There was a time, not so very long ago, when judges not only presided over courts trying the cases of the human animal, they also dealt with other species brought before them.
Any animal accused of a crime or misdemeanour, whether it be a bullock, a donkey or a horse, male or female, was arrested, imprisoned and judged, according to all the rules and regulations. If found guilty of a crime, it could be publicly executed in punishment for its misdeeds.
Judicial procedure was different according to the species of the animal accused. If it was a quadrupede, it was brought before the ordinary criminal tribunal, in person – so to speak.
Things were a bit different for insects – ants, grasshoppers or grubs – whose small size rendered them elusive. After all, what could ordinary means do about invasions of myriads of insects? God had to be called in. The ecclesiastical tribunal gave its opinion and did what was necessary to end such plagues.
In the Middle Ages, History often mentions these sorts of calamities. Insects invaded and destroyed the fields of whole territories. Science was incapable of discovering and applying remedies for such disasters. The frantic populations turned to the ministers of religion.
The Church had a most formidable arm at its disposition. It fulminated anathema. It brandished the thunders and lightnings of excommunication against these henchmen of Satan – only the devil could lend himself to these multiple transformations.
All of this could not happen without a particularly impressive judicial apparatus.
Having started to apply it to the guilty to punish them for their crimes, the Church used it for the defence of its own interests, to extend its powers. Then it attacked magistrates who resisted these pretensions, or who did not apply sufficient zeal to seconding them.
This extraordinary measure, which terrorised populations, became the most formidable instrument of Rome’s political power. It was also the most necessary basis of ecclesiastic justice.
It is evident that this justice, deprived of temporal sentences, did not hand out tangible punishments and therefore did not have any real power. It was only through the prestige of spiritual punishments that it acquired a passing supremacy which evaporated along with this prestige.
Excommunication was the entire strength of the Church courts. The courts fell with the Church’s prestige.
Before applying extreme measures, all means of reconciliation had to be tried. Charitable procedure was the preliminary obligation of judiciary procedure.
The guilty party was warned canonically to mend his ways and to repair his fault. He received three warnings or monitories, according to the prescriptions of Roman laws which, to constitute the state of contumacy, demanded three edicts or three citations. However, the monitories could be reduced to only one – depending on circumstances – by assigning a triple delay to the party.
The sentence of excommunication was drawn up in writing. It announced clearly and expressly the motives which had necessitated it. It was read in church, and the people had to answer: Fiat, fiat, fiat! Then the twelve priests who were assisting the pontiff threw their lighted candles to the ground, and trampled them, in sign of eternal death.
Before looking for the meaning of these practices, in appearance extravagant, let us have a look at them in more detail and see what procedure was usually followed.
Populations who had complaints about damage caused by insects, charged a businessman to represent them in justice. Then, they addressed a request to the ecclesiastic judges, which contained the designation of the places invaded, specified the nature of the damages, and gave the precise description – shape and colour – of the guilty creatures. This description had to be written, so that no-one could be mistaken about it.
Then the judge ordered the citation of the devastating beasts. He sent a sergeant to the places where the insects were. The sergeant ordered them to appear before the magistrate on the day and at the time indicated, to hear themselves condemned to leave the usurped terrains within a brief delay, under threat of legal punishment.
The depredators of harvests remained understandably deaf to these injunctions. On the day of the hearing, they were awaited in vain. But, because everything was done by the rules, the assignation was renewed up to three times. This was to conform with tribunal practice which declared contumacy only after three regular citations.
Because voluntary defenders were rare, a curator was named for the bugs, a court-appointed counsellor for the defence, who swore to perform his duty with zeal and probity. Usually, a lawyer was given to him to assist him.
All of the ins and outs of controversy and discussion were used in these affairs. Objections, exceptions, reprieves, nullities, everything was evoked, according to the rules of a procedure which was excessively formalised.
Second part tomorrow.