Animal Studies Bibliography

Beirne, Piers. 1994. The Law Is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans' ‘The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.' Society and Animals 2(1): 27-46.

During the late Middle Ages and until the 1700s, some European countries believed that animals could commit crime, and as such tried them in secular courts (although church courts agreed with the practice) and punished them. This belief is based on literally-read Biblical passages as well as the belief in a hierarchical world order in which animals were beneath humans and should be punished for trying to change this order (e.g. by committing a crime against a human), just as other threats like Jews and infidels were punished. After thinkers like Aquinas, people believed that animals were agents of the Devil. Animals' trials followed the same legal procedures as humans' trials, including defense attorneys, the same range of punishments (including excommunication and execution), and the possibility of a pardon. The animal trials recorded by Evans' book involve a variety of crimes (homicide, fraud, theft, etc.) as well as a large variety of animals, including domestic and wild animals, insects, and vermin. The trials were centered in the 15th through 17th centuries. Earlier trials tended to result in excommunication or exorcism and usually involved vermin. In later trials, the pig was most common. Evans places the last animal trial in 1906, the year his book was published. He also argues that the practice was a Western phenomenon, localized in Southern and Eastern France, bordering parts of Italy , Germany , and Switzerland . Other scholars have found, however, that Evans simply searched the records more carefully in these areas, and that evidence of animal trials occurs all over Europe (with perhaps a difference in England ) and the New World . Further, the finding that animal trials were Western practice relies on Western definitions of trial and punishment, and this is likely the reason why Evans and others did not find the evidence they sought in Eastern cultures. More generally, the definition of animal trial largely determines the dates and locations we can assign to its practice, both of which Evans might have wrong. Animal trials were often connected to human trials for bestiality and witchcraft, cases in which both animal and human were punished for their misdeeds. Evans and other early scholars of animal trials viewed the practice through the lens of evolutionism, arguing it was a practice of humanity in its early, less developed stages. Further research is needed not only to examine other cultures and times in which the practice occurred, but also why the trials peaked and declined when they did. The most likely purpose for the trials was to give messages to animal owners that they needed to control their animals. This is evidenced by the prevalence of pigs, and then horses, bulls, and oxen, as criminals, since pigs roamed free in the Middle Ages, and their size would allow them to cause substantial damage. Evans and others argue that animal trials declined with the rise of rational scientific thought and the decline of literal readings of the Bible, but this is not fully satisfactory in light of the dates he offers. We must also examine the meanings behind the practice. Evans was one of the earliest animal rights advocates, arguing that these trials were abuse of animals and that if animals could be tried for harming people, then animals should be able to bring people to court for harming them. Alternatively, some argue that the trials represent very good treatment of animals, who received all the legal protections and due process a person did at the time. Other factors--nationality, class, race, gender, etc.--need to be added to the matrix to give us a deeper understanding of animal trials. Importantly, we must remember that what's at root of the animal trials--the execution of animals--has never left us. Today, animals are not tried in court, but are simply executed in large numbers by shelters, unobtrusively and often simply for being homeless or “aggressive.”



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