Insects on Trial; The Law of Vines
This is the story of how a group of vintners took on some unwanted pests in a court of law, and lost.
It may seem ridiculous, perhaps even shocking or disrespectful to the legal profession. However, to the early Modern Mind it was not such a far-fetched thing to have animals put on trial, in full courts of law. These are the strange quirks of history which have, somehow, slipped under our collective memories. You can find examples of rats failing to turn up to face charges in an ecclesiastical court after ravaging crops. Their defence council maintained that the danger from the cats of the village was a serious enough threat to warrant their absence – a point on which the judge agreed and the trial fell away.
But there could also be brutal retribution if the animal was found guilty. A pig convicted of the murder of a child was issued with this sentence by a fifteenth century judge;
We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.
But in this article we are largely concerned with the culture of the vine. And so to the sixteenth century and an encroaching plague of weevils which threatened to decimate the grape crop of the Bordeaux commune of St Juilien. On the 13th of April, 1587, the case was laid out before the Bishop of Maurienne by the wine producers and citizens of the village. Lacking modern day fertilisers and insecticides the insects had been apparently halted by the villages diligence and prayers, but the problem resurfaced some thirty years on.
The defendants, or weevils, were appointed their own advocate, one Pierre Rembaud. The hearing went on from the 30th May until it was adjourned on the 6th of June. The prosecutors wished to have the destructive insects excommunicated as ‘they have resumed their depredations and are doing incalculable damage’. In doing so they wished to bring the full fury of God against the miscreants, presumably damming them to eternal, grape-free torment.
However, Genesis was categorical in highlighting how the plants of the earth were to be distributed. As the defence quoted, ‘every thing that creepeth upon the earth every green meat had been given for meat’ and denying the weevils of their own means of support would be contrary to this. As such, the weevils fondness for the prestigious Bordeaux vines was just their way of exercising their legitimate right, conferred on them by the Almighty in the creation, to take full advantage of the earth’s resources.
The court proceedings rumbled on but it was becoming increasingly clear that both scripture and the law, were on the sharp toothed beetles’ side. As judgement beckoned an out of court meeting by the commune was held. In it they agreed that the best way forward was through compromise. The weevils were to be given their own vineyard – ‘Le Grand Feisse’, an area set aside with carefully selected foliage. They were also made aware of the generous offer and informed that any return to the vineyards would this time earn them excommunication. It was seen as the less of two weevils…
Asides from being inherently barmy, this whole episode is an interesting example of how vintners have always had to deal with the environment in which they ply their trade. For most of human history the only answer to environmental disasters was to place trust in a spiritual power, or human institutions, to combat pests. In the last century or so we’ve become, arguably, over-reliant on chemical answers to those problems. It’s fascinating to think that the villagers of sixteenth century France came to the same conclusion as some of our modern day winemakers. Some of the best wine producers in the world are now using purely organic, biodynamic methods to create harmonious vineyards – setting aside specific areas for local wildlife and insects (check out Bonterra Wines in California or Domaine Paul Croizier in the Cote de Nuits). All without incurring any legal fees at all.