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Animal Hanging

There are records of animals being put on trial and punished by public execution, usually hanging, dating back to the 13th through to 16th century for crimes ranging from theft to murder to bestiality.

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Did you know that we used to try animals?

Just to clarify, I'm using "try" in the sense of "to put on trial", and by "we" I mean medieval Europeans, who neither of us (me and you) are. Other than that, a superb opening sentence creating a lot of intrigue and suspense for the main body of the piece.

There are records of animals being put on trial and punished by public execution, usually hanging, dating back to the 13th through to 16th century for crimes ranging from theft to murder to bestiality. They weren't tried in some special animal court either. They were tried in human court using human methods - a judge, two lawyers, witnesses. The real deal.

Guilty animals were hanged in public to show all the other livestock what happens if you're sufficiently naughty.

Why did this happen? Historians are divided. It's a lot of time and effort to spend on even the naughtiest of geese. Why did they think a legal deterrent would prevent pigs and goats from stealing apples and goring children? Animals don't have the brain skills necessary to wrap their nog around the social contract, so why all the pomp and circumstance?

Theory one: Divine justice. Medieval Europe is super Christian, unsurprisingly. Law and justice are divine and mankind's job is to govern the natural world. Ergo, it is the sacred duty of man to apply that justice to any cases of wrongdoing - even if the criminal is a horse.

Theory two: Medieval Europe had the Commons, shared lands neither owned nor governed by anyone. One difficulty of the Commons is that it's challenging to police infractions with no singular authority figure. If anyone tried it could just spill over into an ongoing dispute.

If instead of saying, "Can you bloody keep your pig in line?", you could put the pig itself under citizen's arrest and try it in a people's court. By transferring blame to the animal and making it stand trial, relations between community members could remain genial, but the farmer is still punished by losing livestock.

But it's one of the less popular theories I find the most compelling, which is that they were treating these animals as morally responsible individuals. Instead of trying to explain away this behaviour, let's instead ask why they may have thought that.

Before the 19th century, when feedlots and packing plants turned agriculture into an industry and animals into tools, pre-industrial agrarian societies involved regular interaction with animals in all aspects of daily life in a relationship more akin to family or colleague than owner and object. Sixteenth-century farmers would spend up to 16 hours a day working alongside, observing and caring for domesticated animals, watching them make decisions and interact with the world around them. Compare that to our relationship with animals today. I've never spent time with a pig. I've just seen their distended bodies rub against the edges of a tiny pen.

Perhaps these practices in the 16th century feel so backwards and barbaric to us because to consider it otherwise might prickle too sensitively at our own conscience.

No animal deserves to live in factory farming conditions. They deserve to be in prison.

Next article in issue 140

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