“You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next” – Frank McManus
We really despise disorder. Except for those who are an especially quick draw or lead a barbarian horde, potential for lawlessness fills us with existential trepidation. We’re not so worried about folks transgressing the law. We’re worried that if there is no natural law (or rather such laws are merely helpful suggestions), then there is no order in the universe. And much like its social counterpart, existential disorder inevitably leads to ideological looting. That is, to paraphrase from William Burroughs, “Nothing is true, and thus everything is permitted”, and moral action is rooted only in individual conscience, a conscience largely unexercised due to the fact that it has been supplanted by law. Wither goes the real or perceived anomaly in such a state of affairs? Straight to court, what with its comforting imposition of procedural and evidential rules. We can’t have strange phenomena doing what they want all willy-nilly. It’s uncouth.
Consequently, two types of trials emerged in Medieval Europe when it came to animals and the supernatural: (1) prosecutions of entire groups of natural pests for the depredations they inflicted (e.g. rats eating all the grain, weevils ruining the vineyards, locusts devouring the crops). It’s awfully hard to get vermin to show up in court, thus the critters were oft tried and convicted in absentia, and recidivism rates were indubitably high; and (2) trials of individual animals for their specific crimes. Now, trying an animal for the murder of a human is not entirely illogical and serves a twofold purpose. It demonstrates that all things are subject to law (this was taken to an extreme in Ancient Greece where even lifeless objects like statues could be brought to trial for their dastardly deeds), and it removes the dangerous creature as a threat to society. One can understand philosophically and practically why such trials might be necessary. Neurotic, but necessary.
There was a puzzling subset of medieval prosecutions of animals that involved no heinous crime against humanity, save a violation of our sensibilities about an orderly and law-abiding universe. In some cases, animals were prosecuted solely for violating the natural order. An especially illustrative instance can be found in the 1474 Swiss trial of a rooster that laid an egg.
For those of you where the closest you get to an actual farm is Whole Foods, what American English calls a rooster and Imperial English denotes as a cockerel, is a male gallinaceous bird. In short, a male chicken of the order of heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds called Galliformes that gave us the inspiration for Fight Club. While they are aggressively polygamous, they do not as a rule lay eggs. If said cockerel produces an egg, something has gone very wrong in either (1) our ability to identify gender differences in chickens, (2) chicken genetics, or (3) our understanding about order in the universe. We then endeavor to restore a little decorum. It may also have been an attempt to solve the age old question of “which came first?”
In 1474, Basel, Switzerland was not the cosmopolitan, museum-filled oasis that it is today. The Burgundian War (1474-1477) had just erupted, pitting the loosely allied states of the central Old Swiss Confederacy in pitched battles against the expansionist Dukes of Burgundy. Chaos ensued. Amidst the strife and uncertainty about the future entailed by medieval armies traipsing across the landscape slaughtering each other, sacking cities, and generally making life difficult for the peasantry, a Swiss rooster decided to try his hand at laying an egg and wound up before a judge. You see, roosters are notoriously illiterate, thus the cockerel in question neglected to consult one of the many available bestiaries. Had he done so, he might have seen the imprudence of his endeavor. There’s a lot of bad mojo associated with a rooster laying an egg, in particular that this is the vehicle for hatching the diabolical cockatrice (there is a lot of confusion among medieval scholars about the difference between a cockatrice and basilisk, mainly centering on whether it has wings or not, but both are said to hatch from a rooster’s egg and make unpleasant party guests). The entire procedure was also overseen by a toad, who were already regarded with great suspicion.
The cock was at one time supposed to possess the power of laying eggs from which were reared the deadly cockatrice. When the cock is past seven years old an egg grows within him, where at he greatly wonders. He seeks privately a warm place, and scratches a hole for a nest, to which he goes ten times daily. A toad privily watches him, and examines the nest every day to see if the egg be yet laid. When the toad finds the egg he rejoices much, and at length hatches it, bringing forth an animal with the head, neck, and breast of a cock, and from thence downward the body of a serpent (Hulme, 1895, p236).
While the notion of a cockatrice has biblical origins (Isaiah, Jeremiah), which very well may just be mistranslations, medieval bestiaries were pretty clear on the undesirability of ushering such a creature into existence what with its poisonous breath, killing stare, and lack of table-manners. Liminality breeds occult value, so savvy sorcerers were always on the lookout for a rooster’s egg (obvious alchemical symbolism extant). “It was contended in support of the prosecution that eggs laid by cocks were of inestimable value for use in certain magical preparations; that a sorcerer would rather possess a cock’s egg than the philosopher’s stone; and that Satan employed witches to hatch such eggs, from which proceeded winged serpents most dangerous to mankind” (Andrews, 1897, p154-156). Pretty soon you have anarchy if you allow this sort of unrestricted cross-species monster creation, and as evil sorcerers are no doubt lurking in the wings lusting after these precious eggs, so both secular and ecclesiastical authorities are compelled to nip this problem in the bud. The rooster was hauled into court.
In court, procedure is everything, and it is a well-known fact that roosters are loathe to speak on their own behalf. Consequently, the accused cockerel was assigned a public defender who clearly had some impressive legal chops.
