Tag Archives: animal trials

Silence and the Human Animal

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In 2008, I wrote a post titled “Silence and the Scold’s Bridle.”  As a graduate student in the throes of dissertating, I had become enthralled by both the ideological and material methods through which early modern culture sought to silence women—and from this interest emerged both my dissertation, and my current book manuscript on women’s disruptive use of silence in drama. 

But it’s no longer 2008.  And in addition to finalizing Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, I’ve also begun realizing that new projects are possible and will likely tackle similar questions from different angles.  Returning to these images in 2012, I’m struck that implements such as the scold’s bridle not only seek violently to silence women—an attempt which highlights their dangerous expressive power—but that these tools also attempt to dehumanize women.  Such dehumanization not only emerges out of the bodily control that bridles offered to oppressive husbands and fathers, who guided women’s movements with the use of the bit.  It also results from the sheer act of silencing itself.  As Erica Fudge has pointed out in her recent work, the early modern legal system struggled to define humanness as either based in an individual’s physical appearance or in his ability to produce rational discourse.  Given that Galenic theory and the single-sex model positioned women’s bodies as imperfect and incomplete—their penises tucked inside a result of improperly cool consummation—the former definition barred women’s fully human status.  Yet cases of male birth defects or congenital hypertrichosis problematized physical judgments of humanness and promoted discourse as the measure.  Herein lay the problem: unless you silenced women and prevented them from practicing discourse, they too could gain legal human status that would overturn laws of coverture and male-primogeniture.  Materials like the scold’s bridle, then, treated women’s bodies like animal bodies and created a circular justification.  For, regardless of whether the women had the capacity for rational discourse, their inability to recognizably “produce” it in speech foreclosed recognition of them as humans.  And a man’s ability to prevent such production proved his mastery.  Or did it?  After all, if a woman was in any form a beast, and a man in any way sexually engaged her, then he committed bestiality.  His morality and his heirs’ humanity were at risk.

This blog has and will continue to explore issues like this one, raising questions about how early modern culture defined animals and humans, how it valued speech and language, and what logical tangles emerged.  Even more than that, it also pushes readers and encourages contributors to contemplate the persistence of these logical infelicities, these slippery vocabularies, in the periods following the “Renaissance”—even in our own time.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University and is the editor and founder of “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.”  


Images:  (1) Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library); (2) W.R. Chambers, “Scold’s Bridle or Brank.” The Book of Days. London, 1870.

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Defining Animals through the Law

By Sarah N.

In order to better understand the significance of animal trials, we must grapple with what it means to be an “animal” versus a “human.” Does the word animal refer to an entity that is controlled by its human owner? Is an animal a creature without a voice or free will? Is an animal merely a pawn in a relentless struggle for power and dominance?


Despite Christian doctrine that suggested animals lack free will and souls, the law would still convict animals under the assumption that they possessed human characteristics. Religious beliefs complicated the motivations behind animal trials. When animals of the Renaissance were convicted of crimes, it was “both in a moral and a juridical sense—thus implying their free will” (Dinzelbacher 405). In addition to suggesting that animals have free will, the conviction of animals supposed that they were capable of understanding human speech; this was a complete contradiction to the typical Renaissance human’s perception of animal capabilities (Dinzelbacher 405).

The people of the Renaissance also conducted animal trials to assert dominance over animals, while using them as a pawn for power and control (Elvin 531). The main purpose of trials during the Renaissance was to condemn “deviance” or “wrong-doing,” while simultaneously giving animals a voice, implying that animals do indeed have the freewill needed to commit a crime, recognize their action as a crime, and understand the punishment for their discretions (Elvin 535).

Even today, humans are still concerned with defining what it means to be an animal. Modern day laws pertaining to animals suggest that humans are still deeply concerned with asserting superiority over animals, while at the same time attempting to define animals via the use of what would typically be considered “human” characteristics. One specific animal rights law even suggests that animals should have the right to own property because “To be living property is also to have the legal capacity to own other property” (Favre 1068). Within this statement, humans are once again asserting their power by defining animals as “owned property” (Favre 1068).

