Ok, so when did putting animals on trial make sense?
These “vermin trials” as they were called, were a thing, in parts of Germany, France, and Switzerland, during the fifteenth through the seventeenth century.
The premise is simple:
Insects eatyour crops? Press charges.
- Mice in your house? Sue him.
Rats overtakeyour barn? Well, it’s time for a jury trial.
And this was not all preamble. I mean, they legit had jury trials with animals. Court summons and publicly read
Sounds crazy right? It turns out, it wasn’t.
In the same
It turns out, that all this was about church tithing. Yes. You read that right.
A Christian sect called the “Vaudois” surfaced around this time and in refusing the church’s authority also refused to pay their official tithe.
These animal trials allowed the church to both show off their ability to level “supernatural sanctions” and encourage tithing.
It turns out that the verdicts did just that.
“Animals you are banished! And to prevent this in the future, pay your tithe!”
If you are wondering how a court can sanction and banish animals effectively you are not alone, but again, there is an easy answer:
What if the court/church simply prolonged the trial until winter where it all took care of itself naturally?
And guess what happened when the Vaudois were finally allowed to practice their religion as they saw fit?
Yep. Vermin trials faded away too.
What a crazy world we live in.
Vermin trials don’t reflect economic turmoil or Renaissance backsliding. They reflect an ecclesiastic response to a Renaissance-era threat to citizens’ belief in the supernatural sanctions supporting tithe compliance. You’ve already seen how, by institutionalizing superstition, seemingly senseless practices—from ordeals to oracles—can incentivize desired, and often socially desirable, behavior. Now you can add vermin trials to that list. You’ve also seen how seemingly senseless institutions that leverage supernatural sanctions—from
Romaniyato monastic maledictions—can be used for that purpose. So it goes with vermin trials too. But vermin trials are also unique: they demonstrate how seemingly senseless institutions can be used to create additional belief in supernatural sanctions so that those sanctions work better. Seeming senselessness on top of seeming senselessness = pretty damn sensible.
-Peter Leeson, WTF?! An Economic Tour Of The Weird
Also published on Medium.