Why Medieval Europeans Used To Put “Bad” Animals On Criminal Trial

You’re sitting on the sofa — feet up, glass in hand, relaxing for the first time all day. Suddenly, like some jungle predator, your cat jumps up on the coffee table, tail swishing, pausing to look at you. There’s something in her eyes, some intent. With the most callous of tiny nudges, while still gazing at you, she takes her tiny paw and swipes your coaster onto the floor. Had you been living in the Middle Ages, you could have taken your cat to court over the incident. Believe it or not, humans have a long history of putting animals on trial. In the Middle Ages, animals could be charged with criminal offenses, assigned attorneys, and receive sentences, including death. Trials for animals existed at that time as a way of broadcasting a sense of control over law, order, and justice to the public. In 1386, rats were brought to trial for wantonly destroying and eating the district crops. In Switzerland in 1474, a chicken passing for a rooster was charged with laying an egg. Now, we're inclined to dismiss the event as "fowl play," but in those days lusus naturae (a freak of nature) was no joke. The defense for the confused chicken rested on the fact that the “laying of the egg was an involuntary act.” That didn't fly with the court and the rooster was summarily burned at the stake — presumably, featured as the main course at its own wake. Thankfully, animal trials were eventually discontinued. If nothing else, history teaches us that one century’s quest for rational order is another century's bizarre fact.