Neither shalt thou lie with any beast
to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand
before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.
This passage from Leviticus clearly condemned bestiality. Even
more to the point was Exodus 22:19: "Whosoever lieth with
a beast shall surely be put to death".
Accusations of bestiality were difficult to refute, since evidence
of a particularly dubious nature could be used to identify a guilty
party. The belief seems to have been that a man who successfully
inseminated a female animal could get it pregnant. Any similarity
in appearance between an animal's offspring and a particular man
might thus cast suspicion that he was the father. Anything like
a characteristic blemish, a squint, unusual hair colour or disability
might cost him his life in a credulous society that interpreted
the Bible literally*.
Jacques Ferron was a Frenchman who was tried and hanged
in 1750 for copulation with a jenny (ie a female donkey).
The trial took place in Vanvres. Ferron was found guilty
and sentenced to death by hanging.
In cases such as these it was usual that
the animal would also be sentenced to death, but in this
case the jenny was acquitted. The court decided that the
animal was a victim and had not participated of her own
free will. A document, dated 19 September 1750, was submitted
to the court on behalf of the she-ass that attested to the
virtuous nature of the animal. Signed by the parish priest
and other principal residents of the commune it proclaimed
that "they were willing to bear witness that she is
in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest
It is easy to blame simple rural folk for such folly, but learned
ecclesiastics also believed and promoted it. Ecclesiastics were
as keen to inflict the death penalty for this crime as for hundreds
of others. Often (see page 367) the human and the animal involved
in bestiality were both tortured and executed. In England, the
death penalty was confirmed in 1533
after the Reformation: "The detestable and abominable crime
of buggery committed with mankind or beast" remained punishable
by death until 1861. For the next century it was punishable by