By Gaia Clark Nevola
‘Animals have feelings!’ screamed tabloid headlines on 13 May 2021, as UK law formally recognised animals as sentient beings in its new Animal Welfare Bill. That this had been standard practice right up until we left the EU was, as ever, conveniently forgotten. Woolly platitudes about treating animals with dignity peppered this year’s Queen’s speech (and to be fair, there was precious little else to pat ourselves on the back about), yet little was said about what the legislation’s definition of ‘sentient’ actually entailed, and indeed how closely the bill aligned the human and the non-human, both in law and in rights. It is a vagueness which should make us ponder the historical precedents for legislation seeking to understand animal behaviour.
In the ecclesiastical tribune of the central French village Autun, the verdict of its April 1587 trial was a disappointing one. A collective of farmers had taken a blight of fruit flies to court for munching all their apples and wrecking their local crop. The farmers wished to excommunicate the fruit flies, but in a humiliating outcome so embarrassing that it epitomised what it means to try and (failingly) understand animals as a human, the flies won.
Animal trials were not an uncommon occurrence in late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, but the legal history of the Autun case was largely unprecedented because the complaint was made against a collective of animals. Specifically, against a species that operates in such vast numbers, it is impossible to conceive of any single one as an individual perpetrator of crime. Furious at the cost incurred by the spoiled crops they had so strenuously laboured over, the townspeople nonetheless formally presented their legal complaint to the magistrate. To be excommunicated was to be barred from taking holy communion, and thereby constituted grounds to be categorised as anathema; expelled from the spiritual and material advantages of the church. In a legal system of justice inextricably entwined with the religious, trials wound up in ecclesiastical courts – a fact that meant that when the prosecuting party of the Autun case attempted to invalidate the right of the insects to use the land, they were punishing them along strictly religious, and human, lines of Christian expulsion. Though perceived as foreign agents in human land, in human courts the fruit flies were made to be accountable agents, charged with alterity and convicted according to human standards of punishment.
Looking past the trial’s sheer absurdity, the Autun fruit flies can be considered a case in which humans tested their religious principles, a place for human attempts at calibrating the ‘otherness’ of the non-human. Only superficially a trial about fruit flies, the Autun story indicates far more about the conflicting pressures put on the human and non-human: given the choice to either exist as divinely ordained entities moving freely in God’s creation or to operate within the judicial personhood of culpability, the flies were implied to be in possession of the human faculty of mind. Each fly was transfigured into an accountable stakeholder in a shared fertile land, turning the case into a profound illustration of human egocentrism toward the natural and animal world.
The defence’s argument, led by French jurist Antoine Filliol, pivoted around an interpretation of the Genesis narrative, here twisted to the point that presupposed divine creation became a gift to creatures both great and small, flies included. This ‘logic’ acts in accordance with Luther’s lectures on Genesis from the same period, lectures which renewed an emphasis on the impact of the Fall. Luther traced the lack of harmony between species back to fraught competition for space and natural resources in a postlapsarian world. The Autun flies therefore were simply participating in a flawed and non-paradisical environment where inherent and destructive rivalry existed with humans who vied after the same resources.
Just a generation later in 1632, the early Enlightenment thinker René Descartes wrote in a letter to his lifelong confidant Marin Mersenne: ‘I am now dissecting the heads of various animals, so I can explain what imagination, memory, etc. consist in’. Vivisection was an important tool with which Descartes and those around him would then formulate the notion of the bête machine (‘the beast machine’), a definition of the non-human animal which depended on the oppositional category of the inherently self-conscious human. The bête machine was marked by its inability to express thought, and, by consequence, its inability to be truly sentient. Much like the Autun defence, such rhetoric was influenced greatly by the different interpretations of the Creation Myth, a theological position corroborated by the mechanistic understanding of the human and non-human animal as generated by a rise in vivisection. The positive dictum ego cogito, ergo sum rested strongly on its negative and oppositional implication ‘you don’t think, therefore you are not’.
Reverberations of the bête machine model are still felt today, not least because its terminology is still being used. At the crux of the recent Animal Welfare Bill is the word ‘sentience’, ultimately derived from the Latin sentire (to feel). Sentire as a term was employed by Descartes’s contemporaries to oppose the act of cogitare (thinking), and this idea of the feeling but unthinking animal doubtlessly penetrates our understanding of non-human species to this day. Capitalist models of consumption drive the world further into the Anthropocene, a geological epoch driven by destructive human intervention in nature, and in some ways, this is founded on outdated theological and philosophical “knowledge”, which conceives of the non-human animal as possessing only instrumental worth. Although modern anthropology has moved firmly away from the controversial concept of the bête machine, it is from a similar model of the animal as object that non-human subjectivities remain commonly considered secondary, if not altogether void.
Animal trials still take place, even to this day. In November 2019, a large female brown bear named Katya was released after a 15-year stint in a correctional facility in Kazakhstan, having been tried for mauling two people in a campsite, after a lifetime of subjection to cruelty in a circus. As is very much the case in Katya’s example, human conceptions of the non-human are oftentimes ways for us to evade the culpability for our violent actions against either individual animals, or even wider ecosystems. As modern animal psychology has shown, mammals such as Katya are far indeed from the Cartesian bête machine, being capable of forms of thought, emotion and most prominent here, trauma retention.
If the bête machine is a definition built on oppositional dependence, what we seemingly fail to realise is that species dependence is the key to sustained life on earth. While the Autun trial bestows personhood on flies in order to attribute responsibility for what a modern insurance firm would term ‘an act of God’, Katya’s case directly punishes the victim, affording human personhood exclusively in terms of culpability, not of suffering. Only a few years before, the Tilikum v. SeaWorld case, made famous by the documentary Blackfish, instead centred discussions of personhood around whether non-human personhood would legally be protected by the 13th amendment which in US law prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. What was concluded was that an orca who had brutally killed its trainer after years of captivity could not be protected constitutionally because only humans were eligible for these rights. Fitting coherently within its legal ancestor in Autun, this animal trial once again staged the non-human in a position of culpability, affording it quasi-human juridical personhood for the purpose of conviction, yet no constitutional protection from exploitation.
Like April 1587, April 2021 was disappointing in its own way. This year’s Earth Day, an annual event founded in 1970 to force environmental issues onto the national agenda, brought the news of temperature increase, animal extinction and even a human-caused shift in the planet’s rotational axis. Wider permutations of human hierarchical thinking continue to allow human egocentrism to utilise the planet as a blank canvas for exploitation, just like animal trials represent a crystallised example of people projecting onto the perceived blank canvas of the non-human.
In this light, humans seem far from being perfectly rational Cartesians, instead resembling ostriches with heads buried firmly under increasingly warming sands. Imminent food shortages resulting from short-sighted farming put the world on the brink of a crop emergency which Autun’s fruit flies could only have dreamed of. The key difference, naturally, is the agency that we still possess as a species, making it possible for us to not only recognise the non-human as legally ‘sentient’ (as we did in May 2021), but also to build a future in which, like Luther’s exegetical commentary details, there is space and resources for all. Alternatively, in the years before the earth is fully submerged by rising sea-levels caused by over consumption of meat, we could just go about putting cows on trial for the methane they so unreasonably pump into the atmosphere; at least then, there would be someone else to blame.
GAIA CLARK NEVOLA is reading English at St Catherine’s College. They are currently considering whether they might need to join a support group for their undying love for visionary and icon, Bimini Bon Boulash.
Art by Fred Seddon