Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
University of Groningen Library
University of Groningen Library Open access
Header image Open Science Blog

Open Access Publication in the Spotlight - 'Casting Justice Before Swine: Late Mediaeval Pig Trials as Instances of Human Exceptionalism'

Date:23 October 2023
Author:Open Access Team
Open access publication in the spotlight: October 2023
Open access publication in the spotlight: October 2023

Each month, the open access team of the University of Groningen Library (UB) puts a recent open access article by UG authors in the spotlight. This publication is highlighted via social media and the library’s newsletter and website.

The article in the spotlight for the month of October 2023 is titled Casting Justice Before Swine: Late Mediaeval Pig Trials as Instances of Human Exceptionalism, written by Sven Gins (PhD student at the Faculty of Religion, Culture and Society).


In recent years, several cases about the legal personhood of nonhuman animals garnered global attention, e.g. the recognition of ‘basic rights’ for the Argentinian great apes Sandra and Cecilia. Legal scholars have embraced the animal turn, blurring the once sovereign boundaries between persons and objects, recognising nonhuman beings as legal subjects. The zoonotic origins of the Covid-19 pandemic stress the urgency of establishing ‘global animal law’ and deconstructing anthropocentrism. To this end, it is vital to also consider the extensive premodern legal history that humans share with other animals. Over 200 so-called animal trials have been documented in premodern Europe. In these proceedings, certain nonhuman animals—particularly domestic pigs—were prosecuted, often resulting in their capital punishment or anathema. This paper takes a history of ideas approach to these historical instances where Western philosophy of law and philosophical anthropology intersect, problematising the notion that such trials constitute wholesome precedents of the kind of legal personhood presently debated in jurisprudence. My counter-hegemonic analysis of the legal prosecution and execution of several pigs in fifteenth-century France demonstrates that late mediaeval notions of criminality transcended the alleged human-nonhuman divide whilst reaffirming and reifying human distinctiveness. I propose that pig trials were local laboratories where Christian communities reflected upon the natural hierarchy of God’s creation. Ensuing the apparent breach of the prescribed boundaries of nature, these communities renegotiated and re-naturalised everyday interspecies sociability by utilising the offending animals to exemplify particular norms about what it means to be human, generally to the animals’ detriment.

We asked author Sven Gins a few questions about the article:

You do a lot of public outreach, talking about your research to the general public (for example in newspaper interviews, and recently in a lecture for Studium Generale ). Why do you do this?

Creating opportunities to involve others, including the general public, in our research is paramount. It shows the world what kind of research we are doing, stimulates us to critically assess the relevance of our work outside the ‘ivory tower,’ and it opens up the research itself to other voices and viewpoints. Talking with people at public events and reporters has also been very helpful for me. Their questions and comments often draw my attention to surprising aspects of the research that I had not yet considered. 

I sometimes joke that mediaevalists are an endangered species because the Middle Ages (the ‘Dark Ages’) are seemingly very distant from modernity. In terms of centuries, that is true. But the questions and issues we are dealing with now are not quite as novel as we might like to think. Through public outreach, I aim to show that the Middle Ages, in their own and often surprising ways, have not lost their relevance. Like us, mediaeval people lived alongside many other animals, including ‘robotic animals’ of their own making. When other animals harmed humans, like when a pig attacked and ate from a child, a wolf killed someone’s sheep, or when snails ravaged the fields that people lived from, they used a court setting to negotiate reasonable ways to move forward as a community. The way we live now did not come out of nowhere; it is rooted in our premodern heritage. At the same time, the mediaeval world was also quite different from ours in many ways. It therefore helps to explain some of the things that we are dealing with now, but also to imagine the existence of different worlds. I hope my activities thus encourage people, in- and outside academia, to realise that we are not condemned to our current world: all of us can choose to play a small part in building a more sustainable one. 

Recently a bear attacked and killed a jogger in Trentino, Italy. This was the first ever fatal bear attack in modern Italy. The bear was captured and its fate was at the center of a long controversy, with authorities asking for the animal to be put down and animal rights groups advocating for it to be spared. What’s your view on this case? How does your research on medieval animal trials inform similar cases?

