Animal trials

By Lynn Ramey (W&M Contributor)

Known for his tragedies, Jean Racine (1639-1699) wrote a single comedy, Les Plaideurs (The Litigants).  The play tells the story of lovers thwarted by their parents, inevitably to be reconciled in the end after having tricked the older generation into seeing the folly of opposing their children.  In the culminating act, the father, a judge, must rule on the case of a dog, who is accused of stealing and eating a chicken.  The puppies come before the judge, and their “attorney” speaks in their voice, asking the judge to spare the dog so that the pups can avoid the orphanage.  The judge nonetheless condemns the dog to hang, but his conscience is pricked by the pleas of the puppies, making way for the marriage of the young lovers.

The ridiculous appearance of a dog in court, accompanied by puppies who upset the judge by crying and peeing all over the courtroom floor, was the comic highpoint of Racine’s play, but animals in court were a very real phenomenon in France from the 13th to the 18th centuries.  The most common offenders seemed to be domesticated pigs who killed small children.  In 1606, a female dog was killed and burned alongside a M. Guyart for having had illicit relations, as determined by the dog’s testimony.  Such trials are found in records dating from 824 (against French moles) up to 1906, when a Swiss dog was condemned to death for his part in a robbery resulting in death (the men involved were sentenced to life in prison).

The definitive book on the subject remains E.P. Evans’s The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London, 1951).  While it is hard to imagine imputing criminal intent to the mind of animals, it was somewhat unnerving to come home to find that my own dog had taken this book, and only this book, off my bookshelf to tear apart.

  • Dr Ian McCormick

    In a modern example drawn from historical sources Julian Barnes’s History of the World in 10.5 chapters also makes use of the trials of animals.

  • CarolNWong

    I have heard of this before, animals accused of practicing witchcraft and then bing tried for it. Very Strange.