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The Past and Present Society

Law, Folklore and Animal Lore
Author(s): Esther Cohen
Source: Past & Present, No. 110 (Feb., 1986), pp. 6-37
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society
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LAW, FOLKLORE AND ANIMAL
LORE*
In the Middle Ages . . . law was the pointwherelifeand logic met.1
... it is impossibleto disentanglewhatthepeopleofthepastthoughtaboutplants
and animalsfromwhattheythoughtabout themselves.2

LEGAL PRACTICE AS A CULTURAL MANIFESTATION

The practiceof law among westernEuropean people in the later
middleages and the earlymodernperiodhas long been the subject
scholarshave concentrated
ofresearch.Traditionally
theirenquiries
directions:the historyof learnedjurisprumainlyin two different
dence and theinstitutional
developmentsresultingfromthegrowth
ofroyallegislation.3
Anthropologists
enquiringintothelegalarrangementsofothersocietieshave posed different
questions.Whilemany
oftheirconclusionsare based on specificcase studies,in theattempt
and comparative
tools
to evolvecertaincross-cultural
methodological
theyhave consideredseveral problemsof universalvalidity,and
be applied to the
the resultantconclusionscould, mutatismutandis,
evolutionof European legal practicein thepast.4
In the firstplace, they have attemptedto reach a universally
* An earlierversionof this
paper was deliveredat the Annual Conferenceof the
AssociationforMedievaland RenaissanceStudiesofIsrael(June1983). I am grateful
to ProfessorYaakov Blidstein,Dr. Eli Yassifand Mr. David Cohen fortheirsuggestions,and to ProfessorMiriam Yardeni and Dr. Amnon Linder forreadingand
commenting
upon an earlierdraftof thispaper.
1 F. W. Maitland,Collected
Papers,ed. H. A. L. Fisher,3 vols. (Cambridge,1911),
iii,p. xxxvii.
2 Keith
Thomas, Man and theNaturalWorld(New York, 1983), p. 16.
3 For the intellectual
historyof medieval law, see among othersthe works of
HermannKantorowiczand WalterUllmann;mostoftheworkon law and governance
has been done in thecontextof Englishcommonlaw. See, forexample,BryceLyon,
and LegalHistoryofMedievalEngland(New York, 1960). For France,
A Constitutional
au moyen
see FerdinandLot and RobertFawtier,Histoiredesinstitutions
francaises
age,
3 vols. (Paris, 1957-62),ii, pp. 289-506.
4 For a summaryand a reviewof the different
trendsin legal anthropology,
past
and present,see SallyF. Moore,Law as Process:AnAnthropological
(London,
Approach
withinthehistorical
1978), pp. 214-56. For a recentapplicationoflegalanthropology
contextof civillitigation,see theessaysin JohnBossy(ed.), Disputesand Settlements:
Law and HumanRelationsin theWest(Cambridge,1983).

