The Pig Walked Free
- Animal Trials by Edward Payson Evans
Hesperus, 146 pp, £9.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 84391 382 5
Crucifixions, burnings, boilings: the walls, windows and alcoves of churches and cathedrals are adorned with all manner of sticky ends. The Church of the Holy Trinity in Falaise, Normandy once contained a unique example: a fresco on its western wall, dating from the late 14th century, depicted the death by hanging of a pig. The swine was no martyr, but a murderer. According to a contemporary account, the sow had torn at the face and arms of a local child, who died from the injuries. The pig was apprehended and brought before the local tribunal. Having listened carefully to the facts of the case, the court passed sentence: the beast was to be ‘mangled and maimed in the head and forelegs’ before being sent to the gallows. By all accounts, the execution was a crowd-puller. More than five hundred people pitched up to watch the pig trot onto the scaffold that had been erected in the local square (the story that a herd of her peers was forced to attend, by way of warning, is now thought to be apocryphal). The spectacle even attracted the attention of the vicomte de Falaise, who was sufficiently moved to commission the fresco in commemoration. Perhaps in deference to this illustrious guest, the pig was trussed up in breeches, a waistcoat and ‘white gloves’, before being garrotted by the ‘master of high works’.
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Vol. 35 No. 24 · 19 December 2013
The stories of Europe’s animal trials are ever worth retelling, but missing from Edward Payson Evans’s compendium of criminal prosecutions against both animals and objects is perhaps the strangest case of all, and the only case I know of from Great Britain: the trial for murder of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which took place in the Welsh village of Hawarden in the year 946 (LRB, 5 December). According to a Saxon manuscript, the story goes that the statue, in the rood loft of the church, fell on the head of the Lady of the Castle when she was at prayer and killed her. It was arrested, charged with murder, brought before a jury, convicted and condemned to death. However, seeing as it was the Virgin, the villagers decided not to hang her but instead to lay her on the shores of the River Dee ‘from whence they might see what became of her, which was accordingly done; soon after which, the tide of the sea came and carried the said image to some low land … where it was found the next day, drowned and dead.’ Despite their circumspection, the villagers of Hawarden earned themselves the title of the ‘Hawarden Jews’, which remained with them into the 18th century.
Vol. 36 No. 1 · 9 January 2014
Michael Grayshott writes that ‘diminished responsibility’ is a ‘partial defence to murder based on the medically hard to define “abnormality of mental functioning”’ (LRB, 5 December 2013). The term ‘mental functioning’, newly and inadvertently coined by Grayshott, would at least be comprehensible. The wording of the Homicide Act (1957), which covers ‘diminished responsibility’ (a phrase that occurs in the contents in a marginal note to the legislation) is far more confused than that. The relevant part of the act actually reads: ‘Where a person kills … he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind … as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts.’
There have been many criticisms of this phraseology. How do we define an ‘abnormality of mind’? We don’t: it is not a medical or psychiatric term. The jury ultimately decides case by case. What threshold is implied by that use of ‘substantially’? Worst of all, does ‘mental responsibility’ refer to any entity we understand, other than just plain ‘responsibility’? Also, the act is peculiar in criminal law since ‘diminished responsibility’ must be proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’ (as in civil proceedings) rather than, as is generally the case in criminal proceedings, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It is intriguing that although the wording has the ring of something created by committee, the act has resisted revision for more than fifty years.
University of Sheffield
The story of the ‘pig of Falaise,’ formally tried and executed in the late 14th century for the supposed murder of a child, recounted by Michael Grayshott, is an excellent one. Alas, like so many good historical stories, it is also largely and perhaps entirely fictional, as the historian Paul Friedland recently demonstrated in Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France. The sole written source is a book published in 1764, which printed a terse receipt, allegedly from 1386, in which a hangman received payment for executing a pig that had killed a three-month-old child. All the embellishments in Edward Payson Evans’s account – the formal trial and conviction, the crowds, the pig’s costume and so forth – appear to be later, Romantic inventions.
David A. Bell
Princeton, New Jersey
Vol. 36 No. 2 · 23 January 2014
Christopher Cordess’s criticism of the definition of ‘diminished responsibility’ (the partial defence to murder) in the Homicide Act 1957 – in particular, its use of the pseudo-medical term ‘abnormality of mind’ – is well taken (Letters, 9 January). He does however give me too much credit in claiming that I have inadvertently coined a workable alternative. My reference to ‘abnormality of mental functioning’ is actually taken from section 52 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which repealed and replaced the 1957 definition. Crucially, it is now necessary to show that the ‘abnormality’ arose from a ‘recognised medical condition’. Of course, this is the sort of ‘clarification’ that lawyers pray for (it will not have escaped their attention that the World Health Organisation recognises ‘suspiciousness’ and ‘anger’, for example, as being two such conditions), but it does at least attempt to corral the defence into territory that would not leave the modern medical practitioner entirely bewildered.
Nicholas Humphrey’s amusing story of the trial of the Virgin Mary in Hawarden in 946 AD is, sadly, just a story, not history (Letters, 19 December 2013). For there to be a ‘Lady of the Castle’ in Hawarden, there must be a castle. But no castle is known anywhere in the British Isles in 946 or for a century later. A handful of castles were built by Edward the Confessor’s Norman favourites during his reign (1042-66), but the main era of castle-building in England began after the Norman Conquest in 1066. About five hundred castles had been built by 1100, though the evidence is either archaeological or from later documents: fewer than fifty are recorded in the Domesday Book (1086).
University of Bristol