In general, Europe's medieval period, also called the Middle Ages, is considered the era from the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century through the sixteenth century. The early centuries of the period are called the Dark Ages because few known scientific and cultural achievements were made by Western societies during this time. Once the Roman emperors were gone, the authorities of the Christian church began to hold great power over the peoples of Europe.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) is arguably the most famous animal lover of the medieval period in Europe. The Franciscan friar was said to preach to birds and animals and release captured animals from traps. There are many legends about the saint, the most famous being that he once convinced a wolf to stop terrorizing a town and eating the livestock. Saint Francis was said to have "the gift of sympathy" for animals and in modern Catholicism is the patron saint of animals and ecology.
One of the most influential philosophers of the Middle Ages was Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). In 1264 he published a work called Of God and His Creatures, in which he included a section entitled "That the Souls of Dumb Animals Are Not Immortal." Aquinas argued that animals can neither understand nor reason and that their actions are driven entirely by natural instincts rather than by "art" or self-consciousness. Because animals can comprehend only the present and not the future, Aquinas believed that their souls were not immortal like human souls.
Animals became the subject of many myths and superstitions during the Middle Ages. Bestiaries were a popular form of literature. They were miniature encyclopedias about animals similar to the Physiologus published by early Christian writers. Bestiaries included descriptions and figures of mostly fanciful, but some real, animals, along with moral teachings. For example, the pelican was described as piercing her own breast to drip blood into the mouths of her young. This was seen as a symbol of the self-sacrifice made by Jesus in shedding his own blood for humanity. Symbolism presented in the bestiaries was copied and used throughout medieval art, literature, and architecture.
The fables of the writer Aesop had been part of Greek folklore since the Classical period. During the Middle Ages, they were translated into Latin and English and used as textbooks in schools. These fables featured animals or insects learning moral lessons about life. Some of the more famous of Aesop's stories include "The Hare and the Tortoise," "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse," and "The Crow and the Pitcher." Aesop's fables include some of the earliest and most famous examples of talking animals in literature.
During the medieval period, the Christian church worked to stamp out paganism, cults, animal worship, and all other non-Christian beliefs. Numerous Crusades, or holy wars, were launched between 1095 and 1291 to try to conquer the Muslims, who had taken over Jerusalem. Many men (and horses) on both sides were killed in these wars.
Domestic crusades were also launched against groups and individuals throughout Europe who were considered dangerous to the church or its teachings. Medieval people became obsessed with the devil and believed that he and his servants assumed human and animal forms. Although different animals were suspected of being agents of the devil at different times and places, the cat was by far the most closely associated with evil.
The Persecution of Cats
Cats came under suspicion for a variety of reasons. Unlike dogs, they did not behave subserviently toward humans. This was considered unnatural, because it violated the biblical view that humans should have dominion over animals. Also, cats were very active at night and engaged in loud, raucous mating rituals. Though cats had always behaved in this manner, to the superstitious minds of the Middle Ages, cats were practicing supernatural powers and witchcraft. Most accused witches were older peasant women who lived alone, often keeping cats as pets for companionship. This guilt by association meant that roughly a million cats were burned at the stake, along with their owners, on suspicion of being witches.
In the early thirteenth century Pope Gregory IX (1145–1241) declared that a sect in southern France had been caught worshipping the devil. He claimed the devil had appeared in the form of a black cat. Cats became the official symbol of heresy (or religious beliefs not advocated by the church). Anyone who showed any compassion or feeling for a cat came under the church's suspicion. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Europe's cat population had been severely depleted. Only semi-wild cats survived in many areas.
In 1347 the bubonic plague swept across Europe. Called the Black Death, it killed twenty-five million people (nearly a third of Europe's population) in only
three years. Thousands of farm animals died as well, either from the plague or from lack of care. The death rate peaked in the warm summer months and dropped dramatically in the wintertime because the plague was being spread to humans by fleas on infected rodents. The plague revisited Europe several more times over the next few centuries. In addition, millions of people are thought to have suffered from food poisoning during the Middle Ages because of the presence of rat droppings in the grain supply. Centuries of cat slaughter had allowed the rodent population to surge out of control.