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LAW, FOLKLORE

AND ANIMAL LORE

7

oflaw.5This was a necessarystepin theprocess
definition
functional
law fromcustom,a problemthathas also occupied
ofdistinguishing
historiansof European law. One such distinctionis that custom
embodied social norms,while law had to pass througha process
beforereachingcoercive,posited
of "double institutionalization"
bestatus.6While legal historianshave alwaysclearlydistinguished
tweencustomand law, theiremphasiswas usuallyon originrather
thanon institutionalization.
Societymaycreatecustom,butlegislation
was the ruler'sprovince.7
This dichotomyoflaw and customis problematic
in thecontextof
actual continentalmedieval justice.8Side by side with legislation
therewas a continuousdynamicprocessof legal practice.Though
thestudyofcourtrecordsindependently
fromlaw-codesand jurisprudentialliteratureis stillin its earlystages,one factis beginningto
dictatedby
emerge.The practiceofmedievallaw was notnecessarily
its prescriptions.This phenomenonhas been observed in other
who concludedthatan absolute
societiesby some anthropologists
and
between
or betweenthe
social structure",
ideology
"congruence
theoretical
formoflaw envisagedby legislatorsand therealityofthe
court-housewas a myth.9In factno medievalrulerpossessed an
5 This
attempthas produced a wide varietyof definitions,
rangingfromMalinowski's,emphasizingtherole of mutualsocial obligations,to Bohannan's,stressing
theauthoritarian
and coercivecharacterof law: B. Malinowski,Crimeand Customin
Savage Society(London, 1926); Paul Bohannan,"The DifferingRealms of Law",
lxvii(1965, specialissue), pp. 33-42. PerhapsthemostencomAmer.Anthropologist,
is theone proposedby Leopold Pospisil,whosaw law as possessing
passingdefinition
fournecessaryattributes:
intention
ofuniversalapplication,[mutual]obligaauthority,
tionand sanction:L. Pospisil,Kapauku Papuans and theirLaw (New Haven, 1958),
of Law: A ComparativeTheory(New York,
pp. 257-72; L. Pospisil, Anthropology
bearsa startling
resemblanceto theone propounded
1971),pp. 39-96.This definition
by Thomas Aquinas: "an ordinanceof reason,forthe commongood, made by him
who has the care of the community,and promulgated":Summatheologiae
(Rome,
1886), 1stpt. of the 2nd pt., q. 90, art. 3.
6 The termis Bohannan's: "The
DifferingRealms of Law", pp. 34-7; but most
modernauthorities,in a reactionto Malinowski'sapproach,have insistedupon the
coercivecharacterof law. For a present-day
assessmentofMalinowski's
institutional,
importance,see IrvingL. Horowitz,"Crime, Customand Culture:Remarkson the
FunctionalistTheoryof BronislawMalinowski",Internat.
Sociol., iii
Jl. Comparative
(1962), pp. 229-44.
7 This
opinion has prevailedin westernculturefromthe Bible and Aristotleto
Thomas Hobbes.
8 I have deliberately
excludedfromthe discussionthedevelopmentof the system
of Englishcommonlaw, whichis an entirelydifferent
process.
9 See Moore, Law as Process,p. 69, discussing
Chagga society:"... although
of applicationis oftenused as one ofthebasic elementsin anydefinition
universality
oflaw, universality
is oftena myth.Most rulesoflaw . . . affect
onlya limitedcategory
ofpersonsin a limitednumberofsituations".For theanalysisofthetensionbetween
ideologyand social structure,see ibid., pp. 33-42.

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8

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 110

absolutepower to enforcelegislationin everycourtof the realm.
Moreoverthe existenceof inviolabletraditionscircumscribedthe
veryabilityto legislate.A rulercould attempteitherto enforceor to
ignorethem,but he was almostneverable legallyto abrogatethe
existentbody of usage.
Those traditions,incorporatedinto medievalcustomarycodes,
held a positionpeculiarto European society.Unlike manyhuman
medievalEuropewas not
groupingsstudiedbylegalanthropologists,
an illiteratesociety.It was composedof a smallbut ever-increasing
literateelementand a largebut decreasingilliteratesegment.For a
longtimetheprivilegeofstatingthelaw in practicaltermswas within
theprovinceofa largelynon-literate
element.10The forceofcustom
intothewritten
was suchthatitwas eventually
tradition,
incorporated
oftenachievingby theend ofthemiddleages thefullforceofposited
law. At thatpointthe distinctionbetweenlaw and custombecame
formalratherthan functional,even the most ardentsupportersof
thelegalvalidityofcustom."
Romanand monarchiclaw recognizing
and
ofthelaw, anthropolothe
definition
circumscription
Beyond
have
insisted
each
uponexamining
gists
usually
legalsystemwithinits
In
socio-cultural
context.12
different
societies
legalprocesses
specific
could servenot onlyto preserveorderand justice,but also to settle
scores, safeguardhierarchicalstructures,
providea settingforthe
of
and
societal
consolidation
values,legalor otherwise,and a
testing
for
ritual
drama
that
reinforced
While
stage
society'sself-image.13
theexactoriginsofEuropeanlegalcustomsarestillan openquestion,
thereis no doubtthattheywerefirmly
anchoredin specificcultural
and social contextsand fulfilled
certainsocietallyspecificfunctions
in consequence. These customsand theirpracticalapplicationin
10In France thisprivilegewas maintaineduntilthe end of themiddleages in the
formof the enquetepar turbe,whichdeterminedthe exactlocal customof any given
of theevidenceofat leasttenturbiers.
See H. Pissard,Essai sur
place on the strength
et la preuvedes coutumes
la connaissance
(Paris, 1910), pp. 98-112.
11 WalterUllmann, The MedievalIdea of Law as Represented
byLucas de Penna
(London, 1946), pp. 62-70; WalterUllmann,"Bartoluson CustomaryLaw", in D.
Studi e documenti
(Milan,
Segoloni(ed.), Bartoloda Sassoferrato:
per il VI centenario
in theMiddleAges(London, 1980).
1961), pp. 49-73, repr. in his Jurisprudence
12 "We musthave a look at societyand cultureat largein orderto findtheplace of
law withinthe total structure":E. Adamson Hoebel, The Law of PrimitiveMan
(Cambridge,Mass., 1954), p. 5. See also Laura Nader (ed.), Law in Cultureand
Society(Chicago, 1969), pp. 8-9.
13 Laura Nader, "The Anthropological
Ixvii
Studyof Law", Amer.Anthropologist,
(1965, special issue), pp. 19-20. For an analysisof a medievalexecutionalong those
Castile",
lines, see Angus MacKay, "Ritual and Propagandain Fifteenth-Century
Past and Present,no. 107 (May 1985), pp. 3-43.

