Excommunication was pronounced against some ants in Brazil at the beginning of the XVIIIth Century. The monks at the Saint Antonio monastery sued the insects for violation of property and ordered them to leave the places which they had invaded, under threat of excommunication.
These practices were continued for a long time, and the Church had not stopped doing it under Louis XIV.
There was a trial, in the first years of the XVIIIth Century, to judge caterpillars which were desolating the territory of the little town of Pont-du-Chateau, in Auvergne. The Grand Vicar excommunicated the caterpillars and sent the case to the local judge, who rendered a sentence against the insects, and solemnly ordered them to withdraw into an uncultivated territory expressly designated.
This practice continued elsewhere up until the XXth Century. In 1901, in certain regions of Orne, the clergy did public exorcisms whenever there was an abnormal multiplication of harmful insects, such as cockchafers (maybugs) or caterpillars.
The persistence of such customs is surprising, particularly as protests against such heresies were made several times. Some members of the clergy were not afraid to formulate strong criticisms against these absurd ceremonies.
“Sentences of excommunication are given against vermin,” wrote one Spanish monk from the Order of Saint-Benoit. “This way of doing things is full of superstition and impiety, firstly, because you can’t sue animals which have no reason…; secondly, because we sin and blaspheme grievously, when we mock the Church’s excommunication; for, wanting to submit dumb animals to excommunication, is just the same as if someone wanted to baptise a dog or a stone.”
These same ideas were professed by Saint Thomas. “It is not permitted to pronounce maledictions against beings deprived of judgement: for if we consider these beings as coming from the hand of God, we commit, in cursing them, a true blasphemy; if we envisage them simply as they are, we then perform a vain and consequently prohibited act.”
The best canonists censured excommunications against animals. So did certain legal advisors. Philippe de Beaumanoir, author of Coutumes de Beauvoisis, clearly separated himself from his contemporaries, on this point. But what can a few isolated voices do against abuses which have roots in pre-Christian culture?
A criminologist wrote: “It is inconceivable that no-one has thought to present as an outrage to divine majesty the cases, the condemnations and executions against animals which have only obeyed their ferocious instincts. In any case, it is only too true that Justice soils itself by cases of such a ridiculous nature, which is inexplicable, particularly when we reflect that not only were these affairs seriously examined, but that expert advice was sought for their solution, like the gravest of cases.”
Some blamed the Church for being the instigator of these judgements. It is however in Antiquity, and even earlier, that the origin of such comportment should be sought.
Pagan Antiquity furnished a great number of examples of animals, and even inanimated objects, being cited in justice and condemned to various punishments, for their imputed misdeeds.
The judges of Athens went as far as sentencing the sword or the dagger which had served in a crime. The Prytanea tribunal had for mission to condemn all inanimate objects, such as an axe, a piece of wood or a stone which had caused the death of someone, without human intervention and, found guilty of homicide, the object was thrown out of the territory.
The spirit of this curious procedure reappears in an old English law, no longer in existence , in virtue of which, not only an animal who had killed a man, but the wheel of a chariot which had passed over him, a tree which had crushed him in falling, was deodand, or given to God, that is to say confiscated and sold for the poor. In commenting this law, Doctor Reid said that its object was not to punish the bullock or the cart like criminals, but to inspire the people with a sacred respect for human life.
Just like insects, four-legged animals brought to trial for murder, received anathema and suffered exorcism seances.
In Rome, for over six hundred years, a solemn procession took place annually, where a dog was paraded. The dog was then crucified, in memory and in execration of the dog which didn’t bark when the Gauls attacked the Capitol.
Sixth part tomorrow.