Justice for all
THOUGH medieval Christian saints such as St Thomas Aquinas and St Francis of Assisi never doubted the official ecclesiastical view that all creation exists for humankind's benefit, they still stressed in their preaching that spiritual merit could be gained by treating birds and animals kindly. St Francis referred to them in his sermons, for instance, as Brother Wolf and Sister Magpie.
The Middle Ages in Europe was characterised by this ambivalence in ordinary people who gravitated between a natural impulse to compassion while adhering to the old practice of holding animals responsible for crime, based probably on the Biblical injunction: "If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit."
Putting animals formally on trial for their "crimes was a widespread practice in Europe and especially in France, where in 1386 in Falaise, a sow was found guilty of killing a child and sentenced to mutilation first and then death by strangling. Such trials continued for the next two centuries, with a sow condemned to be beaten to death for wounding a child in Chavonne in 1497 and another executed in Nancy in 1572.
There are records extant of a bull being convicted of murder in Moisy in 1314 and of other animal executions in Meulan, Lavegny and Laon. In the Netherlands, a dog was hanged in 1595 for biting a baby and its carcass was left suspended from the gallows as a deterrent to other canines.
The medieval church was particularly quick to safeguard its dignity and any affront to it even by birds or animals was brought to trial in ecclesiastical court. In the Church of St Vincent, for example, some sparrows were excommunicated for leaving their droppings on pews. And, in Rheims, a jackdaw was anathematised (formally cursed by the clergy) with priests in their vestments pronouncing their edict reinforced by bell, book and candle.
Sometimes, the judgement was not so terrible; in fact, it could even be termed most merciful. In the village of St Julien, for example, beetles that had damaged a number of vines were ordered formally only to remove themselves elsewhere. And, the Bishop of Lausanne was satisfied to merely excommunicate and banish some leeches found guilty of killing fish in Lake Geneva.