Legal proceedings were formerly instituted against vermin, who were thus treated as if they were human beings endowed with consciences and responsible for their actions. Prosecutions of animals were common in France and Switzerland, with a view to protect communities from their depredations. Thus rats and mice, and also bulls, oxen, cows, and mares; sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs; moles, leeches, caterpillars, and various reptiles, were liable to punishment by legal process. The Roman Catholic Church claimed full power to anathematize all animate and inanimate things, founding its authority on the Scriptural precedents of the malediction pronounced on the serpent in the garden of Eden, and the cursing of the barren fig-tree by our Lord. The belief in the moral responsibility of animals was also thought to be warranted by the old Mosaic law as declared in Genesis ix. 5:--
And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man.
Also in Exodus xxi. 28:--
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.
In the Code of the Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus, and in that of the Athenian legislator, Draco, provision was made for the formal trial of animals for misdemeanors. A vestige of the unreasonable belief that brutes and even inanimate objects were accountable for their actions is to be found in that now obsolete term of English law, deodand, meaning, according to Blackstone, "a personal chattel which was the immediate cause of the death of a rational creature, and for that reason given to God; that is, forfeited to the Crown to be applied to pious uses." The deodand was of Grecian ancestry, as appears from the ceremonies connected with the offering of a sacrifice by the Athenians. When the animal or victim had been dispatched by an axe in the hands of the officiating priest, the latter immediately fled, and to evade arrest he threw away the axe. This instrument was then seized by his pursuers, and an action entered against it. The advocate for the axe pleaded that it was less guilty than the grinder who sharpened it; the grinder laid the blame on the grindstone which he had used; and thus the whole process became a farce and a mockery of justice.
We learn from the writings of the Benedictine monk, Leonard Vair, that in certain districts of Spain, in the fifteenth century, when the inhabitants wished to drive away grasshoppers or noxious vermin, they chose a conjurer as judge and appointed counsel for the defendants, with a prosecuting attorney, who demanded justice in behalf of the aggrieved comniunity. The rnischief-makers were finally declared guilty, and either duly anathematized or formally excommunicated, the technical distinction between the two sentences being doubtless to them a matter of profound indifference. At this period, also, prosecutions of pigs or sows guilty of devouring young infants were not uncommon.
Barthelemy Chassaneux, a famous French advocate of the sixteenth century, first won distinction by the originality of his pleas in defense of some rats in a notable trial at Autun. He represented to the judge that his clients found it extremely difficult to obey the summons issued to them by the court, owing to their being obliged to traverse a region abounding in cats, who were, moreover, especially alert on account of the notoriety of the legal proceedings.
Chassaneux wrote that the people of Autun had long agitated the question how best to rid the province of Burgundy of locusts, and he expressed the belief that a sure method of accomplishing so desirable a result was by the scrupulous payment of all tithes and ecclesiastical dues, and by causing a woman to walk barefoot round the infested fields.
After the seventeenth century, prosecutions of animals and the use of incantations for their expulsion became less common. The Ritual of Séez in 1743 forbade such practices without the special permission of the church, but the same volume contains a formula for driving away grasshoppers, maybugs, and other insects. Mr. C. G. Leland states, in his "Gypsy Sorcery," that exorcism has been vigorously applied in the United States, not only against the Colorado beetle and army worm, but also for the suppression of blizzards and the grape disease. It has not had much success hitherto, probably owing, as he naively remarks, to the uncongenial climate.