Several weeks ago, I got a request to review The Advocate (original title, The Hour of the Pig, 1993, dir. Leslie Megahey). The film is a fun little picture about the late Middle Ages that is by no means perfect (it lacks any sort of real dramatic climax, for example), but is better than many movies set in the Middle Ages. It deals with an interesting and unusual subject, the curious tradition of legal trials for animals, and gets a surprising amount of the details correct. But the American release of the film was sadly mishandled by Miramax and the result seriously hurts the overall film.
The Facts Behind the Film
The Advocate/The Hour of the Pig (hereafter, just “The Advocate“) was originally a joint British/French production written and directed by Irish film-maker Leslie Megahey. I haven’t been able to find out anything about how Megahey got interested in the film’s subject matter, but he seems to have done a moderate amount of research into late medieval legal practices.
The protagonist of the film, Richard Courtois was very loosely modeled on Barthelemy de Chasseneuz (1480-1541), a French lawyer and jurist, chiefly remember for an influential treatise of French law that he produced in 1517. As a young lawyer in Autun, France, in the early sixteenth century, he made his reputation by engaging in a clever defense of a group of rats that had been put on trial for destroying the barley crop in the district. Chasseneuz insisted that the rats in question had to be summoned into court to answer for their crimes. When the rats predictably failed to show up, he argued that since they were dispersed in the countryside, it was necessary to advertise the summons more widely than had been done. After they failed to answer the second summons, he argued that they had failed to show up because they had not been given a guarantee of safe passage, and were in fear of the local cats. This resulted in the case getting dismissed.
This remarkable trial brings us into very curious and obscure legal territory, namely the idea of animal trials. This is not a phenomenon that has been highly studied. Virtually all the scholarship done of this topic has drawn heavily off the work of Edward Payson Evans, a Victorian scholar who published two articles and a subsequent book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906). (If I had to guess, I’d say that Megahey ran across Evans’ book somewhere and used it as the basis for the film.) Starting in the late 90s, perhaps as a result of The Advocate, a small trickle of articles has come out that have explored the issue from different angles, but overall it’s still a rather arcane issue.
Animal trials are exactly what they sound like, full legal trials for animals. Among the types of animals put on trial have been pigs, donkeys, dogs, birds, horses, snails, snakes, insects, and cows. Mostly, they were accused of some form of homicide or violent assault, but bestiality charges were also common. Another major category of charge was destruction of crops, a very serious charge in an agricultural society. These trials generally treated the animal as a human legal defendant, holding it in custody (often at considerable expense to the state), and according it a day in court, legal representation to speak for it, and a full trial. Most animal defendants appear to have been found guilty and executed, but at least a few of them were acquitted; however, it has been suggested that the sources may primarily be recording cases that resulted in conviction, thereby skewing our understanding of the phenomenon. Sentences usually mirrored the penalty a human would have received; hanging and burning seem to have been most common. One Russian goat was sent to Siberia for its crimes.
Historians (primarily Evans) have identified around 200 animal trials running from the 9th century down (a group of moles) to the 20th century. 1906, a Swiss dog was tried and executed. In 1929, Kentucky found a dog guilty of attempted murder and sent it to the electric chair. In 2005, Ontario passed legislation to regulate pit bulls that included a provision for the dogs to be cited for dangerous behavior (the dogs themselves, not the dogs’ owners). While most of these trials occurred in Western Europe, especially France and Italy, they have also been conducted in the United States, Canada, Russia, Brazil, and Australia. But notice that the numbers are exceptionally low—200 cases across 1,000 years from all across Western civilization. This is an extremely rare phenomenon.
