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  • Writer's pictureJulie Chamberlin

Newberry Library find: The Trial of an Ox

It may be from the nineteenth century, but this Victorian penny pamphlet from the Newberry Library in Chicago is strikingly medieval.

Penny Pamphlet (Newberry Wing miniature ZP 845.R89)

If you have never heard of medieval animal trials (or even if you have), the practice probably strikes you as absurd or at least archaic. Across the continent in medieval Europe, both secular and ecclesiastic courts put nonhuman animals on trial, often for the murder of humans, but sometimes for other offenses, like destroying crops.

The foundational (read: only) work of scholarship that really attempts to generate a comprehensive list of the animal trials that occurred in medieval Europe for which there are records is E.P. Evans’ “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals” (1906). For a number of reasons I don’t have the space to get into here, this is a problematic text, and several historical scholars have poked damning holes in Evans’ evidence. There is little doubt, however, that animal trials like the ones Evans’ describes did happen in medieval Europe.

Given that people in the early stages of medieval law tried nonhuman animals for crimes against humanity, how do we understand this phenomenon without invoking the usual cop-out, “religious superstition”? To many, labeling this as superstitious behavior is accurate. Case in point, at the Newberry Library in Chicago, E.P. Evans’ text is tagged under “superstition,” and this is essentially what Evans argues about why these animal trials took place.

I, however, was struck by another thought when learning about these trials, one that connects them more readily to, for example, these Grizzly Bear Trials that took place in Yellowstone National Park in 2011, or this horse suing its owner in 2018. I wondered if these animal trials in the Middle Ages did not expose a glimmer of identification with animal psyches. In other words, they caused me to ask: to what extent did medieval peoples consider that animals be legal “persons” like humans? After all, modern law in the U.S. has contemplated the personhood of corporations—why not animals too?

Answering these questions is (literally) the subject of a dissertation (my dissertation). So what does this have to do with a nineteenth penny pamphlet?

Sometimes when you type your dissertation topic keywords into a library catalogue and strike gold. The day I visited the Newberry in Chicago was one of those days. When I searched “animal trials,” the first entry to come up was a nineteenth-century penny pamphlet entitled “The Trial of an Ox for Killing a Man.” Yes, you read that right. It’s nineteenth century—not medieval by a few hundred years—but as it turns out, the Victorians had a healthy (or maybe even obsessive) interest in medieval things, including (you guessed it) animal trials.

While the animal fable is a genre that harkens back to classical times, the beast epic—most famously, Reynard the Fox—is a wholly medieval phenomenon. The tale told in the “The Trial of an Ox for Killing a Man,” I would argue, is closer to that of the beast epic than the fable. For one, there is no concluding moral or epimythium at the end of the story, as is the trademark of fable. Second, the content of the tale—an animal on trial in which other animals serve as witnesses and adjudicators—is closer to the type of narrative you would find in Reynard, a story which puts the titular fox on trial for rape at the court of Noble the Lion. In the penny pamphlet, the ox is on trial (rather than a fox), and the surrounding landscape is Victorian (instead of the fictional feudal world of Reynard) but a number of things are similar: the Lion, for instance, “sat as judge.” Finally, the use of woodcut illustrations in the pamphlet is also medieval-esque.

Of course, there are significant differences between the nineteenth century penny pamphlet and any medieval beast tale. The penny pamphlet (pictured at right) is smaller than the size of my hand. These were sold for—you guessed it—a penny and were very cheaply made (quite the opposite case for a medieval manuscript). The story “The Trial of an Ox” tells blatantly advocates for the sympathetic treatment of animals. While actual medieval animal trials did sometimes yield verdicts wherein the animals were acquitted (in one verifiable case from 1457, six piglets were acquitted of their involvement of the murder of a five-year-old boy on the basis that they were only following the actions of their mother), we don’t see claims of self-defense appearing in the medieval records.

In the tale, the Bee argues that the Ox has “led a peaceful innocent life,” but was “put under the care of a cruel and inhuman drover.”

“It is true,” the bee says, “the Man lost his life, but the innocent Ox is not to suffer for it: because from ill treatment the Ox had lost his senses, and therefore could not be accountable for his actions.” The Tiger goes a step further: “’Tis amazing the mankind should complain of cruelty in animals, when their own minds are productive of such scenes of inhumanity.”

In the context of the story, the animals’ arguments are persuasive and the judge declares a verdict of Manslaughter, for which the Ox is to be fined a blade of grass and imprisoned for just one hour.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that any medieval writer held the kind of “animal-rights” mentality we ascribe to modern advocates. They didn’t. While medieval writing might expose sympathies or the fact that legal personhood was a highly malleable concept even in early law, there is nothing close to arguments for “animal rights” appearing in conjunction with the animal trials, even in the realm of fiction. And yet, the penny pamphlet reveals one possible course of imagination where animal trials are concerned: if animals can be tried for killing humans, then it follows that they are, in some ways, legal persons in their own right.

There is, of course, far more to be said about animals envisioned as participants at trials in medieval literature. This pamphlet, though, makes a strong case for the way animal stories could and were used to advocate for broader understandings of legal personhood at a time when slavery was legal in the U.S., colonialism was rampant, and women still had limited rights.

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