Et Tu, Piggy?

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and I heard something that was fascinating, terrifying and perhaps, kind of applicable in this day and age. It appears that, in the middle ages, a lot of things were considered personal property. Actually, it would be easier to say what personal property wasn’t back during that time. If you were a white male that owned real estate, you weren’t chattel. That’s it.
Everything else was personal property in most instances. Houses, tools, wives, kids, animals – all personal property. Except for the curious case of animals. In some instances, animals were personal property. In others, animals could be considered defendants in civil cases, especially when an animal caused damage to another white man that owned real estate.
There was a case where a pig (for the sake of historical verisimilitude, let’s call him Arnold), that broke into a neighbor’s garden. It seems as though Arnold loved carrots, and this wasn’t the first time he had plundered the local vegetable gardens. It was, however, the first time there were visible tracks that showed Arnold’s course from his pen, to the garden (and the scene of the pilfered carrots) back to his pen. It was, as they say, an open and shut case.
These days, the owner of the pig would be liable for any of the pig’s transgressions. If the pig broke, stole or ate something, the modern-day owner would have to pay to have the thing fixed or replaced.
Not so much in Merrie Olde Englande.
In this instance, the town officials marched right on over to Arnold’s owner, seized the pig, and put Arnold on trial. It was your traditional proceeding, right down to witnesses questioned, evidence taken and stunning arguments for and against poor Arnold. There was no record as to whether Arnold testified in his defense, or whether he plead the fifth (chances are he was questioned, but didn’t really respond. He couldn’t “take the nickel” as we say, because this was England, it was in the sixteenth century and pigs can’t talk). In any event, I am certain the trial lasted probably half of the day, as entertainment was pretty scant in those pre-Internet days.
Sadly, there was no happy ending for Arnold. He was deemed guilty, and slain. Of course, the villagers had pork and bacon and ham and all of the other yummy things that come from pig for the foreseeable future – or until it rotted. The loss of the pig would have hit Arnold’s owner fairly hard. Historical record showed that he had a couple of pigs – not a lot – and that the pigs were his most valuable asset. He had to swallow the cost of the pig (so delicious) and reimburse the neighbor for his carrots. I would imagine, while this trial didn’t ruin Arnold’s owner, it probably took a huge chunk out of the guy’s estate.
These days, we can’t put animals on trial, as amusing as it may be to think about (I’m surprised this hasn’t happened in a Disney movie yet, although, I believe there was a dog at one time acting as a district attorney in one of the studio’s “classics”). To be a plaintiff or a defendant, one must be of legal age (18) and have the capacity to have intent. Sure, if an animal causes damages, we tend to hold the owner liable for any of the animal’s transgressions, but we don’t actually put animals or kids as parties to the lawsuit.
There are some portions of old English law that survived for years and years and years – centuries even – that have made it into our legal system. Same for the French (check out Louisiana – the whole state, it seems, is ruled by vestiges of the Napoleonic Code). And usually, there’s very good reason for these holdovers and hand-me-downs; they’re good law. They’ve been able to settle disputes for years, and their logic is just as sound now as when they were first written.
Putting animals on trial? Not so much. I can only imagine how many laws from this day and age will be relegated to the historical trash dump. A great many, I would think.

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