From feral hogs to the sow of Falaise – the history of persecuting animals for human crimes is longer than you realise

There were over 200 trials of animals and insects in medieval and early modern Europe, with creatures such as pigs, dogs, rats and even grasshoppers put on trial and punished for their crimes

Una McIlvenna@unamcilvenna
Wednesday 07 August 2019 14:24
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If you’ve ventured near Twitter in the last 24 hours you cannot have escaped what is perhaps the weirdest trend to appear there recently, namely, jokes and memes on the theme of #feralhogs. It all originates from a fairly left field tweet by @WillieMcNabb, a defender of rural gun-use after the latest mass shootings in the US:

Despite the onslaught of mockery that McNabb has endured since his oddly specific tweet, he is adamant that the urban elite of today do not understand the problems that country-dwellers endure on a regular basis, and that their sympathies for savage wildlife are misplaced.

Wild pigs are killers, he argues, and should be slaughtered with guns. While he may be unaware of it, the debate around what to do with #feralhogs is in fact an old one, and the high point of that debate can be traced to a precise moment: on 9 January 1386, in the town of Falaise in the Normandy region of France, the local executioner acknowledged receipt of payment “for his efforts and salary for having dragged and then hanged at the [place of] justice in Falaise a sow of approximately three years of age who had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Macon, who was in his crib and who was approximately three months old, in such a way that the said infant died from [the injuries]”.

Although nothing else is known about the execution of the famous “Sow of Falaise”, beyond this receipt, we do know of over 200 trials of animals and insects in medieval and early modern Europe: from the 13th to the 17th century, pigs, dogs, rats and even grasshoppers were put on trial and punished for their crimes.

Animal trials fell into two categories: secular cases against individual animals who had maimed or killed humans, and cases in ecclesiastical courts against vermin like mice and locusts, who were excommunicated for grain-related crimes. Indeed, one 16th-century lawyer, Barthelemy de Chasseneuz, shot to fame through his defence of a group of rats who were put on trial for destroying the barley crop of the region (he was played by Colin Firth in the 1993 film The Hour of the Pig). But the question remains: why did medieval people hang pigs? Did they believe animals possessed free will? That they understood the difference between right and wrong? Is this simply another example of a primitive “Dark Ages” mentality?

It’s important here to understand the way punishment operated in the medieval justice system, which was largely based on the Germanic concept of Wergild, the compensation paid by a person committing an offence to an injured party or, in case of death, to their family.

The victim’s worth was assessed: a murdered woman of child-bearing age carried a greater value for her surviving kin than an old woman, for example. Thus, a pig who had killed a child needed to be sacrificed as part of the compensation to the surviving family. Added to this was the Catholic concept of public penance, which mandated that criminals carry out their punishment in public so that the community could participate in the expiation of the crime. The sow was “drawn”, or dragged, through the town to the execution site and hung there in front of a crowd who themselves formed part of the ritual.

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Much effort seems to have gone into ensuring that the animals received a fair trial and, at least in the ecclesiastical cases, were given defence lawyers (the Sow of Falaise, in a civil court, is unlikely to have had a lawyer). Secular trials were based on the idea that animals, which were in the service of a household, could be tried, convicted and executed, like any other members of that household.

There was also a longstanding belief that a murder, whether committed by humans, animals, or inanimate objects, needed to be properly expiated in order to prevent the intervention of the devil. Meanwhile, ecclesiastical trials were based on the premise that, as in the Bible, swarms of insects were a sign of god’s wrath and so the Church needed to intervene.

In the end, no one is entirely sure why animals were punished as if they were malicious. Indeed, what jurists theorised and what the populace believed were, and continue to be, areas of divergence. But the story of the Sow of Falaise reminds us of the uneasy relationship humans continue to have with their animal neighbours, whether it’s feral hogs or urban foxes.

Una McIlvenna is Hansen Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne

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