The Rats of Autun and the Power of Precedent


In 1508, an Ecclesiastical trial took place in the French town of Autun, about 300km south of Paris. By all accounts it was a normal trial. It had a judge, a defendant, witnesses, a prosecutor and a defence lawyer – it conformed to all the French judicial standards of the time and followed the correct procedure. There was one key difference – the defendant was not human. The case was being brought up against the rat population of Autun. 

The town of Autun was tired of their barley stores being eaten away by the rodent population of the town, and so they decided to do something about it. Rats were viewed by the citizens to be incarnations of the devil. This view was also accepted by religious leaders. The term ‘zoolatry’, or the worship of animals, was a prosecutable offence and one Pope even produced a formula to exorcise the rodents. The bishop of Lausanne saw fit to excommunicate the animals and it was under this pretence that the villagers took them to court. They then made proclamations at crossroads that the rats were to attend an Episcopal court that would be assembled to hear the villagers’ complaints against them. The local bishop decided that they must have fair representation. The punishment of being excommunicated was – at the time – the worst punishment as it condemned your soul to eternal damnation. As well as this, the rats would be killed by burning, buried alive or the rack. The man chosen to defend them was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, the crown attorney of the Autun region at the time. 

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A Painting of Autun by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

The Trial of Rats 

So, the day of the trial came, and the rats were charged with eating the local barley crop. and unsurprisingly, the rats did not show up. This was on account of the obvious fact that rats have no idea of trial and do not understand French. The people moved to hold the rats in contempt of court and have the judge rule in their absence and push for a guilty verdict. However, Chasseneuz had a solution. He claimed that the villagers had accused the entire rat population of Autun, and therefore every rat should be able to come to court and have their own representation. Since rats were solitary animals that lived alone and had limited social interactions, he claimed that the summons had not been nearly as widespread enough to notify the entire population. The bishop ruled in his favour and the court was adjourned to give the townspeople time to properly notify the rats. From every pulpit in Autun, the news was preached at floor level and this was judged as being sufficient to notify all the rats. However, when the court returned the rats were still not there. The town people thought they now had Chasseneuz on the ropes. However, he still had a plan. He declared that the rats had not arrived because they were afraid for their lives. The paths to the court were unpaved and unlit and the route from the homes of his clients were full of cats, dogs, and unfriendly humans. There was no way his clients could be expected to arrive in court under such conditions. Short of removing all the cats and dogs from the town, there was no way to guarantee their safety and so the court was adjourned. While the final judgement of this ridiculous case is sadly lost to history, it is hard to see how the people would manage to repel Chasseneuz’s defence. However, the case itself, while ridiculous was seen to have serious implications that saved lives. 

Portrait of Barthélemy de Chasseneuz 

Customary Law 

Chasseneuz was a supporter of customary law and the idea of ‘prescription’, and so he wrote his most famous work, ‘Commentaria in consuetudines ducatus Burgundiae’, on it in 1517. The old French customary law system or ‘Coutume’ was similar to English common law and works on the principle of legal customs. Legal customs are patterns of behaviour that have been established over a long period of time and are objectively verified in a particular setting. Customary law states that that if something has been done for a long period of time then it becomes a legal custom and the legal system should protect your right to do it. The idea of ‘prescription’ is rights that you have, not because they are written in positive law, but because you have had them by long custom. In this way it was comparable the idea of precedent and the law system we use today. This idea of precedent was what made the Autun case so impactful, over 30 years later. 

Chasseneuz had risen through the ranks following his impassioned protection of the rats, and in 1525 he became a member of the French parliament. In 1540, he was the president of the Parliament of Provence. He had to rule on an important case during the Reformation. Some Catholics had brought a case against a town of Protestants called Merindol near Avignon. The Protestants did not turn up to court and Chasseneuz held them in contempt of court and ordered the town of 80 families to be burnt to the ground, condemning over 300 people to death. However, their defence lawyer, the seigneur of Arles, quoted Chasseneuz and the rat case saying that it was unsafe for Protestants to cross through hostile Catholic lands to reach court. Barthelemy was so impressed that he dismissed the case and petitioned the King to pardon the Protestants. Despite being a Catholic, Chasseneuz continued to fight for Protestants throughout the Wars of Religion. This shows the power of precedent and how decisions made by judges in England today can have long lasting and often unintended consequences through stare decisis. The power of precedent is such that a similar case with similar facts will have similar results, providing a fair legal system. While the Protestants of Merindol may not have appreciated being compared to the rats of Autun, it saved their lives and that of many more through the work of Chasseneuz. 


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