Can an insect be evil? In other words, could an insect’s thoughts and actions cause it to be prosecuted in court for violating the laws of God or man? If an insect could be prosecuted, what about a virus? There is no doubt that if the coronavirus could be prosecuted for the devastation it has caused, a unanimous public would demand such action. However, it would be quite difficult to find an unbiased jury.
As devastating as the coronavirus pandemic is, it is hardly the first plague experienced by mankind. As long as humans have been on the Earth, they have experienced periodic plagues. Some have been minor and localized, while others have been large and widespread. The point is that mankind has survived them all, and we can learn valuable lessons from this past experience with plagues that can help us cope with the impact of the modern coronavirus pandemic. The large-scale policy lessons should be left to the scientists and physicians, but there are lessons we can learn to help us as cope as individuals. In particular, we can learn several lessons from lawsuits a small European village filed against two infestations of weevils about 700 years ago.
In order to understand the lawsuits against the weevils, it is helpful to understand that bringing animals to justice by filing suit against them was a regular procedure in Europe for many centuries. As chronicled by E.P. Evans in his 1906 legal history, The Criminal Prosecution and Punishment of Animals, criminal and ecclesiastical charges were filed against animals for over a thousand years, with the earliest known case being filed against a group of moles in Italy in 824 A.D. and the last being a case filed against a dog in Switzerland in 1906. These court proceedings were based on the principle that animals were subject to the same natural order and laws that humans were, and they should be punished for breaking those laws or for “unnatural” destructive actions.
In general, the outcomes of these trials were much better for small animals than for large ones. Pigs, cows, horses, and other domestic animals were often sentenced to death by secular courts for the crime of homicide. The most frequent defendants were pigs, due to “the freedom with which they were permitted to run about the streets and to their immense number.” But regardless of the species of these domestic animals, they were arrested and held in jail until trial, along with human co-defendants.
Insects and rodents were too small to catch and jail as a mass, so they generally did not face criminal prosecution. Instead, they faced suit in ecclesiastical court where their human opponents sought an order of excommunication for the vermin, which would in theory require the pests to cease their destructive activities and would require them to leave the community.
Fortunately for these animal defendants, they were accorded at least some measure of due process. Specifically, those animals without the foresight or the resources to hire counsel had counsel appointed for them by the court. Although it was apparently a rare occurrence, there were occasional acquittals during trial or later on appeal.
ST. Julien Residents v. Local Weevils
The legal saga of the weevils actually had two parts. The first part began in 1545 when the grape growers of St. Julien, France brought suit in the ecclesiastical court of St Jean-de-Maurienne against the local weevils for despoiling the vineyards of the area. Counsel was appointed for the weevils and preliminary arguments were made to François Bonnivard, doctor of laws. The case never made it to sentencing, however. Instead, Bonnivard ruled in 1546 that the weevils had been acting as agents of divine retribution. Therefore, the human residents of St. Julien were “admonished to turn to the Lord with pure and undivided hearts, to repent of their sins with unfeigned contrition, and to resolve to live henceforth justly and charitably, and above all to pay tithes.” These instructions were duly followed, and a written report from the parish curate confirmed that the weevils had disappeared.
Weevils are certainly not known for having long memories. Thus, it is hardly a surprise that there was a part two in the legal saga. Part two began in 1587 when a new generation of grape growers succeeded in bringing weevils to trial for decimating the vineyards. As with the prior case, the weevils had counsel appointed to represent them.
The weevils’ public defender argued that his clients had been placed on Earth by God, were created before humans, and were given the right to “every green herb” in order to survive. It was unfortunate that this sustenance happened to be the town’s grapes. Counsel for the humans, however, asserted that “although the animals were created before man, they were intended to be subordinate to him and subservient to his use, and that this was, indeed, the reason of their prior creation.”
When the trial dragged on through a series of continuances, counsel for the humans attempted to reach a compromise by offering the weevils a tract of land outside the town. A suitable spot was selected, although the humans reserved the right to pass through the land and make use of the springs on the property. This attempt at compromise failed when the weevils’ attorney rejected the offer “because the place was sterile and neither sufficiently nor suitably supplied with food for the support of the said animals.”
The trial dragged on for eight months. Whether the court excommunicated and banished the weevils is unknown. Sadly, some type of vermin subsequently destroyed the last page of the trial record, obliterating the verdict. As stated by Evans, “[p]erhaps the prosecuted weevils, not being satisfied with the results of the trial, sent a sharp-toothed delegation into the archives to obliterate and annul the judgment of the court.”
What Can We Learn About Coping with the Modern Plague?
Much like the residents of St. Julien had their livelihoods threatened by the plague of weevils, the residents of the world have their livelihoods threatened by the coronavirus plague today. Although the virus is not transmitted by weevils (at least not that we currently know of), we learn lessons from the former plague and apply them to help us cope with the modern plague today.
