to flea when the dog finally died, and having to work their way back up the chain of being.

According to Payson Evans, the most likely explanation for these bizarre proceedings is that the medieval Church sought to claim power over the animal kingdom in order to reinforce its hold on the human population. Tales of marauding insects being repelled by anathemas or sprinklings of holy water were commonplace; and civil as well as religious authorities may have believed that judicial ‘punishment’ of domestic animals would strengthen respect for the law (rather than making an ass of it).

But trials like those of the weevils or the moles were also, surely, a form of theatre, serving as an outlet for communal distress over infestations and crop failures, or simply as entertainment. Payson Evans, though aware of the parodic strain in writers such as Bougeant, may have underestimated the medieval sense of humour. He wrote as if from the pinnacle of civilisation, surveying the follies of mankind with wry condescension. Ninety-nine per cent of the European peasantry, he claimed, still believed in the reality of diabolical possession. ‘Unfortunately this belief is not confined to Catholics and boors, but is held by Protestants, who are considered persons of education and superior culture.’ He was a great believer in national stereotypes – lachrymose Italians, stern, methodical Germans and so forth – and something of a eugenicist, so that Animal Trials becomes, in the end, a salutary reminder of how our own unexamined prejudices may appear in a century’s time.

The last third of the book (which Hesperus Press might have done better to omit) is a survey of penology from medieval to modern times, contrasting barbarities such as cutting off ears or immersing living victims in boiling oil with ‘the quick and painless death afforded by the electric chair’. It concludes in the manner of Private Eye’s ‘A Taxi Driver Writes’, with Payson Evans advocating ‘the hemp cure’ for violent criminals who plead insanity in the hope of acquittal. As his medieval precursors might have said of those hapless pigs in the dock, it’s the only language they understand.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter