Animals and Humans in the Eyes of the Law

Ezra Neal


During the Middle Ages, the laws of the land did not apply only to human beings, for animals were occasionally tried, convicted, and punished for crimes as well. Scholars of the Middle Ages have tried to explain this by arguing that according to medieval law codes, the perpetrator of the crime was irrelevant, and indeed, the ability to think rationally was of no importance in terms of crime. Whether a person or an animal had committed a crime, the crime had been committed, and someone should therefore be punished for it. While this argument certainly explains part of the impetus behind the execution of animals, it does not fully account for the drama of the proceedings. Indeed, in these highly formalized rituals, the animals being punished become humans in effigy, embodying particular human concepts and punished as an example for all to see. Medieval literature, religion, and allegory brought humans and animals into a relatively equivalent position by using animals to critique and praise human behaviors and qualities. The lion that stands for nobility, the mangy dog for the poor and downtrodden, or the stallion for knighthood all eventually come to equate the animals with the human concepts that they have been made to represent. Once this barrier has been surpassed, it is only a short step to using animals as humans in effigy to convey what will happen to anyone or anything that breaks the law. The legal system was intended to show to the general populace what the punishments were for crimes and the species of the accused was of secondary importance to the message that the punishment could convey. Since animals could be used as replacement humans, the effect of seeing a pig hanged for murdering a child managed to communicate the same message to the observers as seeing a human being hanged for the same reason. The actor was not nearly as important as the play or the audience, for it was the spectacle of punishment that was the most meaningful aspect in the theater of the legal system. Animal trials and executions provided this spectacle by using the beast to embody and ritually exorcise the behaviors that were seen as aberrant.


Animal Trials; Medieval Europe; Law

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