It was anything but quiet in Autun, France in 1508, some 300 km south of Paris. The sounds of small,scurrying feet could be distinctly heard. It was a problem but nothing the reach of medieval and eccliastical law could not handle.

Crops were being eaten and generally, dark and ugly little furry creatures could be seen committing crimes, hiding around in ever-increasing numbers, obviously up to no good.

Rats should of been more careful. It was a view held not only by the citizenry but also of religuious leaders that certain vermins were mini-incarnations of the Devil or, if nothing else, animated by the Devil, possessed by the Devil. Of particular interest to the very religuious law-makers was the insect.

One Pope, Leo XIII, even came up with a formula for the exorcism of animals and the Bishop of Lausanne even took the draconian step of officially cursing the creatures, a process known then as it is know now as excommunication.

Autun CathedralA new word was invented so that the practitioners could be properly persecuted: zoolatry (the worship of animals).

In due course, animals would be burned, buried alive and even put on the rack and decapitated for some perrceived crime.

France had some animal criminal jurisprudence with evidence of a tapestry in the old city of Falaise refering to the murder of a baby by a pig in 1386.

In 1508, the small France town of Autun decided enough was enough, try something new and they issued a citation to the rats appear before le tribunal ecclesisatique d'Autun, solemnly presided by the local vicar:

  • The Township of Autun versus Johns and Janes Doe, also known as rats or "les rats".

The charge: said rats ate or destroyed the the barley-crop of local farmers.

The still-famous Autun Cathedral (completed in 1146) was the center-piece of the town and likely hosted the trial.

The local wise man of the law and pro bono, legal aid lawyer just so happened to be Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, also known as (according to Wikipedia, never a reliable source):

  • Bartholomew Chassenez,
  • Cassaneus Bertalan,
  • Bartholomaeus Cassaneus,
  • Bartholomäus Cassaneus,
  • Barthelemy de Chassenée,
  • de Chassaneo,
  • Bartholm Chasseneux,
  • Chassanæus, Chassanaeus,
  • Hassanaus, or
  • Bartholomew Cassaneus.

Born in 1480 and dying in 1541, the Autun rat trial was a small step in Maître de Chassenez' glorious career, but a giant step for law-kind.1

But de Chassenez, regardless of where else his nose might be, did what any good lawyer does in a case: stay focused.

ratOn the first day of the trial, the rats failed to appear.

Chassenez pointed out to the Court that the summons was invalid anyway because his clients were not pack animals and tended to live alone.

Each one of his clients had to be served with a summons, individually.

The judge or judges, as history does not record whether a single or several judicial minds were brought to bear on this serious issue facing Autun, gravely decided that Maître de Chassenez had a good legal point and a summons was duly posted in the churches of all neighboring towns (hopefully near the ground at eye level for the defendants).

But the rats were in contempt of court again as still, they did not appear on the second citation.

This is where Chassenez really earned his retainer arguing, quite likely, that the unpaved and unlit road from his clients' several residences to the Autun Courthouse, especially in 1508, was fraught with deadly peril: cats, dogs and hostile people.

Simply, it was unsafe for his clients to attend the Autun courtroom.

A change of venue was pointless since his clients would suffer the same peril anywhere in France.

The rule of law made sense in France in 1508 as it does today for human defendants: if an accused cannot be assured of personal safety in attending upon a court to answer charges, they ought not to be held to the requirement to attend at all costs to themselves and may be excused from obeying the citation.

Although there is no clear record of the final disposition of the case, legal historians are all of a like mind in proclaiming that the rats must of been acquitted.

In the result, not only were the annals of legal history embellished by one of the first ever animal trials but also, the hall of fame of the law embellished by the first ever animal lawyer Maître Barthélemy de Chassenez, avocat animaux.

REFERENCES:

  • Bisgould, Leslie, Animals and the Law (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2011), page 28.
  • Evans, Edward, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906)
  • NOTE 1: Chassenez later wrote a famous book on the French law, Commentaria in consuetudines ducatus Burgundiae (1517).
  • Wise, Steven, Rattling the Cage (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2000), pages 35-36