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LAW, FOLKLORE

AND ANIMAL LORE

9

be understoodas emanationsand manifestations
courtmusttherefore
theirfunctions
cannot
ofcertainculturalenvironments.
Furthermore,
be explainedexclusivelyin termsof peace-keepingor disputesettlement.Medieval societycould use its courtsfora multitudeof purposes, manyof thembeyondthe purelylegal sphere.
The conceptof culturehas been so widelyand indiscriminately
itsmeaningwithintheterms
used thatitis necessaryto circumscribe
of thispaper. While legal processesmay have sprungfromcertain
thatformpartofthegeneralexpression
beliefs,ritualsand perceptions
of spiritcommonlytermedculture,those processesin themselves
notonlyin so faras they
consistequallyof a culturalmanifestation,
but also because they
stem froma specificculturalenvironment,
contributeto the formationof the same environment.As a rule
historianshave posited a dichotomybetweenlearnedand popular
elementsofculture.14 It is impossibleto applythisdistinction
to the
realmofEuropeanlaw. Like otherliteratesocieties,Europepossessed
oflegallevels,bothin therealmsoftheory
a remarkablemultiplicity
and of practice.15Learned Roman glosses,royallegislation,canon
law, customalsand urban statutesexistedside by side, each one
createdand affectedby a different
social group and expressinga
different
facetofcontemporary
culture,butconstantly
interpenetratand
each
other.16
Bothciviland criminaljusticewere
ing
influencing
administeredby royal,feudal,seigneurial,urban and ecclesiastical
courts.Judicialculture,therefore,
was hardlya monolithic
manifestaof the Bologna professor,the town
tion. It containedthe consilium
magistrate'ssentenceand the peasant's evidence. It could not be
classifiedas eitherpopularor learned,itsveryscope makingpossible
of thosewidelydivergentelements.
the incorporation
This considerablecomplexity
is hardlyamenabletoanygeneralized
typology.In one realm,however,the historianhas the advantage
over the anthropologist:
he or she can followthe evolutionof legal
practiceover a long period of time. The "processualcharacterof
to historians.
law", as Moore calls it,17has long been self-evident
Law is made and re-madethroughconstantpractice,and any static
descriptionof a dynamicphenomenonmust necessarilybe faulty.
14
deselites(Paris,
See, forexample,RobertMuchembled,Culture
populaireetculture
1978).
15
Pospisil,Anthropology
ofLaw, pp. 97-126.
16
Crimein the Renaissance:
See, for example, John H. Langbein, Prosecuting
France(Cambridge,Mass., 1974), tracingthedevelopmentofthe
England,Germany,
inquisitorialprocedurein canon and civil law.
17
Moore, Law as Process,pp. 42-8.

