The Trial Of The Autun Rats

Grace Higgins | July 11th, 2019

In 1508 in France, a very strange trial took place. In a quiet farming town of Autun, around 300 kilometers south of Paris, there was a constant sound of scurrying little feet. Indeed Autun had a major rats problem, they were everywhere and destroying many of the local crops. It was a major problem, but not one that the medieval law could not handle, or so they thought.

Crops were of course been eating and stolen by the furry little black beasts, committing crimes in ever-increasing numbers and generally being an extreme nuisance for the town. And the locals along with the religious priests were increasingly starting to believe that rats were mini incarnations of the devil.

Rats were thought to be animated by the devil and as a result, they were sparking a particular interest by the religious law-makers of Autun. In fact, one pope by the name of Leo XIII even published a formula on exorcism of animals. Not to mention that the Bishop of Lausanne even took the official stance of cursing the creatures, he excommunicated rats from the church. A new word was even invented: zoolatry. This was a way to persecute anyone who worshipped animals.

All this did have the consequence of causing society to chase down these animals with the intention of burning or burying them alive. So in 1508, Autun decided enough was enough and attempted a new approach by issuing a citation to the rats to appear before the courts of law. The local vicar charged the rats with eating and destroying the barley crops of the local farmers.

It seemed like a simple open and close case, but not for a local lawyer who liked to work pro bono at the time, by the name of Barthelemy de Chasseneuz. On the first day of the trial when the rats did not appear, Chassenez pointed out to the courts that the summons was not legitime due to the fact that his clients were not packed animals and they needed to summon them individually. So the courts put out summons across all of the local churches in the regions at feet level so the rats would be able to see them!

And this is when Chasseneuz made an amazing argument: it was unsafe for his clients to attend the Autun courtroom. You see the way was littered with cats, dogs, and hostile people. Any change of venue was pointless because his clients would be faced with the same perils all across the world. No documentation of the outcome was ever found, but legal historians all agree that the rats were probably acquitted.

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