Justice for cockroaches

July 7, 2000

Insects and animals felt the weight of medieval law. But eviction notices granted baby mice some leeway

The peasants of the village of Glurns in southern Tyrol, Italy, were in despair. Times were hard enough, but now their crops were being eaten in the fields by an infestation of mice. At their wits' end, the villagers called for help - from the courts.

And so, in 1520, a judge heard their case in an ecclesiastical tribunal and decided that their suffering must end. An official was dispatched to one of the worst affected fields where he read out a solemn proclamation.

It was the ruling of the court that the mice leave their field and move to an alternative location that had been checked by the judge's staff. They were given a fixed number of days to comply with the order. If they ignored it, they would be cast from the grace of God.

The judge was not without pity, however. He allowed the very young and pregnant mice extra time to vacate their homes.

The criminal prosecution of animals may seem absurd today, but throughout the late Middle Ages and into early modern times, across great tracts of Central and Western Europe - England and Scandinavia excluded - court rooms regularly heard cases involving murderous pigs and destructive rats.

Peter Dinzelbacher, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, US, has charted the rise of such unusual proceedings. "There is no doubt that these trials, both ecclesiastical and secular, were absolutely serious," he says.

All legal formalities were followed: cockroaches were invited to put their case before the bishop of Berne in 1478; and one French jurist is said to have made his career by successfully defending the rats of Autun against a banning order by arguing that they had not been able to appear before the court as they had been threatened by cats en route.

While no surviving law even mentions the possibility of putting an animal before a judge, there are many trial records and receipts for the expenses paid to ensure justice was served. In individual cases, such as that of the sow and six piglets that killed a child in Savigny, the owner had to pay costs. Communities calling for court action to banish pests were expected to pay for the hearing.

The heyday was in the 15th and 16th centuries. Dinzelbacher believes it is no coincidence that this was the time when the importance of law and bureaucracy was growing with the emergence of ordered states. Everything was subordinated to legal rule, and animals were no exception. This was not a case of peasant superstition - it was a case of bureaucracy making its presence felt.

Of course, the animals tended to ignore this. Those found guilty of individual crimes such as murder might be executed, but those ordered to abandon their homes usually chose to flout the law. The law might seem powerless, but the hapless villagers concluded that its failure must be divine punishment for their sins. The fault was entirely their own. SF

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