On behalf of the gallinaceous prisoner, the facts of the case were admitted, but his advocate submitted that no evil animus had been proved against his client, and that no injury to man or beast had resulted. Besides, the laying of the egg was an involuntary act, and as such not punishable by law. If it was intended to impute the crime of sorcery to his client, he was entitled to an acquittal; for there was no instance on record of Satan having made a compact with one of the brute creation (Andrews, 1897, p154-156).
The rooster’s advocate had a good defense strategy, and was playing the best hand he could, given it was still The Dark Ages, and particularly as his client stood accused of a crime ultimately “most injurious to all of the Christian faith and race” (Burdick, 1905, p229). That’s a lot of animus to place on the back of a poor barnyard bird.
The prosecutor replied that it was not a case of the devil making a compact with brutes, but that Satan actually entered into them on occasion; and he adduced the case of the Gadarene swine and the fact that these animals, though involuntary agents like the cock, had been punished (Hyde, 1915, p708).
For those of you who have yet to brush up on your New Testament case law, Jesus purportedly extracted a demon out of a man and into an unfortunate herd of pigs, causing the pigs to run down a hill and drown themselves in a nearby lake. Not exactly a charitable use of pork. This is one of those rare instances where the answer to “What would Jesus do?” is “Drown a pig”. From the perspective of jurisprudence, this suggested that despite a lack of conscious culpability, lesser beasts could be summarily executed simply for being innocent receptacles of demonic essence. Thank god for precedent. The city chronicles of Basel noted the outcome.
An extract from the Chronicle of Basel: “In the month of August, in the year 1474, a cock of this city was accused and convicted of the crime of laying eggs, and was condemned to be burnt with one of his eggs in the Kublenberg, or public square, where the ceremony took place in the presence of a vast concourse of spectators.” That the owner of the unfortunate bird should not have shared his fate, is one of those marvels which sorcery alone can explain (Costello, 1861, p270).
Indeed, it seems that the owner of the rooster in question avoided implication in the affair, but the bird was executed “with as great solemnity as would have been observed in consigning a heretic to the flames” (Walter, 1985, p51). This would not be the last prosecution of an egg-laying rooster in Switzerland, with similar trials taking place as late as 1730, not to mention the frequent extra-judicial proceedings against sorcerous birds that ended in a more summary judgement. It is said that “the executioner on cutting the cock found three more eggs in him” (Evans. 1906, p162). Historians have long puzzled over these sorts of prosecutions, pointing out that if one is willing to try and execute an animal for witchcraft (while maintaining that the animal itself lacks culpability), the stage is set for brutal treatment of our fellow human beings likewise suspected of knowingly consorting with dark forces.
In explanation of the judicial proceedings so solemnly resorted to in the trial, conviction and punishment of animals, a Swiss jurist, Edward Osenbriiggen, in 1868, advanced and maintained the thesis, that they can only be understood on the theory of the personification of animals: that as only a human being can commit crime and thus render himself liable to punishment, it is only by an act of personification that the brute can be placed in the same category as man and become subject to the same penalties; and he regarded the Basel cock as a personified heretic, and therefore properly burned at the stake. Mr. Evans regards this as purely fanciful, and concludes that “the judicial prosecution of animals, resulting in their excommunication by the Church or their execution by the hangman, had its origin in the common superstition of the age, which has left such a tragical record of itself in the incredibly absurd and atrocious annals of witchcraft. The same ancient code that condemned a homicidal ox to be stoned, declared that a witch should not be suffered to live (Carson, 1917, p413).
We have a habit of looking at violations of common understanding, the upheaval of our conventions, and anomalous events as the introduction of chaos into our universe, calling into question the mannerly way in which we feel conscious creatures should be allowed to conduct our lives. Such defensive thinking unnecessarily narrows our perspective, or as cartoonist Jok Church said, “Chaos does not mean total disorder. Chaos means a multiplicity of possibilities. Chaos is from the ancient Greek words that means a thing that is birthed from the void. And it was about that which is possible, not about disorder”. In other words, don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched a cockatrice.
Andrews, William, 1848-1908. Legal Lore: Curiosities of Law and Lawyers. London: W. Andrews & Co., 1897.
Burdick, Lewis Dayton. Magic And Husbandry: the Folk-lore of Agriculture; Rites, Ceremonies, Customs, And Beliefs Connected with Pastoral Life And the Cultivation of the Soil; With Breeding And the Care of Cattle; With Fruit-growing, Bees, And Fowls. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Otseningo Publishing Co., 1905.
Carson, Hampton L. 1852-1929. The Trial of Animals and Insects: a Little Known Chapter of Mediaeval Jurisprudence. Philadelphia, 1917.
Costello, Dudley, 1803-1865. Holidays With Hobgoblins: And Talk of Strange Things. London: J.C. Hotten, 1861.
Evans, Edward Payson. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. W. Heinemann, 1906.
Frazer, James George, Sir, 1854-1941. Folk-lore In the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law. London: Macmillan, 1918.
Hulme, F. Edward 1841-1909. Natural History. London: B. Quaritch, 1895.
Hyde, Walter Woodburn. “The Prosecution and Punishment of Animals and Lifeless Things in the Middle Ages and Modern Times”. University of Pennsylvania. Law School, and University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of Law. University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register v64. Philadelphia: [Dept. of Law, University of Pennsylvania], 1915.
Walter, E. V. “Nature on Trial: The Case of the Rooster That Laid an Egg,” Comparative Civilizations Review: Vol. 10: No. 10, 1985.