Obviously, the idea of putting an animal on trial like a human seems bizarre to the modern mind. So what’s going on here? The few scholars who have seriously considered animal trials have offered a range of explanations for them. Evans, as a good Victorian, saw animal trials as a relic of medieval superstition, a sort of vestigial legal procedure. Some scholars have tended to see animal trials as a reaction to a significant crisis that aimed to reassure a frightened community and re-assert law and order; so when a swarm of rats or locusts destroyed a village’s crop, authorities could conduct a trial as a way to reassure an anxious community that the problem was being addressed. Other scholars have argued that animal trials are evidence of an underlying debate over competing views about the natural world, how God, humans, and animals relate, and the moral status of animals. In an interesting blog post about The Advocate, Philip Johnson has asserted that animal trials ultimately derive from a theological argument that because God created animals, they possessed a limited form of rights and could not simply be destroyed without some sort of legal process. So while scholars have not settled on a general explanation for the phenomenon, they agree that it is worth serious consideration for what it can tell us about medieval and early modern culture (what it can tell us about modern culture has generally been ignored).
It has also been pointed out that animal trials rest on a notion that animals possess a limited form of personhood, and therefore these trials fall into a category of legal debates about who has personhood and under what circumstances. When seen from this light, the issues don’t seem quite so foreign. Modern Americans can appreciate questions about whether slaves are persons (the Constitution says they are only 3/5th of a person), whether brain-dead people such as Terry Schiavo are persons, whether the fetus is a person, and whether corporations have sufficient personhood to have political and religious rights. My point here is that when you actually start to dig into the phenomenon, you quickly realize that it’s not really that irrational an idea, at least in theory.
Legal systems as diverse as those of ancient Babylon, Republican Rome, and modern America have wrestled with the question of who is legally responsible when an animal inflicts injury or damage to someone else. The current American solution to the question is to say that an animal’s owner is responsible, and because that seems familiar to us, we find the Babylonian and Roman solutions to the same problem to be the ‘obvious’ solution, and we are consequently puzzled when we discover that some other legal systems have preferred to say that the animal itself is legally responsible.
It is also important to understand that just because an animal was put on trial does not mean that everyone involved in the process automatically accorded the animal full personhood. Chausseneuz devoted some time in his legal treatise to a case in which locusts have been excommunicated by an ecclesiastical court. Following Thomas Aquinas, Chausseneuz argued that lower creatures (those devoid of any capacity to reason) were agents of divine will, and therefore should not be excommunicated, because that would be blasphemous (because the ultimate target of the excommunication would be God); rather, he felt that the excommunication ought to be directed more generally against whatever devil had motivated the insects’ misbehavior. In a 16th century French case, in which a group of weevils were sued by a group of vineyard owners, the vineyard owners’ counsel argued that because God had made animals subject to human authority, it was reasonable to excommunicate them. The weevils’ court-appointed counsel responded that it was improper to invoke canon law against beasts that are subject only to natural law. So even contemporaries could be deeply divided about the issues at play.
The film’s protagonist is the fictional Richard Courtois (Colin Firth), who as I noted before, was very loosely inspired by Chausseneuz. The story is set in 1452 in Abbeville, which is located in modern northern France, but at the time was technically within Ponthieu and therefore under the formal authority of the kings of England. Exactly why Megahey chose this setting I have no idea, but the film understands that the legal situation in Ponthieu was complex because it wasn’t technically part of France.
The film has three sequences involving animal trials, which gives viewers the impression that animal trials were common instead of rare oddities. The film opens with the public execution of a man and his donkey for committing bestiality. At the last minute, the donkey is saved because of character witnesses who have sworn that the donkey was of good character and would never willingly have done such a thing, but the man is hanged.
The second case involves a witch, Jeannine (Harriet Walter), who, among other things, is accused of sending rats to sicken a neighbor. Courtois successfully uses Chasseneuz’ trick of summoning the rats to appear in court as witnesses, and when they fail to do so, that charge against Jeannine is dropped. But because Courtois fails to understand the complex legal situation in Abbeville, Jeannine herself is convicted and executed, despite his dismay.
Finally, Courtois is, much to his surprise and frustration, appointed as defense counsel for a pig that has been accused of murdering a young boy. The pig is owned by Mahmoud and Samira, a pair of foreigners traveling through the region. The film can’t seem to figure out if these people are Moors, gypsies, or Jews; it says they are Moors, but also says that they came from “little Egypt” (suggesting they are gypsies), and in one scene shows them as victims of a forced baptism the way some Jews were. Courtois falls in love with Samira and while he doesn’t care about the pig itself, he tries to find a way to resolve Samira’s problem that the pig is her primary asset. He offers to pay her twice the pig’s value, but for some reason she refuses this. (The pig trial is probably based very loosely on a 1457 trial in which a sow and her piglets were accused of killing and eating a young boy.)
