Bibliophilia: Autun, France V. A Bunch of Rats

The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals
The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals

One of my great joys in life is reading about famous animals. There is something so absurd about how their biographies are written that I just can’t resist them. Most Wikipedia pages on famous animals will even include sections sincerely titled Personal Life and Retirement. As an example here is a brief excerpt from the biography of famous military goat, William Windsor. The excerpt comes under the heading of Temporary Demotion:

Billy was charged with “unacceptable behaviour”, “lack of decorum” and “disobeying a direct order”, and had to appear before his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Huw James. Following a disciplinary hearing, he was demoted to fusilier.The change meant that other fusiliers in the regiment no longer had to stand to attention when Billy walked past, as they had to when he was a lance corporal.

What make’s William Windsor’s “lack of decorum” even funnier is that his behavior took place at a parade that was supposed to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday. So, basically the hi-jinks of any fraternity movie come to life. Had only the Queen bitten her pearls in dismay while his commanding officer shouted “WINDOSR,” it could have been perfect. Yet, as near perfect as William Windsor’s shenanigans and demotion might have been, his trial is only one of hundreds worth reading about. And when reading about animals on trial no page is better turned than that of E. P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.

In Evans’ fascinating history you can read about the time a rooster was put on trial for laying an egg (as we all know a rooster’s egg will hatch into a cocatrice) and was burnt alive for being in league with Satan. Or you can read about the time when a priest, who skipped the court system altogether, decided to excommunicate a group of flies for pestering his congregation. Supposedly, upon the words leaving the priest’s mouth the flies dropped dead and left piles so large that they had to be removed with a shovel. Yet neither of these instances are nearly as great as the time Autun, France took a bunch of rats to court.

Evan’s describes the rat’s charge as “having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley-crop of that province.” As you can imagine the good people of Autun were pretty upset with the rats so they decided to prosecute.* Unfortunately for those who sought vengeance against the awful vermin the magistrate unknowingly appointed a Grisham-level-lawyer as the rat’s defense attorney. Defending a herd of rats is probably not why Bartholomew Chassenee decided to study law; nevertheless, he saw the case’s prestige as an opportunity to make a name for himself within the judicial community. After all, if a lawyer can get a literal rat to walk free what criminal wouldn’t seek him out as council.

He urged, in the first place, that inasmuch as the defendants were dispersed over a large tract of country and dwelt in numerous villages, a single summons was insufficient to notify them all;he succeeded, therefore, in obtaining a second citation, to be published from the pulpits of all the parishes inhabited by the said rats. At the expiration of the considerable time which elapsed before this order could be carried into effect and the proclamation be duly made, he excused the default or non-appearance of his clients on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey and the serious perils which attended it, owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage. On this point Chassenee addressed the court at some length, in order to show that if a person be cited to appear at a place, to which he cannot come with safety, he may exercise the right of appeal and refuse to obey the writ, even though such appeal be expressly precluded in the summons. The point was argued as seriously as though it were a question of family feud between Capulet and Montague in Verona or Colonna and Orsini in Rome.

Evans’ highly entertaining book pivots between matter of fact retellings of these outlandish situations to a more musing look at how prominent theological thought and other social implications allowed for this kind of absurdity. It is the kind of book that is hard to read because at the end of each page you’ve gleaned so many new names and events that you want to put it down and do some of your own extracurricular research. If you’re not sold yet I doubt you ever will be. But for those whose interest I’ve peaked here are just a few of the chapter titles from this book:

  • Pillory for dogs in Vienna

  • Flesh of a culprit pig not to be eaten

  • A horse condemned to death for homicide

  • Why not the duty of the Catholic Church to inculcate kindness to animals

  • All animals animated by devils, and all pagans and unbaptized persons possessed with them

So what do you think? Have you ever accused an animal of anything? Aren’t you just a little mad that you never learned about this in your history class? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our conversation on animal trials, biting pearls in distress, and the unwearied vigilance of rat’s mortal enemies, the cats!

*Side note: this happened in 1494. The only other thing going on was Pietro Bembo inventing the semicolon. So, although taking rats to court is completely ridiculous you gotta do something to pass the time and soothe the religious oppression. By 1518 rat-trials would be considered passé and people would pass the time succumbing to bouts of mass hysteria where they would dance until they’d either die or pass out from exhaustion. Other than that, there wasn’t much to do back then.

– Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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