“We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics” – Bill VaughanIn 1545 A.D., the winemakers of St. Julien, a Rhône-Alpes commune noted for the excellence of its vintages, placed a complaint before the ecclesiastical court chaired by Francois Bonnivard through their legal representative Pierre Ducol. The defendant in the case? A herbivorous species of weevil which entomologists refer to as rychites auratus, responsible for ravaging their vineyards.
As weevil’s themselves do not typically seek representation, and as insects lacking pockets, likely have no resources to do so even if they recognize it as an option, the state assigned procurator Pierre Falcon and advocate Claude Morel to their defense. Bonnivard sagaciously considered the opening arguments and declined to pass sentence, instead issuing a 1546 proclamation recommending recourse to public prayer, suggesting it would be theologically inappropriate to prosecute the weevils, stating “In as much as God, the supreme author of all that exists, hath ordained that the earth should bring forth fruits and herbs (animas, vegetativas), not solely for the sustenance of rational human beings, but likewise for the preservation and support of insects, which fly about on the surface of the soil, therefore it would be unbecoming to proceed with rashness and precipitance against the animals now actually accused and indicted; on the contrary, it would be more fitting for us to have recourse to the mercy of heaven and to implore pardon for our sins” (Evans, 1906, p38-39).
Bonnivard laid down some pretty specific instructions for the recommended form of religious observances oriented at propitiating the divine wrath that brought the weevils to bear, including the somewhat unreasonable demand that the citizens of St. Julien henceforth turn to the Lord with undivided hearts, repent all sins with unfeigned contrition, live justly and charitably, always pay their tithes, celebrate three consecutive high masses, march in solemn procession around the vineyards, and that at least two persons from each St. Julien household should participate in all the requisite exercises. Bonnivard might have been onto something as an authenticated account of the proceedings was soon submitted by the local Catholic curate, reporting the successful completion of the mandated activities, and subsequent disappearance of the weevils.
Your average adult weevil only lives a few months, so it’s foolhardy to expect them to remember their earlier legal troubles. Unsurprisingly, the weevils wound up back before the ecclesiastical court thirty years later. On April 13th, 1587, the inhabitants of St. Julien, represented by Francois Amenet and Petremand Bertrand went before the prince-bishop of Maurienne requesting assistance that made reference to Bonnivard’s 1546 decision, stating “Formerly by virtue of divine services and earnest supplications the scourge and inordinate fury of the aforesaid animals did cease; now they have resumed their depredations and are doing incalculable injury. If the sins of men are the cause of this evil, it behoveth the representatives of Christ on earth to prescribe such measures as may be appropriate to appease the divine wrath. Wherefore we the afore-mentioned syndics, Francois Amenet and Petremand Bertrand, do appear anew (ex integro) and beseech the official, first, to appoint another procurator and advocate for the insects in place of the deceased Pierre Falcon and Claude Morel, and secondly, to visit the grounds and observe the damage, and then to proceed with the excommunication” (Evans, 1906, p42).
Given the humble citizens of St. Julien probably felt they’d been reasonably charitable, church-going fellows for the last thirty years, the tenor of their supplication seems to indicate they felt the weevils had made some sort of theological miscalculation about God’s will, and thus deserved excommunication for their revived depredations. This was smack dab in the Renaissance, where egocentric humanism declared, “Man is the measure of all things,” and St. Julien’s beleaguered vintners were not about to coddle a pack of heretical weevils when there was legal recourse to be had. Just as before, the court appointed legal representation to the weevils in the form of procurator Antoine Filliol and advocate Pierre Rembaud. And this time, the case went to trial.
Two suitable advocates were assigned to the insects, who argued on their behalf that these creatures were created before man, and had been blessed by God, who gave them the right to feed on grass, and for all these and other good reasons the weevils were in their right when they occupied the vineyards of the Commune; they simply availed themselves of a legitimate privilege conformable to Divine and natural law. The plaintiffs’ advocate retorted that the Bible and common sense showed animals to be created for the utility of man; hence they could not have the right to cause him loss, to which the counsel for the insects replied that man had the right to command animals, no doubt, but not to persecute, excommunicate and interdict them when they were merely conforming to natural law “which is eternal and immutable like the Divine” (Martinengo-Cesaresco, 1909, p350).
The judges were impressed with the defense arguments, and it looked like the folks in St. Julien were headed for another round of repentance and religious rites, that is, until the Mayor of St. Julien stepped forward with a novel solution. He was willing to offer the weevils a deal in the form of a “weevil preserve”, a plot of land ceded to them in perpetuity (preserving a right-of-way for humans across the territory) where they could live out the rest of their days in peace and security, on the condition that the weevils agreed to vacate the vineyards and accept excommunication from the Catholic Church should they return. The crack legal team for the weevils tentatively accepted the offer, and on June 29, 1587 the townspeople of St. Julien ratified the agreement. But the legal wrangling had not yet run its course. Weevil advocate Antoine Filliol, on September 3, 1587 declared that he could not in good conscience accept the offer on behalf of the weevils as he had inspected the land set aside for them and found it sterile and unwelcoming. Lawyer for the St. Julien plaintiffs Petremand Bertrand argued that the proposed weevil preserve was “admirably adapted to this purpose, being full of trees and shrubs of diverse kinds”, asking for official adjudication, which the court provided in the form of appointed experts who examined the property.
We do not know the results of the trial or assessment of the weevil reservation, as the last two pages of the court records (a set of 29 documents entitled “De actis scindicorum communitatis Sancti Julliani agentium contra animalia bruta ad formam muscarum volantia colons viridis communi voce appellata verpillions seu amblevins”) were suspiciously eaten by bugs, and legal scholars have ever since suggested that a “sharp-toothed” delegation of weevils, unsatisfied with the outcome of the trial, descended on the library to physically annul the ultimate judgement of the court.
When attempts to have the weevils excommunicated failed, perhaps the fact that weevils are one of the few organisms to exhibit “eusociality” (the highest level of animal sociality, characterized by cooperative brood care, overlapping generations of adults in colonies, and division of labor), suggested they might be receptive to some sort of brokered agreement, and as St. Julien is merrily producing wine today, they might have been right. Or is this simply part of a subtle, long-term plan for world domination by weevils? Maybe the precarious détente we’ve established with insects will be our undoing, and we should pay attention to pioneering ecologist Warder Clyde Allee who famously warned, “The mortal enemies of man are not his fellows of another continent or race; they are the aspects of the physical world which limit or challenge his control, the disease germs that attack him and his domesticated plants and animals, and the insects that carry many of these germs as well as working notable direct injury. This is not the age of man, however great his superiority in size and intelligence; it is literally the age of insects”.
Evans, E. P. 1831-1917. The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment of Animals. New York: Dutton, 1906.
Martinengo-Cesaresco, Evelyn Lilian Hazeldine Carrington, contessa, 1852-1931. The Place of Animals in Human Thought. London: Unwin, 1909.