At the same time, Courtois slowly begins to realize that the pig may in fact be innocent, which means that someone else killed the boy. As he searches for the truth, he gets tangled up in the interests of the local nobleman, the Seigneur Jehan d’Auferre (Nicol Williamson), who wants Courtois to marry his slightly deranged daughter.
At this point, the film tends to get a little lost. Several subplots are introduced, including the presence of a secret group of Cathars (more than a century after the last Cathars died out) and a spy for ‘the Inquisition’, but these plots don’t go anywhere. The murderer is finally revealed but not confronted, and just as Courtois decides to leave town, a new plot involving a knight with the Black Death gets introduced and them immediately abandoned. It’s hard to categorize this film; it’s been labeled a thriller, a murder mystery, and a black comedy, and certainly has elements of all three.
All in all, the film is most interesting when it’s wrestling with the legal cases at hand. It accurately depicts some of the legal complexities of the period. The trials are conducted before a judge, but with no jury. The film understands some of the complex legal procedures that Chasseneuz discusses in his cases. Courtois’ servant (Jim Carter) repeatedly tells people that his employer’s proper title is Maître, which is the correct French form of address for a man with a university degree. Courtois accurately distinguishes the charges that Jeannine worshipped the devil (diabolism) from the charges that she had harmed someone with magic (maleficia).
But other elements of the legal system the film gets wrong. I’m not an expert on medieval French law, but the cross-examination of the witnesses that happens in several scenes strikes me as far too modern. More seriously, the film lumps all its legal proceedings together into a single legal system, when in fact across France there were at least two court systems, civil courts, which handled cases under the jurisdiction of towns, nobles, and the king, and ecclesiastical courts, which handled cases under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. Depending on what venue the case was in, it could be judged by royal law, local custom, or canon law.
All of Courtois’ cases are heard in what appears to be the Abbeville town court, which is presided over by a magistrate. Toward the end of the film, however, the town court turns out to actually be the Seigneur’s court, because d’Auferre steps in and insists on his right to hear the pig’s case personally. Again, allowing for the fact that I don’t study medieval France, where jurisdictional issues are quite complex, this strikes me as definitely possible; a nobleman could definitely have granted a town the right to hear cases technically under his jurisdiction.
But many moral crimes, such as bestiality, would have been handled in an ecclesiastical court, not the town or seigneurial court. Chausseneuz’ rat trial was an ecclesiastical trial, conducted under entirely different laws than would have operated in civil courts. Depending on which charges were initially brought against Jeannine, she might have stood trial in either a civil court (for maleficia) or an ecclesiastical court (for diabolism). The collapsing of all the cases into a single courtroom setting is probably forgivable due to the challenge of explaining a complex legal system to modern viewers unfamiliar with it, but it does represent a significant bending of the facts; while it is possible that both Jeannine’s case and the pig’s case would have wound up in the same court, it seems unlikely.
As a side note, one thing the film does a good job of is the costuming. Most of the clothing (with the exception of Samira’s generic gypsy outfits) is a reasonable attempt at 15th century clothing. Courtois sports a liripipe in some scenes (as in the picture up above). And in a particularly remarkable detail, the noblewomen in d’Auferre’s family follow the fashion for very high foreheads. Given that historical films almost always present women’s hairstyles according to contemporary tastes rather than historical accuracy, this is commendable.
So What’s Miramax Got to Do with This?
The film opens with a prologue text. The original British/French production’s text reads, In medieval France animals were subject to the same legal processes as human beings, including trial in a court of law. This story is based on real life cases.
This text does a couple things. It situates the film in medieval France. It explains, without judgment, that animal trials were a genuine phenomenon (although it somewhat misleadingly implies that animal trials were common or even standard). And finally, it asserts an underlying historicity for the film by truthfully acknowledging that the film draws off of actual events (although naturally it de-emphasizes how heavily fictionalized it is). So while it sets the scene in a very general way, it makes little effort to shape how the audience will react to the movie.