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10

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 110

Giventheexistentknowledgeofpastlegaland institutional
developmentsand of the evolvingrelationshipbetweenelite and popular
culturalexpressions,it is possibleto attempta long-term
interpretation. One such practice,the criminalprosecutionand executionof
animals, may illustratethe interactionof variouslegal levels and
culturalinfluences.These trials,documentedin Europeanlegalhisto theeighteenth
century,occupyan intertoryfromthethirteenth
mediatepositionbetweenpopularand elitelegalculture.On theone
not judicial folklore:the sentenceswere
hand, theywere definitely
and
executed
in
passed
properlyconstitutedcourtsof law by fully
accordingto generallyacceptedlaws. On the
qualifiedmagistrates,
otherhand, thereis no questionthattheywere an integralpartof
law and owedtheircontinuedexistencepartially
topopular
customary
illustrates
thecontinualintertraditions
and influences.Theirhistory
actionbetweenpopularand learnedelementsin the sphereof legal
serve
practice.At thesame time,theirvariousstagesofdevelopment
as evidenceof theprocessualand dynamiccharacterofwesternlaw.
Following the phenomenonthroughthe warp and woof of legal
and fromcustomalsto the
history,fromcourt-houseto university
gallowsacrosscenturiesof changingperceptionsof nature,law and
ofcontinental
justice,one mightattemptan interpretation
European
law as practisedwithinits specificculturalcontext.
MORPHOLOGY

SeveralEuropeanlegallevelswereinvolvedin trialsofanimals.They
wereheld beforeroyal,urban,seigneurialand ecclesiasticalcourts.
Nevertheless,
theyfollowedonlytwodistinctprocedures,secularand
ecclesiastical.While the formertypewas used to penalizedomestic
beasts that had mortallyinjured a human being, the latterwas
employedto rid the populationof naturalpeststhatcould notindividuallybe punished.The two typeswere clearlydistinctin form
and development,and therefore
requireseparatedescription.
In December 1457 thesow of JehanBaillyof Savignyand hersix
JehanMartin.
pigletswerecaughtin theactofkillingthefive-year-old
All seven pigs were imprisonedformurderand broughtto triala
monthlater beforethe seigneurialjustice of Savigny.Besides the
judge, the protocolrecordedthe presenceat the trialof one lawyer
(functionunspecified),twoprosecutors(one of thema lawyerand a
councillorof theduke ofBurgundy),eightwitnessesbyname,"and
severalotherwitnessessummonedand requestedforthis cause".

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LAW, FOLKLORE AND ANIMAL LORE

11

Though the ownerwas formallythe defendant,it is clear fromthe
proceedingsthathe stoodaccused onlyof negligenceand was in no
dangerof any personalpunishment.Moreoverhe was allowed to
arguein court"concerningthe punishmentand just executionthat
should be inflictedupon the said sow", ifhe could give any reason
whythesow shouldbe spared.The ownerhavingwaivedthisright,
theprosecutorrequesteda deathsentence.The judge,havingheard
all therelevanttestimony
and consultedwithwisemenknowledgeable
in local law, ruled, accordingto the customof Burgundy,thatthe
sow should be forfeitto the justiceof Savignyforthe purpose of
hangingby her hind legs on a suitabletree.The pigletscreateda
moredifficult
problemas therewas no proofthattheyhad actually
bittenthe child, thoughtheywere foundbloodstained.They were
therefore
remandedto thecustodyoftheirowner,who was required
tovouchfortheirfuturebehaviourand producethemfortrial,should
new evidencecome to light.When thelatterrefusedto give such a
to thelocal lord'sjustice,
guarantee,thepigletsweredeclaredforfeit
no
suffered
further
punishment.The court brought
thoughthey
fromChalon-sur-Saonea professional
hangmanwho carriedout the
executionaccordingto the judge's specificinstructions.18
The case ofthesow of Savignyis typicalin manyrespectsofmost
secularanimaltrials.In thefirstplace, it was held in Burgundy,one
of the earliestareas to recordsuch cases. Animal trialswere first
mentionedduringthe thirteenth
centuryin northernand eastern
whence
to
the
Low Countries,to Germanyand
France,
theyspread
to Italy.The defendant'sporcinenaturealso recurredin a greatmany
trials. Pigs, who seem to have accountedforthe deaths of many
unattendedinfants,were the most commonculprits,but thereare
also recordsof homicidaloxen, cows, horsesand dogs. Most of all,
the trialis typicalin its painstakinginsistenceupon theobservance
of legal customand properjudicial procedure.This was neithera
vindictive
ofa dangerousbeast.Other
lynchingnortheextermination
recordsmention,in additionto pre-trial
thegranting
imprisonment,
of remissionsto wronglyaccused beasts,the burningin effigy
of a
"contumacious"animal,and thepublicdisplayofan executedcow's
18 The fulltextof the trialhas been
publishedby J. Berriat-Saint-Prix,
"Rapport
et recherchessurles proceset jugementsrelatifsaux animaux",Memoires
de la Societe
royaledes antiquairesde France, viii (1829), pp. 441-5; by Edward P. Evans, The
and Capital Punishment
CriminalProsecution
ofAnimals(London, 1906), pp. 346-53;
and by Hans A. Berkenhoff,
und rechtsrituelle
im
Tierstrafe,
Tierbannung
Tiertotung
Mittelalter
(Strasbourg,1937), pp. 120-3.

