In the middle ages, animals were often put on trial for their crimes and misdemeanours. This article in Slate points to a sow and her piglets, who in 1457 attacked and killed a five-year-old boy. These days the bad piggies would be immediately put down, but instead they faced a court. And it was serious – a judge, witnesses, a prosecution and a defence. The sow was found guilty, but the piglets got off, partly because they were young and partly because the court found they had a rough upbringing.
Why go to all this trouble?
According to the article, historians generally give two explanations:
The dominant explanation from legal scholars and historians is that, in a society of people who believed deeply in a divinely determined order of being, with humans at the top, any disruption of God’s hierarchy had to be visibly restored with a formal event. Another hypothesis is that animal trials may have provided authorities an opportunity to intimidate the owners of animals—especially pigs—who ran roughshod through the commons. A sow hanging from the gallows was, in essence, a public service announcement saying, Control your pigs or they’ll die sooner than you hoped.
Either, or both, of these could be the case. But there’s also a third explanation – that people in the middle ages thought that the animals were responsible, that in some way they know what they were doing. In short, they had more respect for their animals and gave them more credit than we do.
Overlooked by these interpretations is something that, as we increasingly remove animals from public view, becomes harder to appreciate: These people saw aspects of animal behavior that we don’t see anymore. In this sense, these seemingly odd trials have much to teach us about how fundamentally our relationship with animals has changed over time and how, more poignantly, we’ve lost the ability to empathize with them as sentient beings.
Unless you were rich enough to hire someone to do it for you, in the middle ages you lived with your animals. You got to know them and appreciate the way they think and behave. It wasn’t possible to imagine that animals are lumps of meat that happen to move around for a while before they are loaded on to a truck and taken away for processing.
If you live with animals, you are confronted every day by the fact that there are other thinking, feeling beings in the world, and that as your animals, they deserve your care and respect. Everyone who has owned a pet knows this on some level.
When God created the world, he chose not just to create one thinking, moving thing. God loves diversity, so he created animals of all shapes and colours and levels of tastiness, and he made us responsible for their care. Maybe the sanitized, out-of-sight way we keep and kill animals has desensitized us to these facts.
Animals are meant for food and work, as well as for companionship and beauty. But they are never a utility or a commodity.