But cats continued to be exterminated for religious reasons for another 300 years. Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) of Britain burned cats alive as part of her coronation celebration. By that time the Protestant Reformation had swept Europe, and many people (including the Queen) were no longer practicing Catholicism. Hatred of cats had become nondenominational. England's Witchcraft Act of 1563 associated the keeping of cats with "wickedness" and led to the executions of many more cats and their owners.
The persecution of cats during the Middle Ages seems to have been unique to Europe. In Asia and the Middle East during the same period, cats retained their prestige as protectors of grains and other food supplies. Even within Europe, there was a notable exception to the cat persecution. During the 900s the small country of Wales was ruled by Hywel the Good. In 945 he established laws for his realm that included protections for cats for their good works in protecting the region's grain supplies. Hywel's laws set the monetary worth of cats (a penny at birth and four pennies after a successful mouse kill) and imposed strict penalties on people for stealing or killing cats. This legal protection lasted for several centuries, until Welsh law was replaced by English law.
The Prosecution of Animals
One of the most bizarre human-animal trends of all recorded history took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. This was the formal prosecution of animals accused of committing crimes against people. Animals charged with such crimes (usually murder) were brought to court, appointed a lawyer, and tried, just as a person would be. Records show that hundreds of animals were found guilty and then executed by hanging.
In the 1994 article "The Law Is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans' The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals" (Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, published by the organization Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Piers Beirne described the practice in detail.
The article reviewed books on the subject by several authors, focusing on one written by E. P. Evans in 1906. Evans described 191 animal trials, mostly from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Most of the trials took place in France, Italy, and Germany. There are also a few historical records of trials in other European countries and in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Animals were tried for a variety of offenses besides murder, mostly fraud and theft. Records show that many were tortured for confessions (just as humans were) prior to the trial. It is not clear how animal confessions were interpreted, considering that animals cannot speak human languages.
Criminal proceedings against animals were handled with the utmost seriousness by medieval legal authorities. Animals that harmed humans were considered servants of the devil because they had violated God's directive in the Bible that humans should have dominion over animals. A particular Bible verse, Exodus 21:28, was often cited as the grounds for executing an animal convicted of murder: "If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten." The penalties for offenses less serious than murder matched those given to humans for the same types of crimes.
Evans listed a variety of domestic and wild animals, as well as rodents, sea creatures, birds, and insects, that were tried at various times by government or church courts. Those that could not be physically brought to court were tried in absentia. In general, only the larger domestic animals, such as pigs, bulls, cows, horses, sheep, and dogs, actually appeared in court and were subjected to punishments. A few animals were found innocent or granted pardons or reprieves by authorities. Many wild animals found guilty by church courts were excommunicated (exiled from the church).
The vast majority of criminal defendants were pigs, probably because farmers allowed them to roam free much of the time. In 1386 a pig accused of murdering an infant was tried and convicted by a court in Falaise, France. The pig was hanged at the gallows by the village hangman. Her six piglets were charged with being accessories to the crime but were acquitted "on account of their youth and their mother's bad example."
A lawyer could establish his reputation by performing well in animal trials. In France in the early 1500s, a lawyer named Bartholomé Chassenée was appointed to represent some rats that had eaten and destroyed some barley (a felony). Chassenée used a series of clever legal maneuvers to delay the trial as long as possible. At one point he convinced the judge that it was too dangerous for his clients to come to court on the appointed day because of the many cats in the neighborhood. Chassenée became famous throughout France for his excellent legal skills.
It is not clear why medieval courts went to the trouble to formally try animals before executing them. Some historians believe that these trials were intended to be
warnings to animals and people about the consequences of their actions. Others believe the trials represented a philosophical desire to exert some human control over nature.