Will you piggy-wig, swear never to tell a Porky…?

Trial_of_PigAuckland lawyer, veterinarian and author has published his new book, Animals, Welfare and the Law. It encompasses ethics, history and the law, so it’s a weighty read for those of us who routinely plough through fiction.   But   Mr Robertson   has not overlooked the dark – but often comical moments in the long history of animals and humans.  Some of these include the criminal trials of animals…

Mr Robertson writes:

‘Criminal trials of animals are recorded as having taken place in Europe as early as the thirteenth century and continued until the eighteenth century. The court transcripts were sometimes comic, and at times macabre, depicting the unusual and disturbing trials of animals in medieval Europe which were held with the solemnity of  a human criminal trial, despite the fact that the defendants were not human’.

‘Animals could be charged and required to appear as defendants before church and/or secular courts, with the offences alleged against them ranging from criminal damage to murder. In ecclesiastical courts, animals were routinely provided with lawyers to assist their case’.

‘If convicted, it was usual for an animal to be executed, or exiled. However, judgment didn’t always go against the animal. For example, in 1750, a female donkey was acquitted of charges of bestiality due to witnesses testifying to the animal’s virtue and good behaviour while her human co-accused was sentenced to death…’

‘A wide variety of species was put on trial and included domesticated animal (pigs, bulls, horses and cows) and pests (rats, birds, insects). One writer, E.P. Evans. explained that according to the medieval mind, the only way to deal with the ravages of miniature noxious and misbehaving creatures was to resort to divine aid, by capturing and bringing some of them to justice via a trial conducted by the human emissaries of God’.

‘In 1457, for example, a pig was found with six piglets around the mutilated body of a 5-year-old child. The pig was duly arrested and put on trial, convicted of maiming and killing the child. Eight witnesses actually turned up and testified against the pig. The pig was detained as a prisoner during the course of the trial, and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging. The court was less convinced that the piglets had participated in the crime of mangling the deceased, and acquitted the piglets – although the owner was forced to pay bail before the piglets were returned’.


Sources: (See Anila Srivastava, 2007. ‘”Mean, Dangerous, and Uncontrollable Beasts”: Mediaeval Animal Trials’, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 40 (1): 127.)(See E.P. Evans. 1906 (2009 edn.) The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (Lawbook Exchange Inc.), and Sadakat Kadri. 2006. The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama (New York: Random House).

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Ian Robertson is a Registered Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court (NZ) and a Registered veterinarian in New Zealand and England (Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons).