Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Queer culprits

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QUEER CULPRITS.


According to Jewish law, “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: but the owner of the ox shall be quit.” After giving this command, Moses proceeds to enforce the doctrine of the responsibility of the beast’s owner, and to ensure his punishment, should he wittingly let a dangerous animal run loose; also to make provision for his security under some extenuating circumstances. These commands were carried into the laws of mediæval Europe; the jurists, at the same time, introducing refinements of their own, and enforcing them in numerous cases, which afford matter for curious inquiry, and are full of technicalities and peculiarities, at once amusing and instructive, as throwing light on the customs and habits of thought in those times.

Now take the case of a child injured by a sow, or a man killed by a bull: the trial was conducted in precisely the same manner as though either sow or bull were morally criminal. They were apprehended, placed before the ordinary tribunal, and given over to execution.

Again: an inroad of locusts or snails takes place. Common law is helpless, it may pronounce judgment, but who is to execute its decrees? Temporal power being palpably unavailing, the spiritual tribunal steps in; the decision of the magistrates being useless, perhaps excommunication may suffice. This, then, was an established maxim. If the criminal could be reached, it was handed over to the ordinary courts of justice; if, however, the matter was beyond their control, it fell within the jurisdiction of Ecclesiastical Courts. Poor culprit, not a loop-hole left by which to escape!

Let us consider the manner of proceeding under the former circumstance. A bull has caused the death of a man. The brute is seized and incarcerated; a lawyer is appointed to plead for the delinquent; another is counsel for the prosecution. Witnesses are bound over, the case is heard, and sentence is given by the judge, declaring the bull guilty of deliberate and wilful murder; and, accordingly, must suffer the penalty of hanging or burning.

The following cases are taken from among numerous others, and will afford examples:—

A.D. 1266. A pig burned at Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, for having devoured a child.

1389. A horse tried at Dijon, on information given by the magistrates of Montbar, and condemned to death, for having killed a man.

1386. A judge at Falaise condemned a sow to be mutilated in its leg and head, and then to be hung, for having lacerated and killed a child. It was executed in the square, dressed in man’s clothes. The execution cost six sous, six deniers, and a new pair of gloves for the executioner, that he might come out of the job with clean hands.

1499. A bull was condemned to death at Cauroy, near Beauvais, for having in a fury “occis” a little boy of fourteen or fifteen years old.

A farmer of Moisy let a mad bull escape. The brute met and gored a man so severely that he only survived a few hours. Charles, Count de Valois, having heard of the accident whilst at his château of Crépy, ordered the bull to be seized and committed for trial. This was accordingly done. The officers of the Count de Valois gathered all requisite information, received the affidavits of witnesses, established the guilt of the bull, condemned it to be hung, and executed it on the gibbet of Moisy-le-Temple. The death of the beast thus expiated that of the man. But matters did not stop here. An appeal against the sentence of the Count’s officers was lodged before the Candlemas parliament of 1314—drawn up in the name of the Procureur de l’Hôpital at Moisy, declaring the officers to have been incompetent judges, having no jurisdiction within the confines of Moisy, and as having attempted to establish a precedent. The parliament received and investigated the appeal, and decided that the condemnation of the bull was perfectly just, but found that the Count de Valois had no judicial rights within the territory of Moisy, and that his officers had acted illegally in having taken part in the affair.

Here is a list of the expenses incurred on the occasion of a sow’s execution, for having eaten a child:—

To the expenditure made for her whilst in jail
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
6 sols.
Item. To the executioner, who came from Paris to Meulan to put the criminal to death, by orders of the bailiff and the Procureur du Roi
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
54 sols.
Item. To a conveyance for conducting her to execution
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
6 sols.
Item. To cords to tie and bind her
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
2 sols. 8 deniers.
Item. To gloves
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2 deniers.

The charter of Elenora, drawn up in 1395, and entitled “Carta de logu,” containing the complete civil and criminal code for Sardinia, enjoins that oxen and cows, whether wild or domesticated, may be legally killed when they are taken marauding. Asses convicted of similar delinquencies—common enough, by the way—are treated more humanely. They are considered in the same light as thieves of a higher order in society. The first time that an ass is found in a cultivated field not belonging to his master, one of its ears is cropped. If it commits the same offence again, it loses the second ear; should the culprit be hardened in crime, and inveterate enough to trespass a third time, it is not hung, does not even lose its tail, but is confiscated to the crown, and goes to swell the royal herd.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the guilty animals suffered death on the gallows, and our sires considered that such a punishment must strike terror into the minds of all cattle owners and jobbers, so as effectually to prevent them from suffering their beasts to stray at large over the country. Later on, however, these capital condemnations were done away with, the proprietor of the animal was condemned to pay damages, and the criminal was killed without trial.

One more specimen, and we shall pass to cases coming under Ecclesiastical Courts.

Country folk believe still that cocks lay eggs. This is an old superstition, people holding, formerly, that from these accursed eggs sprang basilisks, or horrible winged serpents.

Gross relates, in his “Petite Chronique de Bâle,” that in the month of August, 1474, an abandoned and profligate cock of that town was accused of the crime of having laid one of these eggs, and was brought before the magistrates, tried, convicted, and condemned to death.

The Court delivered over the culprit to the executioner, who burned it publicly, along with its egg, in a place called Kohlenberger, amidst a great concourse of citizens and peasants assembled to witness such a ludicrous execution.

The poor cock no doubt suffered on account of the belief prevalent at the period that it was in league with the devil. A cock was the offering made by witches at their sabbaths, and as these eggs were reputed to contain snakes—reptiles particularly grateful to devils—it was taken as a proof of the cock having been engaged in the practice of sorcery. “There is nothing, then, remarkable in the fact that, at a time when superstition did violence to religion, reason and law, an unfortunate cock should have been condemned to the flames, along with the egg it was reputed to have laid, since that egg, in the mind of the judges even, was regarded as an object of legitimate terror—as the production of a demon.”

We shall pass now to the second part of our subject—namely, proceedings against snails, flies, mice, moles, ants, caterpillars, &c.

It has frequently happened, in all parts of the world, that an unusual number of vermin has made its appearance and destroyed the garden produce, or that flies have been so abundant as to drive the cattle mad from their bites. In such cases the sufferers had recourse to the Church, which hearkened to their complaints and fulminated her anathema against the culprits. The method of proceeding much resembled that already stated as being in vogue in the ordinary tribunals. The plaintiff appointed counsel, the court accorded a counsel to the defendants, and the ecclesiastical judge summed up and gave sentence.

All requisite legal forms of law were gone through with precision and minuteness, to exemplify which we shall extract some details from a consultation on the subject, made by Bartholomew de Chasseneux, a noted lawyer of the sixteenth century.

After having spoken, in the opening, of the custom among the inhabitants of Beaume of asking the authorities of Autun to excommunicate certain insects larger than flies, vulgarly termed hureburs, a favour which was invariably accorded them, Chasseneux enters on the question whether such a proceeding be right. The subject is divided into five parts, in each of which he exhibits vast erudition.

The lawyer then consoles the inhabitants of Beaunois with the reflection that the scourge which vexes them devastates other countries. In India the hureburs are three feet long, their legs are armed with teeth, which the natives employ as saws. The remedy found most effectual is to make a female in the most dégagé costume conceivable perambulate the canton with bare feet. This method, however, is open to grave objections.

The advocate then discusses the legality of citing insects before a court of justice. He decides that such a summons is perfectly justifiable. He proceeds to inquire whether they should be expected to attend in person, and, in default of their so doing, whether the prosecution can lawfully be carried on. Chasseneux satisfies himself and us that this is in strict accordance with law.

The sort of tribunal before which the criminals should be cited forms the next subject of inquiry.

He decides in favour of the Ecclesiastical Courts. The advocate proceeds to convince his readers, by twelve conclusive arguments, that excommunication of animals is justifiable; having done so, he brings forward a series of examples and precedents. He asserts that a priest once excommunicated an orchard, whither children resorted to eat apples, when—naughty chicks!—they ought to have been at church. The result was all that could be desired, for the trees produced no fruit till, at the request of the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, the inhibition was removed.

