Sunday, July 17, 2011

You Know They Put Cows on Trial For Murder? Mobs, Madness, Mass Hysteria and the Casey Anthony Trial

Excoriation! God demands blood! She is a witch! Where is her familiar! I saw her communing with Satan by the old Elm tree! The pig killed my wife! I saw Jim rise from the dead and walk the streets after his burial, he is possessed by an evil spirit!

The crowds that gathered outside of the Casey Anthony trial and heckled upon her subsequent release were the stuff of the Middle Ages (or alternatively the descendants of a lynch mob in either the old West or Jim Crow South). They did not have pitchforks and nooses. So perhaps that is a whee bit of progress as Casey Anthony was not torn limb from limb by those seeking "justice."

Frankly, the reflexive spectacle of a mania fueled moral panic in which white girls and women are forever under threat by evil moms and other villains is really nothing new or special. And moreover, the media coverage--where a desperate press is running on fumes and has resorted to talking about eerie coincidences which portend the rage of the Gods and prove that vengeance will be done--would be laughable if it were not so pathetic.

Lightning strikes near the site where Caylee Anthony's body was found; lightning near the court house; "bleeding" pictures of the poor child held like almost religious relics by deranged and grieving soccer moms who were interviewed on CNN; Casey spent 1,043 days in jail, Caylee had 1,042 days of life; and other signs point to inexorable justice and astrological intervention.

From the witch hysteria that swept Salem, Massachusetts and Europe in which many thousands of "unconventional" women (and others) were killed as a way of cementing social cohesion, stealing land and property, or as acts that granted social standing to accusers, to the media circus of the 21st century, it would seem that our little monkey brains have not changed all too much over the centuries. Group think still holds purchase.

[A question: Is the allure of old habits an adaptive response for surviving in a world where big frightening monsters could gobble up our primate ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti?]

One should not forget that the "supernatural" was commonplace during the Middle Ages of Europe: It was something to be explained through the logic of empiricism and procedures of law. Thus, a historical detour on a Monday to an era when witches and warlocks were burned at the stake, pigs were tried for murder, and church authorities had to offer logical proofs of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

As we watch the crying, hysterical mouth-breathers who have been suckered into the Casey Anthony spectacle and are now forced to find another drug, such echoes of the past sound none too unfamiliar in the present, do they not?

Medieval Court Cases: Animals on Trial?

One of the most bizarre human-animal trends of all recorded history took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. This was the formal prosecution of animals accused of committing crimes against people. Animals charged with such crimes (usually murder) were brought to court, appointed a lawyer, and tried, just as a person would be. Records show that hundreds of animals were found guilty and then executed by hanging.

In the 1994 article “The Law Is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals” (Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, published by the organization Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Piers Beirne described the practice in detail.

The article reviewed books on the subject by several authors, focusing on one written by E. P. Evans in 1906. Evans described 191 animal trials, mostly from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Most of the trials took place in France, Italy, and Germany. There are also a few historical records of trials in other European countries and in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Animals were tried for a variety of offenses besides murder, mostly fraud and theft. Records show that many were tortured for confessions (just as humans were) prior to the trial. It is not clear how animal confessions were interpreted, considering that animals cannot speak human languages.

Criminal proceedings against animals were handled with the utmost seriousness by medieval legal authorities. Animals that harmed humans were considered servants of the devil because they had violated God’s directive in the Bible that humans should have dominion over animals. A particular Bible verse, Exodus 21:28, was often cited as the grounds for executing an animal convicted of murder: “If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten.” The penalties for offenses less serious than murder matched those given to humans for the same types of crimes.

Evans listed a variety of domestic and wild animals, as well as rodents, sea creatures, birds, and insects, that were tried at various times by government or church courts. Those that could not be physically brought to court were tried in absentia. In general, only the larger domestic animals, such as pigs, bulls, cows, horses, sheep, and dogs, actually appeared in court and were subjected to punishments. A few animals were found innocent or granted pardons or reprieves by authorities. Many wild animals found guilty by church courts were excommunicated (exiled from the church).

The vast majority of criminal defendants were pigs, probably because farmers allowed them to roam free much of the time. In 1386 a pig accused of murdering an infant was tried and convicted by a court in Falaise, France. The pig was hanged at the gallows by the village hangman. Her six piglets were charged with being accessories to the crime but were acquitted “on account of their youth and their mother’s bad example.”

A lawyer could establish his reputation by performing well in animal trials. In France in the early 1500s, a lawyer named Bartholomé Chassenée was appointed to represent some rats that had eaten and destroyed some barley (a felony). Chassenée used a series of clever legal maneuvers to delay the trial as long as possible. At one point he convinced the judge that it was too dangerous for his clients to come to court on the appointed day because of the many cats in the neighborhood. Chassenée became famous throughout France for his excellent legal skills.

It is not clear why medieval courts went to the trouble to formally try animals before executing them. Some historians believe that these trials were intended to be warnings to animals and people about the consequences of their actions. Others believe the trials represented a philosophical desire to exert some human control over nature.

1 comment:

ish said...

Great piece, CDV.