In the fall of 1457, villagers in Savigny, France witnessed a sow and six piglets attack and kill a 5-year-old boy. Today, the animals would be summarily killed. But errant 15th-century French pigs went to court. And it wasn’t for a show trial—this was the real deal, equipped with a judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses, and a defense attorney for the accused swine. Witness testimony proved beyond reasonable doubt that the sow had killed the child. The piglets’ role, however, was ambiguous. Although splattered with blood, they were never seen directly attacking the boy. The judge sentenced the sow to be hanged by her hind feet from a “gallows tree.” The piglets, by contrast, were exonerated.
Such a case might seem bizarre to modern observers, but animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe. Pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs that allegedly broke the law were routinely subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans. In a court of law, they were treated as persons. These somber affairs, which always adhered to the strictest legal procedures, reveal a bygone mentality according to which some animals possessed moral agency.