When the film was marked in the US, however, Miramax not only changed the name of the film from The Hour of the Pig to The Advocate and trimmed out about 10 minutes (mostly for reasons of nudity, apparently), but it also completely changed the prologue text. The American version of the text reads as follows:
France—the 15th century, the dark ages…
The people were still gripped by ignorance and superstition, mortally afraid of the power of Satan, expecting God’s punishment—the plague that was sweeping Europe.
In such uncertain times the Church, the State, and the Law should have been the guiding lights, but the Church was sometimes as corrupt as the State.
The local Lords, the Seigneurs, ruled with cruel self-interest and justice was reciprocated by a somewhat confused legal profession.
Each region had its own laws, but all had one extraordinary provision…
Animals were subject to the same civil laws as human beings. They could be prosecuted and tried in a court of law.
Unbelievable as it may seem, all cases shown in this film are based on historical fact.
There are so many things wrong with this text that I hardly know where to start. It employs the worst cliché about the Middle Ages, the notion that it was ‘the Dark Ages’, an era of ignorance, superstition, absurd beliefs and practices, and legal and spiritual corruption.
The concept of the Dark Ages was invented in the 19th century, but no serious historian uses it as a synonym for the Middle Ages any more. To the extent that the phrase is still used at all, it is sometimes employed to refer to a period in which there is a complete or near-complete loss of written documentation, so that scholars might occasionally refer to the Greek Dark Age (the period from c. 1200 BC to c.850 BC after the collapse of Mycenaean culture) or the British Dark Age (the late 5th to late 6th century AD, immediately after the collapse of Roman civilization in England and Wales). But even this limited usage is uncommon.
The Miramax text tells us the same things the original text does, but it lards on a heavy dose of moral judgment. It tells us that the events are both true and ‘unbelievable’. The text presents animal trials as uniquely medieval, and ignores both the fact that they were not common in the Middle Ages and that they were not unheard of is modern Western society. The legal system is explicitly labeled ‘confused’, implying that there is an objectively correct position to take on legal issues and medieval lawyers couldn’t figure out what it was.
The text also rather oddly emphasizes the idea that animal trials were a partly due to the influence of a corrupt Church, ignoring the fact that the only hint of the medieval Church in this film is a decidedly worldly priest (Ian Holm) who befriends Courtois early in the film, and a passing reference to ‘the Inquisition’. Nor is the Seigneur d’Auferre presented as particularly cruel. The judgmentalism of the text is at odds with the film’s tone; Courtois is sometimes baffled by the legal situation he finds himself in, but the only time he rails against it is when he loses Jeannine’s case on a technicality.
The overall effect of the Miramax text is to undermine much of the film, by explicitly telling the audience that what will follow is a lot of superstitious nonsense. It destroys the possibility that medieval people might actually have had sensible reasons for assigning a degree of legal personhood to animals, and instead just tells the viewer that these people are idiots deserving of ridicule.
In doing so the Miramax text serves to establish a substantial intellectual distance between the audience and the medieval people we are watching, by suggesting that the viewers are much more intelligent, well-educated, moral, and reasonable than medieval people were. These medieval people are Not-Us, and they are to be looked down upon from a position of confident superiority. By flattering the audience so extensively, it discourages the audience from thinking of past people as normal human beings, and instead relegates them to the category of benighted freaks who had no reason for what they believed and did.
I give the movie credit for being above average in regard to some of the historical details and setting. In fact, given the weakness of the plot in the second half of the film, it is probably best watched for what it tries to tell us about late medieval society, or for the performances, most of which are quite solid. But the prologue text has to be ignored.
In an interview, Harvey Weinstein once remarked that of all the films he’s worked on, The Advocate was the worst, and that people shouldn’t see it. Sadly, had he not gotten involved in the project, it might have been a better film, if only because it wouldn’t have gotten such a lousy opening.
Want to Know More?
The Advocateis available on Amazon.