Fleeing the crime: Bestiality in Early Modern Europe.

 

Bestiality is something that today you are unlikely to hear occurring, in Early Modern Europe however it seems an act as disgusting as that took place far more regularly. People in Early Modern Europe lived far more intimately with animals than we do today as farming was a far more common job and peasants lived in very rural areas, this may account for its regular occurrence. Despite intercourse with an animal, or “buggery” as it was often called, being a crime punishable by death there are still numerous documents from Early Modern Europe that state it taking place, whether it be eye witness accounts or trial reports. In a statute in 1533 it was declared that bestiality was a crime punishable by death and beyond this it was seen as an ‘Abominable sin’ amongst Christians[1], how then did those accused of such a crime react?

 

It is easy to overlook the reactions of those who stand accuse of bestiality when looking at cases of it occurring, it is easy to assume that anyone who is guilty of the crime would be punished this was not however always the case. Erica Fudge wrote an article for ‘History Today’ entitled “MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND”,  this piece looked at the case of one William Clarke who stood accused of buggery with a mare in 1656 after being witnessed by John Sweedale of Easby [20]. Despite Sweedale claiming to have seen the incident of bestiality Clarke unsurprisingly, with death the punishment if he was to be found guilty, claimed to be innocent. Clarke stated he was checking the mare for an injury he believed it may have suffered. In Sweedale’s account he says that Clarke told him that he would leave England within two days, although he did not and later stood trial. It seems that leaving the area in which the incident took place was a common theme for those accused of bestiality, it would have been better for the accused to disappear rather than face potential death in a trial. In the town of Birdham in the 1670s a young man fled the country following accusations that he, like Clarke, had also committed buggery with a mare[2]. This desire to flee falls in line with the Early Modern European belief that to commit bestiality was to remove oneself from society and God, they were in essence lost[3]. People fleeing after committing the acts could lead to accusations surfacing years after the actual crime is committed. A man named Thomas MacHaffie was first accused in 1647 and then again later in 1655 after he returned from Ireland[4]. It is clear then that the most common reaction of people accused of bestiality in Early Modern Europe was to flee. To be caught committing bestiality meant that the accused would not only face criminal trial but would also face exile from society and from religion, it is unsurprising then that they would choose to leave. It would be very easy for someone in this period to simply disappear, without the aid of modern technology and policing a person could leave a town and never be seen again allowing them to live peacefully elsewhere despite their crimes.

The image below taken from the Welcome library depicts a man fornicating with a goat

L0033076 A man copulating with a goat or deer. Gouache painting by

These accusations would not be made lightly either, a statute passed in 1548 stated that no person who could benefit from the death of the accused were permitted to act as a witness in the case [21]. Those giving witness statements are likely then to be telling the truth as there is nothing for them to gain by doing so. Was fleeing then an admission of guilt? Or simply a reaction brought about by fear of death and exile? Whether guilty or not it is unsurprising that people would run from such a threat and so it was a very common feature of cases of bestiality in Early Modern Europe.

[1] E. Fudge, MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND History Today; Aug 1, 2000; 50, 8; Periodicals Archive Online, Page 21

[2] E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016) Pages 136 and 137

[3] E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016) Page 137

[4] T. Betteridge, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2002) Page 85

Bibliography

E. Fudge, MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND History Today; Aug 1, 2000; 50, 8; Periodicals Archive Online

E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016)

T. Betteridge, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2002)