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12

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 110

head.19While the upside-downhangingof animalswas peculiarto
Burgundian custom,20 elsewhere differenttypes of execution pre-

vailed. Some of themcloselyparalleledthehumanprecedentwhile
othersprescribeda peculiarly"animal" formofdeath.Thus in some
while
places animalsweredraggedand hunglikehumanmurderers,
in othersthe authoritiesresortedto stranglingor a knock on the
head.21The use of a treeinsteadof the "human" gallowswas also
occasionallyapparent,thougheventhena properhangmanperformed
thejob. Wherethehangman'sbillsare extant,theycloselyresemble
thosepresentedforthe executionof humans.22
The historyofecclesiasticaltrialsis less clear-cut.The motifofthe
thedominionofGod's law overnatureby
holyman who exemplifies
obnoxious
recursthroughout
creatures
medievalhagiogracursing
19For imprisonment
ofa sow in Meulan (1403), ofpigsin Laon (1494) and MoyenMoutier(1572), and of a dog in Leyden(1595), see Evans, CriminalProsecution,
pp.
338, 355; Berkenhoff,
Tierstrafe,
pp. 124, 129. For a remissiongrantedbyDuke Philip
of Burgundyto pigs in Saint-Marcel-les-Jussey
(1379), see Berkenhoff,
Tierstrafe,
p.
119. For burningin effigy,see Registrecriminelde la justicede Saint-Martin-desChamps,ed. Louis Tanon (Paris, 1877), pp. 227-8.A frescoon thewall ofthechurch
of Sainte-Trinite
in Falaise, now paintedover, depictedthe executionof a sow in
humanclothing;theexecutiondid indeed takeplace in 1386, but as it antedatedthe
frescoby some fiftyyears, the picturecannot be taken as evidence: Berkenhoff,
Tierstrafe,
pp. 16, 118. For a displayof a cow's head in Ghent(1578), see ibid., pp.
30-1. This anthropomorphic
attitudewas expressedalso in the language of the
sentences:one statedthata pig had "committedand perpetrated. . . murderand
homicide": ibid., p. 120; anotherpig had "killed and murdered"a child: Evans,
CriminalProsecution,
p. 336. A thirdhad shown"crueltyand ferocity"by killinga
humanbeing: ibid., p. 357.
20 Coustumes
et stillesde Bourgoigne
(1270-1360),art. 197: "L'on dit et tientselon
droitet la coustumede Bourgoigneque se un boeufou un cheuaufaitun ou pluseurs
homicidesil nan doiuentpoinctmorir,ne Ion nendoitfairejustice,feurquilz doiuent
estrepris par le seigneuren qui justiceilz on faitle delitou par ses gens,et lui sont
du dit seigneur;mes se
confisquezet doiuentestrevendus et exploictiezau prouffit
autresbestesou juyfle font,ilz doiuentestrependus par les piez derreniers"("It is
statedaccordingto the law and customof Burgundythatifan ox or a horsecommit
one or morehomicides,theyshouldnot die, norshould theybe triedand executed.
Rather, they should be impounded by the lord in whose jurisdictionthey had
committedthe crime,or by his men, to be confiscatedand sold forthe said lord's
profit.But ifanotheranimalor a Jewdo it, theyshouldbe hungby theirrearlegs"):
du droitfrancais
au moyendge,2 vols. (Paris,
quoted by C. Giraud,Essai surI'histoire
1846), ii, p. 302. While thistypeof executionwas applied to Jewsall over Europe,
its use foranimalsis peculiarto Burgundy.
21 For
"non-human"typesof execution,see Berkenhoff,
Tierstrafe,
pp. 24-40.
22
For billspresentedupontheexecutionofanimals,see Evans,Criminal
Prosecution,
and feescloselyresemTierstrafe,
pp. 118-19.The itemization
pp. 336-9; Berkenhoff,
bled thoseappearingin billsforhumanexecutions.Cf. CharlesDesmaze, Lespenalites
anciennes:Supplices,prisonset griceen Franced'apresdes textesinedits(Paris, 1866),
pp. 91-2; BibliothequeNationale,Paris, MS. fr. 7645, "Peines et supplicesde la
siecles".
justicecriminelleen France au cinq derniers