Throughout my research of animal trials of the Renaissance and modern laws, it is clear that a power struggle between humans and animals exists. The need for humans to assert their dominance over animals has resulted in the instigation of trials and laws pertaining to the definition of an “animal” and what this means for their status within the legal system. As humans of the past and present struggle, to define what the word “animal” truly means, they have and continue to inadvertently give a voice and power to the creatures that they wish to control.


Image: Alciato, Andrea. “Bear, and Forbear.”  Alciato’s Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English (1531). Web. 24 April 2012.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-421.

Elvin, Jesse. “Responsibility, ‘Bad Luck’, and Delinquent Animals: Law as a Means of Explaining Tragedy.” Journal of Criminal Law 73.6 (2009): 530-558.

Favre, David. “Living Property: A New Status for Animals within the Legal System.” Marquette LawReview 93.3 (2010): 1021-1171.

Animal Trials

By Jenn C.

Animal trials are a fascinating, albeit perplexing, part of history. While the idea of putting an animal on trial in a court of law for the crime of murder may seem outrageous today, it was not uncommon during the Renaissance. Why did these trials occur? What does the act of bringing a non-human before a human court tell us about the culture of the Renaissance?

Animal trials took place predominantly between the 14th and 17th century all over Europe, although they were most prevalent in France, Switzerland, Tyrol, Germany, the Netherlands, and the southern Slavonic countries (Dinzelbacher 406). Animals were tried for a range of infractions, mostly for crimes that resulted in death or harm to human beings. When animals were brought to trial, the action was taken just as seriously as bringing a human to trial. Judges, lawyers, and jurists all took part in the trials and received their fees accordingly. Jailers were paid for the housing of the offending animal before and during the trial. Careful legal records were kept of the trials. Executions, often the sentence in instances where animals had killed humans, were conducted in public by the same professionals who performed human executions (Dinzelbacher 406-7).

Why, then, would people who were rational in the following of the law do something as outrageous as put an animal on trial? One theory is that the trials were “nothing more than a manifestation of the primitive lex talionis,” or the law of retaliation (Hyde 721). If animals took the life (or the means of sustaining life in the case of rats and weevils who were often tried for destroying drops) of human beings, then their own lives became forfeit. According to this theory, when people got mad, they had to take revenge no matter who the offender.

Another explanation for animal trials was the desire to rid society of the evil that accompanied an act like murder or the destruction of crops, regardless of the perpetrator of the crime. Italian canonist Gratian believed “that [animals] were killed not on account of their crimes but in order that the hateful act might be forgotten” (Hyde 718). For those who had lost loved ones to a loose pig or a rampaging bull, removing the animal from their society would free them from the constant visual reminder of the horrors of the death. For those who saw animal criminality as a demonic attack, ridding society of the offending animal, and thus the means through which evil had harmed humanity, was a cleansing act.

What can all of these theories tell us about Renaissance culture? As Peter Dinzelbacher explains, “animal trials took place only under extremely unusual circumstances in order to help the local community cope with an otherwise recalcitrant threat—not because they were proven to work but because they created the impression that the authorities were assiduously maintaining law and order in a cooperative and decided manner.” While there are several theories as to why animals were put on trial, the one theme tying them together is the need for the human being to assert their dominance over the animal and to maintain their status as the supreme being in the natural world. These trials represented “a mentality that placed man above animal in the hierarchy of creation” (Cohen 17).


Image: Chambers, R. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. Philadelphia: W & R Chambers, Lippincott, 1862.

Cohen, Esther. “Law, Folklore and Animal Lore.” Past and Present 110 (1986): 6-37.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-21.

Hyde, Walter Woodburn. “The Persecution and Punishment of Animals and Lifeless Things in the Middle Ages and Modern Times.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 64.7 (1916): 696-730.

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