He mentions, as well, an excommunication fulminated by a bishop against sparrows which, flying in and out of the church of Saint Vincent, left their traces on the seats and desks, and in other ways disturbed the faithful. Saint Bernard, be it remembered, whilst preaching in the parish church of Foigny, was troubled by the incessant humming of the flies. The saint broke off his sermon to exclaim, “Oh, flies! I denounce you!” The pavement was instantaneously littered with their dead bodies.

Saint Patrick, as every one knows, drove the serpents out of Ireland by his ban.

This is the form of excommunication as given by Chasseneux:—“O snails, caterpillars, and other obscene creatures, which destroy the food of our neighbours, depart hence! Leave these cantons which you are devastating, and take refuge in those localities where you can injure no one. I. N. P.,” &c.

Chasseneux obtained such credit from this opinion that, in 1510, he was appointed by the authorities of Autun to be advocate for the rats, and to plead their cause in a trial which was to ensue on account of the devastation they committed in eating the harvest over a large portion of Burgundy.

In his defence, Chasseneux showed that the rats had not received formal notice; and before proceeding with the case, he obtained a decision that all the parsons of the afflicted parishes should announce an adjournment, and summons the defendants to appear on a fixed day.

On the adjourned trial, he complained that the delay accorded his clients had been too short to allow of their appearing, in consequence of the roads being infested with cats. Chasseneux made an able defence, and finally obtained a second adjournment. We believe that no verdict was given.

In a formulary of exorcisms, believed to have been drawn up by S. Gratus, Bishop of Aosta in the ninth century, we find unclean beasts excommunicated as agents of Satan.

From such a superstition as this sprang the numerous legends of the Evil One having been exorcised into the form of a beast; as, for instance, by S. Taurin of Evreux (Bolland, Acta SS., 11 Aug., p. 640, col. 1); and by S. Walther of Scotland, who died in 1214, and who charmed the devil into the shapes of a black dog, pig, wolf, rat, &c. (Bolland, 3rd Aug., p. 264). The devil Rush, in the popular mediæval tale of “Fryer Rush,” was conjured into a horse, and made to carry enough lead on his back to roof a church.

Felix Malleolus relates that William, Bishop of Lausanne, pronounced sentence against the leeches which infected the Lake of Geneva and killed the fish, and that the said leeches retreated to a locality assigned them by the prelate. The same author relates at large the proceedings instituted against some mosquitoes in the 13th century in the Electorate of Mayence, when the judge, before whom they were cited, granted them, on account of the minuteness of their bodies and their extreme youth, a curator, and counsel who pleaded their cause, and obtained for them a piece of land to which they were banished.

On the 17th of August, 1487, snails were sentenced at Mâcon. In 1585, caterpillars suffered excommunication in Valence. In the 16th century, a Spanish bishop, from the summit of a rock, bade all rats and mice leave his diocess, and betake themselves to an island which he surrendered them. The vermin obeyed, swimming in vast numbers across the strait, to their appointed domain.

In 1694, during the witch persecutions at Salem, in New England, under the Quakers Increase and Cotton Mather, a dog was strangely afflicted, and was found guilty of having been ridden by a warlock. The dog was hanged. Another dog was accused of afflicting others, who fell into fits the moment it looked upon them; it was also put to death (T. Wright, Sorcery and Magic, vol. iii.). A Canadian bishop, in the same century, excommunicated the wood pigeons; the same expedient was had recourse to by a grand vicar of Pont-du-Château, in Auvergne, as late as the eighteenth century, against caterpillars.

The absurdity of these trials called forth several treatises during the middle ages. Phillip de Beaumanoir in the thirteenth century, in his “Customs of Beauvoisis,” complained of their folly; and in 1606, Cardinal Duperron forbade any exorcism of animals, or the use of prayers in church for their extermination without licence.

A book published in 1459, “De Fascino,” by a Spanish Benedictine monk, Leonard Vair, holds up the practice to ridicule. Eveillon, in his “Traité des Excommunications,” published in 1651, does the same.

