The Trial of a Rooster
Dominic Watson’s rooster trial is a retelling of an event that allegedly took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1474. The rooster was put on trial and executed by burning "for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg." A closer analysis of the context places this within a localised climate of fear generated by beliefs in witchcraft, alongside the popular belief that rooster-laid eggs hatched basilisks – monstrous serpents whose gaze could kill. There have been cases of chickens with male morphological characteristics laying eggs which can be understood within the context of modern biology, but in the 15th century such a creation was considered demonic. People looked to religion and the law to provide them with comfort at a time of crisis and uncertainty. Events that could not be explained, that might be the result of witchcraft or demonic agency, could then be subjected to an immutable process; the courtroom provided reassurance alongside retribution. It was therefore a logical place for medieval communities to try animals that behaved against their perceived nature, defying the contemporary intellectual separation between humans and animals. This was rooted in the Aristotelian notion of humans possessing free will, separating us from animals whose behaviour was regarded as mechanistic, driven by instinct.
The first record of a non-human mammal on trial for murder was a pig at Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1266, convicted and executed for eating a child, although legal procedures in Europe involving animals (including insects) date back to the 9th century. Numbers of prosecutions peaked at 60 in the 16th century, with a total of 200 cases by the 19th century; in the Middle Ages the majority are documented in French-speaking regions. Further analysis has demonstrated their emergence within an increasingly judicialised society, intent on maintaining social order. There was a climate of fear during the rooster’s trial in Basel in 1474; people were afraid of witchcraft, of heightened supernatural malevolence. Unnatural events such as the rooster provided palpable evidence of the presence of demons in the world. In Watson’s retelling of the story, the rooster’s owner (the defendant) ultimately abandons his property and sense of duty in favour of his insatiable appetite.
In the medieval Christian world-view, humans had mastery over animals which were treated as property. However, it is clear that the privileged status of humans was conditional; owners, for example, were held liable for the behaviour of their animals who, in the eyes of the law, lacked intentionality. The trials indicate that animals were not simply viewed as disposable property. They reflected anxieties about the possibility that animals could harbour demons, or act on their own volition. The defence typically presented the argument about the irrationality of animals, but in some cases this was not enough – suggesting that animal agency was considered. The closest legal analogy was the insanity plea, which centred on the lack of rational capacity and the related intent to commit crimes. Where the trials had a demonological context, the anathematisation – social exclusion akin to excommunication – and/or execution of the litigants represented a form of exorcism. Here the demons were the principle targets, rather than the animals, and due process was required to make the action effective. The fundamental issue of the relationship between the human and non-human animal was therefore never really engaged with during these trials.
Joyce Salisbury concluded that the trials reflected a perceived – and threatening – blurring of the boundaries between the human and non-human animal from the 12th century, one that provoked visible policing during times of crisis. The popular use of animals as metaphors for humans in literature and art, as well as the animalistic traits assigned to demons who were increasingly thought to mingle with humans, contributed to dissolving the boundary between the human and non-human animal. Watson’s use of animals in his Hackney Citizen bestiary vignettes have a similar aim; to provoke questioning, confusion and perhaps even anxiety. People could descend to the level of an animal by their behaviour, or even transform into one and assume a bestial identity in the minds of some contemporaries. Jews, defined as the ‘other’ in medieval Christian society, were compared to beasts and in some cases treated accordingly; this process of ‘othering’ still persists today. This conceptual ‘slippage’ indicates that animals were perceived as similar enough to people to function as useful metaphors or models of behaviour – and to be tried in a civil or ecclesiastical court.
Watson’s narrative is designed to undermine the superiority of humans and to challenge our traditional understanding of self. His perspective is allegorical, viewing the animals as proxies for humans in much the same way as the animal fables that were popular in European literature and marginal art from the 12th century acted as metaphors for human behaviour. Whilst the trials themselves were not allegorical, the passive role of the animal litigants resulted in a one-sided conversation between the human participants – the lawyers, judges, juries, witnesses and wider community. In this respect the animal litigants literally functioned as scapegoats for human anxieties.
This perception continued into the early modern period; in the 17th century, Descartes famously described animals as machines, completely devoid of reason. Today, intellect – the ability to override instinct and rationalise behaviour – remains a marker of humanity, although biologically we recognise a much closer proximity to other species, alongside a better understanding of the cognition of non-human animals. Moreover, we continue to confront our own nature. In the case of Watson’s rooster, what does it mean for us to try and execute an animal? Since we do not accept a demonological interpretation of the rooster’s behaviour, are we acknowledging free will in another species? Are we, in fact, recognising that we are closer to other animals? This should lead us to question how much of our own actions are instinctive and how much is done with rational consideration? The implications are profound. Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking we are not animals?
Aleks Pluskowski is Associate Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading, UK. His research focuses on the relationship between nature and culture in medieval Europe, particularly within frontier societies associated with crusading, colonisation, cultural encounters and religious transformations. His publications include Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages (2006), The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals: European Perspectives (2011) and The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonisation (2012).
For those interested in learning more about the animal trials and how we interpret them today, the seminal work in English is: E. P. Evans, 1906. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. New York: E. P. Dutton. In the last decade there has been a series of critiques, including: Berman, P. S. (1994). Rats, pigs, and statues on trial: The creation of cultural narratives in the prosecution of animals and inanimate objects. New York University Law Review, 69(2), 288; Peter Dinzelbacher, 2002. 'Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach', Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32/3, 405-421; Girgen, J. (2003). The historical and contemporary prosecution of animals. Animal Law, 9, 97–133. For the demonological context of the animal trials, including the case of the rooster of Basel see E. V. Walter, 1984 ‘Nature on trial: The case of the rooster that laid an egg’, in Methodology, Metaphysics and the History of Science, eds. R. S. Cohen and M. W. Artofsky, Springer, 295–321. A good introduction to medieval perceptions of animals is Joyce Salisbury’s (latest edition 2011) The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, London: Routledge. This also includes a section on the animal trials. For the role of animal symbolism in anti-Semitism see: Claudine Fabre-Vassas, 1997. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians and the Pig, New York: Columbia University Press; Enders, J. (2002). Homicidal pigs and the antisemitic imagination. Exemplaria, 14(1), 201–238. The latest work on the werewolf phenomenon in Europe, including the trials, is Willem de Blécourt’s edited volume Werewolf Histories (2015, Palgrave Macmillan). The only treatment of the subject in film is The Hour of the Pig (aka The Advocate; 1993, directed by Leslie Megahey).
Supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands