A certain number of executions for bestiality took place in the duchies of Lorraine, Bassigny and Barrois. One day, at Hattonchatel, a man from Aviller was burnt at the stake with five animals. The whole was reduced to ashes, which were thrown to the wind. At Pont-a-Mousson, in 1490, another individual, from Bruyeres, was burnt with three cows.
Sometimes, as we have said, the animals were strangled before being placed on the pyre. The Court ordered this for two mares, in 1705. Without this precaution, there was a great chance of the pyre being disturbed by their desperate movements.
One thing, extremely difficult to believe, is that natural intercourse of both sexes with “infidels”, such as Turks and Jews, were put into the category of acts of bestiality, because religion considered them to be animals. Not by their nature, but because of their beliefs.
At the beginning of the XXth Century, similar crimes were still being prosecuted in France, if they had been committed in a public place. They then entered into the category of public indecency, cited in Article 330 of the Penal Code. Judicial publications related a few isolated cases, from time to time.
The result of this study is that the Middle Ages did not have the monopoly on such spectacles. We have seen that they were prolonged into the XVIIIth Century, up to and including the French Revolution, and even beyond.
A pig covered with fleurs-de-lis, decorated with a Knight of the Dagger cross and carrying the inscription Louis XVI, was found in an emigrated person’s castle and shot at La Bassee, district of Lille.
By judgement of 27 Brumaire Year II (17 November 1792), the revolutionary tribunal had condemned to death the invalid Saint-Prix, as well as his dog, trained by its master to bark in a certain way, when strangers arrived, and bite whomever he wanted.
The official minutes of the execution of the poor dog, dated 28 Brumaire (18 November) were transmitted to Fouquier-Tinville. These minutes had been drawn up, in virtue of the judgement rendered by the revolutionary tribunal, which condemned Prix, known as Saint-Prix, to death. The judgement also said that Saint-Prix’ dog was to be killed by a blow to the head.
The same thing happened, in 1845, before the Troyes criminal court. An individual, having hunted with a greyhound, in violation of prefectoral decision, the court condemned him to a fine of fifty francs, and ordered that his dog be killed, whenever it would please the King’s Procurer. Luckily for the animal, the Paris court of appeal, by decision of 22 January 1846, reformed the sentence, stating that destruction, authorised by the law of 3 May 1844, only concerned inanimated objects.
Until the beginning of the XXth Century, animals appeared before courts and were condemned just as severely as men.
“From Interlaken to the New York Herald: We remember the murder followed by theft committed last December on the person of M. Marger. The case has shown the preponderant role played by a dog in this sensational affair. The Delemont court has just rendered its decision. The two accused, Scherrer father and son, were given the maximum sentence of prison for life. As for the dog, whose complicity had drawn the court’s attention, it was condemned to death. L’Eclair, 4 May 1906.”
We could ask how a custom like the execution of murderous animals was able to persist for so long. The Middle Ages considered animals as moral and perfectible beings. It is therefore understandable that they were made responsable for their acts. After having assimilated them to men in legends, poetry and artistic monuments, they placed them on the same level of jurisprudence.
However, we must not believe that these men assimilated themselves to animals. The cases against beasts were made because a man had suffered damages. Justice was uniquely preoccupied with the human creature. Any violence committed against it must be punished, whoever the author was. That seems to be the principle of the legislation of former times.
Perhaps our ancestors were wrong to too clearly separate material facts from moral guilt. Although, it can be said in their defence that the law was still at its beginnings, and that all the formalities with which justice was surrounded, showed their respect for this justice and for the human person.
Others only want to see these executions as examples destined to impress the multitude. They say that it is to make people abhor homicide that this crime was so severely punished, even when animals were the guilty ones. Did the sight of the gibbet inspire horror of the crime? It is doubtful. Particularly when the victim was an animal.
Cases against animals were nothing more than a symbol destined to give a feeling of justice among a population which knew only the law of the most powerful, and of that law, only the law of intimidation and violence. But what about the symbolism of the ecclesiastic courts with their maledictions and excommunications?
These cases helped the country people to console themselves for the loss of their harvests, by inspiring them with the hope that this bad thing would not occur again. They also gave them an elevated idea of justice, which did not permit itself to punish even rats, without following all of the formalities prescribed by law.
All of these trials, rather bizarre in appearance, carried a good part of symbolism, and probably had no other object than to glorify universal justice by looking to impress the population by an unquestionable authority and judgement.
Respect, and perhaps also credulous superstition, made the people accept without protest all of these condemnations, in these times of barbary, even though some of them were sometimes a bit excessive.