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LAW, FOLKLORE

AND ANIMAL LORE

13

phy,butactualrecordsofformaltrialshardlyexistbeforethefifteenth
century.As in thecase ofseculartrials,thephenomenonhad a clearly
discerniblegeographicepicentre.All the earlytrialstook place in
Switzerlandand the borderingareas: Savoy,the Dauphine and the
Italian Alps. Subsequentlythe practicespread much fartherthan
networkof
secular trialsever did, relyingupon the international
ecclesiasticaljurisdiction.In the followingcenturiesecclesiastical
animaltrialswere held not onlyin France,Germanyand Italy,but
also in Scandinavia,Spain, Canada and Brazil.23
in procedureas littleas possiblefromhuman
These cases differed
trials.Thoughconsideredcriminal,theywereinitiatedbyaccusatory
procedure,wherebythe people of the affecteddiocese sued their
naturalscourgesbeforethe episcopal court. Prior to holdingany
proceedings,bishopsusuallyinsisteduponpublicpenitence,almsgivingand thepaymentofdue tithesas thebestremediesforanynatural
heaven-sentscourge.24Subsequentlythe court,viewinginsensate
creaturesas theequivalentofvulnerableminors,appointedan advocateforthedefence.Thus, whenin 1587thesyndicsofthecommune
ofSaint-Julien-de-Maurienne
sued thefliesthatweredestroying
their
official
the
a
bishop's
promptly
vineyards,
appointed lawyerat a
modestsalary,"lest theanimalsagainstwhomtheactionlies should
remaindefenceless".25
The argumentsbetweenthelawyerson bothsides,dulypresented
in writing,consideredand rebutted,covera wide rangeofissues. In
thisspecificcase theycentredaroundtwo questions:the possibility
ofexcommunication
ofanimalsby a humancourt(sincethiswas the
requested),and thesurvivalrightsofbothman
penaltytheplaintiffs
and animalin nature.Othercases raisedthe even morebasic issue
of theveryjurisdictionheld by any humanjudge overanimals,but
thispointwas invariablyresolvedin favourofthecourt,whichbeing
fromtheuniversalvalidityof canon
ecclesiasticaldrewits authority
law. The sameargumentansweredalso theproblemofexcommunicaThe Saint-Julien
tion,buttherightto survivalwas moreproblematic.
23 For a
thoroughanalysisoftheprocedure,developmentand spreadoftheecclesiund Thierprocesse",Mitteilungen
des
asticaltrials,see Karl von Amira,"Thierstrafen
Instituts
xii (1891), pp. 560-72.
osterreichischen
furGeschichtsforschung,
24 This was also theprocedurerecommended
by theSpanishtheologianAzpilcueta
to the people of Sorrentowho wished to prosecutecertainfishthatinfestedtheir
waters.Martinde Azpilcueta,Consilium
No. 52, in his Operaomnia,5 vols. (Cologne,
1616), iii, pp. 282-3.
25 ". . .ne
Animalia contraque agiturindeffensaremaneant. .". The entire
protocolof the trialwas publishedby Leon Menabrea,De l'rigine,de la formeet de
renduscontreles animaux(Chambery,1846), appendix.
l'espritdesjugements

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