Animals on Trial (Animal Trials in European History)


  • Bence Zsolt Kovács Ferenc Deák Doctoral School of Law; researcher, Central European Academy


The paper focuses on an enigmatic and unusual segment of medieval and early modern jurisprudence, namely animal trials. In these judicial proceedings individual animals or a group of animals were tried together, before a secular or ecclesiastical court, accused of a criminal act. In all known cases, the rules and formalities inherent to every judicial procedure were of utmost importance and scrupulously respected. It was not uncommon for animals to be convicted and even sentenced to death. This historical phenomenon serves to highlight the changes in the functions and tasks of criminal law over the centuries, since today such a trial would be perceived as ludicrous at best. Criminal responsibility has evolved to become inseparable from human status, only human beings can commit crimes; however, as this paper seeks to show with a number of intriguing historical examples, this was not a universal truth before the modern era. The paper therefore seeks to answer the following questions: when and where did animal trials emerge? What are the antecedents—if any—of this phenomenon? Where were they the most prevalent? What types of animals were brought before the court? What is the raison d’être of these trials and how were they perceived by society and the scholars at the time?