In cases like the Trentino one, diverse factors and motivations are at play. To name just some: the EU aims to protect biodiversity, for instance by restoring the bear population in Trentino. This requires adjustments: certain areas are no longer safe for humans to jog or hike in. From what I gather, the local authorities have long been displeased with the EU’s ‘meddling’ in ‘their’ locality, and the killing of the jogger brings this tension acutely to the fore. Seeking to restore order, reassure their community that their leadership can keep them safe, and send a clear message that they remain in control of Trentino, the authorities therefore attempted to capture and kill the ursine ‘culprit’. Animal rights groups sought to stop this, and in my estimation they were right to do so, as this ‘witch-hunt’ did not seem to be about the bear as much as it was about the symbolism of killing a bear (I recall that initially they were all too happy to kill a bear they had captured, even though it was not the bear that killed the jogger). 

There are parallels here with how mediaeval authorities responded to similar killings. They too had a vested interest in proving that they were in control of their environment. As was the case with the post-mediaeval persecution of witchcraft, small towns and villages were most zealous in ‘seeing justice done’ to nonhuman animals. It is also no coincidence that most of these trials took place in Burgundy: the dukes of Burgundy had a penchant for (legal) spectacle. Like in Trentino, mediaeval animal trials could also de-escalate the situation, forcing people to slow down instead of simply retaliating against the animal. Authorities who executed an animal without approval of the dukes or their legal advisors were themselves punished when the dukes found out. The trials also furnished an opportunity to bring all witnesses together, consider the evidence, and determine what precisely had happened, which gave the victim’s relatives some clarity and closure. The main difference with now, however, is that mediaeval courts usually ruled that the animal culprit had to be executed or banished. They had no reason to worry about biodiversity and planetary extinction (as we do now) because they believed that Nature constantly forged new animals of every species. They were also not very concerned with the idea of animal welfare (beyond what the Bible ordained). From a historical point of view, meaningful concern for other animals is a fairly ‘recent’ development, and one that still has a ways to go. 

What is the most remarkable mediaeval animal trial that you encountered in your research?

Most of them are quite bizarre at first sight, and the strangest ones are post-mediaeval (banishments of dolphins and beetles, a donkey pardoned because the parish wrote a statement about the donkey’s good behaviour, etc.). My ‘favourite’ mediaeval one is currently a case involving snails in the city of Autun, in 1488. Desperate townsfolk asked their bishop for help against a host of snails that ravaged their crops. The bishop then wrote an extensive letter with advice on how to ritually banish the snails. The townsfolk had to organise a procession with banners, holy water, and candles, invoke all the saints, and “warn and adjure the said snails . . . that they should desist within three days’ time . . . and transfer themselves to deserted places'' where they would no longer harm other creatures or plants. If they disobeyed this warning, God’s wrath would eternally follow them. In 1500, there was another snail case, this time in Lyon. Perhaps Autun’s cheeky snails simply relocated to Lyon?

Could you reflect on your experiences with open access and open science in general?

I strive to make all my publications, including those for popular and professional journals, publicly accessible. In my estimation, publishers have monopolised the terms of access to academic research for too long, copyrighting, closing off, and then cashing in on research that is often dependent on public input (e.g. survey responses) and funds. When you think about it, it is rather strange that so much academic prestige depends on these commercial entities whose concern is ultimately not so much the research itself as it is the revenue they can derive from it. There is a dark irony to the fact that all of us are working on advancing the limits of knowledge, only for arbitrary financial limits to then be imposed by the instances publishing this work. It is telling, too, that academic editors and peer reviewers, who work so hard on helping to refine and polish research results for publication, are rarely – if at all - rewarded for their efforts. 

I look forward to the day when open access, and open science more generally, is simply a given and not an objective. In my courses, I strive to work exclusively with open access material. Sadly, much research in my field is still paywalled, so this is not always possible. At the moment, article processing charges and concerns about the academic quality or prestige of affordable open access journals are still prohibitive for many. I think everyone, within ánd outside academia, ought to be able to see the research we are doing: it is a form of accountability for us as scholars (none of us operate in a vacuum and our research can mean something to the world) as well as an invitation for others to pick up the torch. To that end, I have recently started developing Monstrum, an educational board game about my research, in partnership with heritage institutions and schools. While I have an idea about the kind of game I’d like to make, it will no doubt evolve and gain in richness because of these other voices, and I think that’s a very exciting prospect.

Useful links:

Sven Gins’ personal website.


Gins, S. Casting Justice Before Swine: Late Mediaeval Pig Trials as Instances of Human Exceptionalism. SOPHIA (2023). 

If you would like us to highlight your open access publication here, please get in touch with us.

About the author

Open Access Team
The Open Access team of the University of Groningen Library

Link: /openaccess