One curious story more, and we shall give a detailed account of one of these trials.

We have taken this from Benoit’s “Histoire de l’Edit de Nantes” (tom. v., p. 754), and give it in the writer’s own words. “The Protestant chapel at La Rochelle was condemned to be demolished in 1685. The bell had a fate sufficiently droll: it was whipped, as a punishment for having assisted heretics; it was then buried, and disinterred, in order to represent its new birth, in passing into the hands of Catholics. . . . It was catechised, and had to reply; it was compelled to recant, and promise never again to relapse into sin; it then made ample and honourable recompense. Lastly, it was reconciled, baptised, and given to the parish which bears the name of Saint Bartholomew. But the point of the story is, that when the governor, who had sold it to the parish, asked for payment, the answer made him was, that it had been Huguenot, that it had been newly converted, and that, consequently, it had a right to demand a delay of three years before paying its debts, according to the law, passed by the king for the benefit of those recently converted!”

We propose now giving the particulars of a remarkable action brought against some ants, towards the commencement of the eighteenth century, for violation of the rights of property. It is related by P. Manoel Bernardes in his “Nova Floresta” (Lisboa, 1728), and is quoted by M. Emile Agnel among his “Curiosités Judicaires et Historiques;” to whom and to the paper of M. Menabréa, entitled “Procés fait aux Animaux,” in the twelfth volume of the Transactions of the Chambéry Society, we are indebted for much of our information.

Action brought by the Friars Minor of the province of Pridade no Maranhao in Brazil, against the ants of the said territory.”

“It happened, according to the account of a monk of the said order in that province, that the ants, which thereabouts are both numerous, large, and destructive, had, in order to enlarge the limits of their subterranean empire, undermined the cellars of the Brethren, burrowing beneath the foundations, and thus weakening the walls which daily threatened ruin. Over and above the said offence was another, they had burglariously entered the stores, and carried off the flour which was kept for the service of the community. Since the hostile multitudes were united and indefatigable night and day,

Parvula, nam exemplo est, magni formica laboris
Ore trahit quodcumque potest, atque addit acervo
Quem struit . . . (Horace, Sat. i.),

the monks were brought into peril of famine, and were driven to seek a remedy for this intolerable nuisance: and, since all the means to which they resorted were unavailing, the unanimity of the multitude being quite insurmountable, as a last resource, one of the friars, moved by a superior instinct (we can easily believe that), gave his advice that, returning to the spirit of humility and simplicity which had qualified their seraphic founder, who termed all creatures his brethren—brother Sun, brother Wolf, sister Swallow, &c.—they should bring an action against their sisters the Ants before the divine tribunal of Providence, and should name counsel for defendants and plaintiffs; also that the bishop should, in the name of supreme Justice, hear the case and give judgment.

The plan was approved of; and after all arrangements had been made, an indictment was presented by the counsel for the plaintiffs, and as it was contested by the counsel for the defendants, he produced his reasons, requiring protection for his clients. These latter lived on the alms which they received from the faithful, collecting offerings with much labour and personal inconvenience; whilst the ants, creatures whose morals and manner of life were clearly contrary to the Gospel precepts, and were regarded with horror, on that account, by S. Francis, the founder of the confraternity, lived by fraud; and not content with acts of larceny, proceeded to open violence and endeavours to ruin the house. Consequently they were bound to show reason, or in default, he concluded that they should all be put to death by some pestilence, or drowned by an inundation; at all events, should be exterminated from the district.

