Back to RJ Archive

An Observation and a Strange but True “Tale”: What Might the Historical Trials of Animals Tell Us About the Transformative Potential of Law in American Culture?

Berman, Paul Schiff
June 4, 2015

Source: (2000) Hastings Law Journal. 52: 123.

As Paul Berman notes, and many before him have observed, law and legal procedure are woven deeply into American self-identity and culture. Recently, some commentators have criticized what might be called America’s abiding legal faith. In this view, the regular resort to law degrades community, consensus, and problem-solving. Berman in this paper addresses concerns about the legalistic nature of American culture. He considers the possibility that law, instead of being a necessary evil, can actually help to heal rifts in the social fabric by creating a forum for useful discussion and debate. Moreover, he suggests that this can be done without simply imposing a hierarchical social order. In other words, Berman holds up a vision for the transformative potential of law. To explore all of this, he recounts a true story from France in 1522 when villagers sought to try rats in legal proceedings for allegedly eating the villagers’ barley crops. He uses this and other similar trials to reflect upon the possible social functions that trials and legal discourse may fulfill for a community.


AbstractCourtsNorth America and CaribbeanPolicePrisonsRJ and Community DisputesRJ in Schools
Support the cause

We've Been Restoring Justice for More Than 40 Years

Your donation helps Prison Fellowship International repair the harm caused by crime by emphasizing accountability, forgiveness, and making amends for prisoners and those affected by their actions. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results are transformational.

Donate Now