A Brief History of Animals (and Inanimate Objects) Going to Court

A pig is tried in France in 1457.
A pig is tried in France in 1457.

For centuries, an inanimate object or animal could be held responsible—and punished!—for committing a crime. Don’t take our word for it. Just ask Plato, who wrote in one of his dialogues:

"If a beast of burden or other animal kills someone ... let the relatives open actions at law for homicide against the killer ... and when the animal has been defeated in the trial, let them kill it and throw it beyond the borders of the land. If an inanimate thing deprives a man of life, except for a thunderbolt or any other missile of supernatural origin … let the relative by descent appoint the nearest of the neighbors as judge for the occurrence … and when the thing has been defeated in the trial, let it be expelled beyond the borders."

In medieval Europe, a special legal category called the deodand was reserved for guilty animals and inanimate objects, which would be confiscated, forfeited to “God and Country,” and sold to benefit some noble cause. “Over the centuries there were some standard types of fatal accidents which frequently resulted in deodands, such as incidents involving boats, horses, houses, trees, and carts,” Teresa Sutton wrote in The Journal of Legal History. “Other cases were more dramatic, with people being torn to pieces by mills, crushed by maypoles, eaten by pigs, falling into vats of boiling ale, and hit on the head by casks full of wine.”

When animals were the guilty party, the killer was often hanged, burned alive, or buried alive. (Animals guilty of less-than-lethal crimes could be jailed in a public space.) Incredibly, these trials were treated with the same seriousness as any other legal proceeding, with paid human lawyers serving as the animal's defense. “There are records of proceedings against asses, beetles, bulls, caterpillars, cocks, cows, dogs, dolphins, eels, field mice, flies, goats, grasshoppers, horses, insects, leeches, locusts, moles, rats, serpents, sheep, snails, termites, turtledoves, weevils, wolves, worms, and unspecified vermin,” Paul Schiff Berman wrote in the New York University Law Review.

“Some may shrug dismissively, drawing from these peculiar events the conclusion that our pre-Enlightenment relatives, while playing the game of law, were fundamentally irrational,” Anila Srivastava wrote in Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal. “In my view, however, the trials demonstrate unexpected ways of thinking about who or what the law acts upon. Without losing their status as property, animals were imbued with sufficient legal personhood to permit the law to act upon them as it would upon similarly situated humans.”

Put differently: Sometimes the world just didn’t make any sense. Accidents happen. People die for inexplicable reasons. In an era without insurance or meaningful regulations, one way to find order in the chaos was to hold creatures and objects accountable for their actions. Here is a brief timeline of just a few odd trials that resulted.

5TH CENTURY BCE

A statue of Theagenes of Thasos, a famed Olympian boxer, falls and kills a man—one of Theagenes's old adversaries, who had been visiting the sculpture "every night ... and flogged the bronze image as though he were whipping Theagenes himself." The statue is thrown into the sea as punishment.

824

A labor of moles in Aosta, Italy is tried in court for destroying crops. An ecclesiastical judge reportedly excommunicates them.

1267

A washerwoman falls into a vat of boiling water and dies. The guilty vat is declared a deodand, is confiscated, and then appraised at 18 pence.

1386

According to a 1917 issue of the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, a sow in Falaise, Normandy—accused of eating infants—is dressed in “a new suit of man’s clothes” and hanged. Before reaching the gallows, it is attended by a caravan of armed men riding horseback.

1522

Rats purportedly eat large amounts of barley in Autun, France. As the story goes, a young lawyer is appointed to defend the critters and successfully pushes the court date further as the rats, time and again, fail to show up for court. (At one point, he argues that the rats failed to show because they were afraid of the local cats.)

1545

Weevils are brought to court after ravaging vineyards in the Savoie region of France. “Presumably, the plaintiffs had to pay for their own counsel, but the weevils had both an agent and an advocate appointed for them,” Srivastava wrote.

1567

A sow kills a 4-month-old girl. The royal notary of the Court of Senlis, France, condemns the pig to be hanged from a tree.

1591

A church bell in Uglich, Russia, rings in the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s son, Dmitry, and locals begin a short-lived uprising. Angry officials flog the bell and remove its “tongue”—the clapper—and exile the whole piece to Siberia. (Today, the bell is on display at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood.)

1668

Playwright Jean Racine’s new comedic three-act play Les Plaideurs contains scenes parodying animal trials. (Specifically, a dog is tried for eating a capon.)

c. 1690s

After biting a local council member in the leg, a dog in Austria is imprisoned for one year in a public marketplace.

1716

A stack of wood falls and kills a child. The wood is found liable and is ransomed as a deodand for 30 shillings, which are given to the child’s father.

1750

A female donkey in Vanvres, France is acquitted of charges of bestiality after a local priest attests “to her virtue and good behavior,” wrote Srivastava. (Nobody, however, comes to the defense of her human counterpart, who is found guilty.)

1827

The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a shipowner’s claim that a vessel cannot be convicted of privateering. According to the Court, “[t]he thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offense is attached primarily to the thing.” A similar case is made in 1844, with Justice Joseph Story writing, “[t]he vessel which commits the aggression is treated as the offender.”

1921

In a similarly bizarre trial, an American judge finds a unique way to forfeit an automobile to the state: “The court charged the jury to render a verdict finding the car guilty.”

1941

In one of the first actions taken by the modern FDA, 135 packages of phony medicine are destroyed after a U.S. federal court hears the case United States v. 11 ¼ Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled in part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for Drunkenness.

1999

A fictitious office printer is murdered—without trial—in the film Office Space. There is much rejoicing.

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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