The counsel for the little black folk, replying to these accusations, alleged with justice to his clients, in the first place: That, having received from their Maker the benefit of life, they were bound by a law of Nature to preserve it by means of those instincts implanted in them. Item, That in the observance of these means they served Providence, by setting men an example of those virtues enjoined on them, viz., prudence—a cardinal virtue—in that they (the ants) used forethought, preparing for an evil day: “Formicæ populus infirmus, qui præparat in messe cibum sibi” (Prov. xxx. 25.); diligence, also, in amassing in this life merits for a life to come, according to Jerome: “Formica dicitur strenuus quisque et providus operarius, qui presenti vita, velut in æstate, fructus justitiæ quos in æternum recipiet sibi, recondit” (S. Hieron., in Prov. vi.); thirdly charity, in aiding each other, when their burden was beyond their strength, according to Abbat Absalon: “Pacis et concordiæ vivum exemplum formica reliquit, quæ suum comparem, forte plus justo oneratum, naturali quadam charitate alleviat” (Absalon apud Picinellum, in Mundo symbolico, 8); lastly of religion and piety, in giving sepulture to the dead of their kind, as writes Pliny, “sepeliuntur inter se viventium solæ, præter hominem” (Plin., lib. xi. 36); an opinion borne also by the monk Malchus, who observes, “Hæ luctu celebri corpora defuncta deportabant” (S. Hieron., in Vita Malchi).

Item, That the toil these ants underwent far surpassed that of the plaintiffs, since their burdens were often larger than their bodies, and their courage greater than their strength.

Item, That in the eyes of the Creator men are regarded as “worms;” on account of their superior intelligence, perhaps superior to the defendants, but inferior to them morally, from having offended their Maker, by violating the laws of reason, though they observed those of nature. Wherefore they rendered themselves unworthy of being served or assisted by any creatures, since they (men) had committed greater crimes against heaven than had the clients of this learned counsel, in stealing their flour.

Item, That his clients were in possession of the spot in question before the appellants had established themselves there; consequently that the monks should be expelled from lands to which they had no other right than a seisure of them by main force.

Finally, he concluded that the plaintiffs ought to defend their house and meal by human means which they (the defendants) would not oppose; whilst they (the defendants) continued their manner of life, obeying the law imposed on their nature, and rejoicing in the freedom of the earth; for the earth belongs not to the plaintiffs but to the Creator: “Domini et terra et plenitudo ejus.”

This answer was followed by replies and counter-replies, so that the counsel for the prosecution saw himself constrained to admit that the debate had very much altered his opinion of the criminality of the defendants. He had, the learned counsel for the defendants argued, admitted that the action was brought by brethren against sisters, brethren Monks against sister Ants. The sister Ants conform to the law of nature imposed on them, continued the counsel for the insects; the brother Monks, claiming to be ruled by an additional law, that of reason, violate it, so that they place themselves only under the law of animal instinct, the same which regulates the ants. The latter are not raised to the level of man, but the friars have lowered themselves to that of brutes. Consequently, the action is not between man and beast, but between beast and beast. All arguments founded on the assumption of higher intelligence in man consequently break down.

The judge revolved the matter carefully in his mind, and finally rendered judgment, that the Brethren should appoint a field in their neighbourhood, suitable for the habitation of the Ants, and that the latter should change their abode immediately, under pain of major excommunication. By such an arrangement both parties would be content and be reconciled; for the Ants must consider that the Monks had come into the land to sow there the seed of the Gospel, and that they themselves could easily obtain a livelihood elsewhere, and at less cost. This sentence having been given, one of the friars was appointed to convey it to the insects, which he did, reading it aloud at the openings of their burrows.

Wondrous event! “It nigrum campis agmen,” one saw dense columns of the little creatures, in all haste, leaving their ant-hills, and betaking themselves direct to their appointed residence.”

Manoel Bernardes adds, that this sentence was pronounced the 17th January, 1713, and that he saw and examined the papers referring to this transaction, in the monastery of Saint Anthony, where they were deposited.

We might conclude with a still more extraordinary trial, recorded in the Eyrbyggja Saga (Ed. Thorkelin, Havniæ, 1787), which took place in Iceland during the twelfth century, where a house had been haunted nightly by a band of ghosts, and the inmates instituted legal proceedings against them, somewhat in the manner above recorded; with this striking difference, that the ghosts attended the trial in person.

The story, however, is long, and an outline of it has appeared in the Icelandic travels of Captain Forbes, R.N. We have omitted the account accordingly, though with regret, as it is full of most singular details.

S. Baring-Gould, M.A.