When François Bonnivard judged the first suit against the weevils in 1545-46, there simply was not technology in existence that could eradicate the weevils. Quite simply, immediate eradication of the weevils was out of the residents’ control. Thus, Bonnivard advised the residents to focus on things they could control as individuals: “to turn to the Lord with pure and undivided hearts, to repent of their sins with unfeigned contrition, and to resolve to live henceforth justly and charitably, and above all to pay tithes.” Besides the obvious benefit of potential divine intervention on their behalf, these actions and attitudes are the things that would allow the residents to find happiness in a time of plague.
Similar to the plague of weevils in the 1500’s, there is currently no technology in existence that can stop or even control the coronavirus. Thus, we need to focus on the things we can control as individuals that will lead to happiness—our thoughts and actions.
1. Serving Others
Much of Bonnivard’s advice to the residents involved doing things to serve others. But this is really nothing new. About 1500 years before Bonnivard gave this advice, Jesus Christ commanded in John 15:12 that “ye love one another, as I have loved you.”
Although serving others may require more effort and creativity during the coronavirus plague that it otherwise might, it can still be done. We can serve physically by arranging for meals to be delivered to the elderly or sick in our neighborhoods, or we can deliver groceries to elderly neighbors ourselves. We can do yard work for neighbors who unable to do so themselves. We can also donate financially to support those in need and can donate supplies to the first responders and other professionals who deal directly with the sick.
We an also provide emotional service. At this time of social distancing, loneliness can be a serious problem for those who live alone. Indeed, research has shown that loneliness can be as lethal as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. While we may not be able to visit them physically in a time of social distancing, we can let them know that we care by calling or texting.
There is an ancient proverb that states: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” It is important that we focus outward and serve others to achieve happiness during this stressful plague.
2. Forgiving Others
Bonnivard’s counsel to the residents “to turn to the Lord with pure and undivided hearts” would certainly require them to forgive one another. Indeed, the Lord has said in Mark 11:25: “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Many of us feel a sense of loss due to the effects of coronavirus on our society. We may have lost loved ones, lost our own good health, or suffered loss from having our workplaces or schools shut down. It may be easy to feel resentment towards those we feel acted or failed to act in ways that contributed to these circumstances. In addition, essentially being confined at home with the same people all the time may cause past grievances to arise again. We must forgive in order to be happy.
Dr. Sidney Simon, an authority on values realization, once said, “Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.” President James E. Faust, a past member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, added similar insight when he stated:
Most of us need time to work through pain and loss. We can find all manner of reasons for postponing forgiveness. One of these reasons is waiting for the wrongdoers to repent before we forgive them. Yet such a delay causes us to forfeit the peace and happiness that could be ours. The folly of rehashing long-past hurts does not bring happiness.
What President Faust was saying is that when we refuse to forgive, we waste our energy and cheat ourselves out of happiness. We cannot do that in a time when we need our energy to focus on so many other things related to the pandemic.
3. Examining Priorities
The advice that Bonnivard gave to the residents of St. Julien essentially amounted to an invitation for them to examine their priorities and live their lives in accordance with their priorities. We would do well to follow this advice during this pandemic and use the time we have to examine our priorities and change our actions and attitudes if necessary.
It is important that we not get so discouraged by the coronavirus plague that we lose sight of what really matters. As Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. recently stated:
As a matter of public policy, we are betting that individuals will weather the current storm on Netflix and take-out, thus providing basic creature comforts but withdrawing the social, intellectual, and religious pursuits that render man’s animal life human. In effect, we are kenneling the human person, in neglect of his social, intellectual, and spiritual dignity.
Fr. Guilbeau is correct. Take-out dinners (and maybe even Netflix) might be enough to provide a satisfying life for weevils, but mankind needs more. As Christ said in Matthew 4:4: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
Ezra Taft Benson, former President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has stated that, “[w]hen we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives.” Part of prioritizing the influence of God in our lives in engaging in fasting and prayer. Fasting and prayer help us recognize our dependence on God and our interdependence on each other. Significantly, it takes our focus off ourselves, and allows us to recognize ways that we can serve others.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, an experienced devil named Screwtape gives advice to a novice devil on how to succeed in turning a man away from God. Screwtape tells the novice that one successful method is simply to get the man to waste his time on unimportant things, so he neglects what should be a priority. The goal is to have the man end his time on Earth with the realization that “I now see that I spent most my life doing in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” We must not get so distracted by the changes in lifestyle caused by the coronavirus plague that we lose sense of our priorities and repeat these words ourselves.
Just as we don’t know the verdict in the 1587 trial of the weevils, we don’t know what the ultimate verdict in the coronavirus pandemic will be. We also don’t know whether our trial against the coronavirus will last eight months like the trial of the weevils, or whether it will last much longer. But we do know that the village of St. Julien survived the infestation of weevils, and our society will survive the coronavirus pandemic. We do not have many choices about how the pandemic runs its ultimate course, but we do have choices as individuals that we can make about our attitudes and actions. We can choose a path that leads to frustration and despair, or we can choose a path that will allow us to find joy and hope. Unlike the weevils with their notoriously short memories, we can learn and grow from our experiences in ways that allow us to find long-term happiness.