Bishop Westcott on Vivisection

N.B. The following text in this blog-post Bishop Westcott on Vivisection is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

N. B. Westcott’s tracts, that were distributed after 1901, and reproduced below are in the public domain.


Before I refer to Bishop Westcott’s sermon against animal vivisection, it would be prudent to first of all consider the background context out of which his view was formed: namely, the man’s life and faith.

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Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901) was an English scholar of the New Testament, and an Anglican clergyman. After studying at Cambridge University, he served for a while as a master at Harrow School. He then served as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge from 1870-1890. In terms of ecclesiastical posts, Westcott was appointed as a Canon at Peterborough Cathedral and then at  Westminster Abbey. In the last decade of his life he served as the Bishop of Durham.

Besides his theological interests, Westcott was wide ranging in his reading of many areas of thought including mathematics, the natural sciences, architecture, and poetry.

He distinguished himself as an accomplished scholar of the New Testament, especially in his collaborative work with Fenton Hort in preparing a critical apparatus of New Testament Greek manuscripts. His contributions on the subject of the textual criticism of the manuscripts of the New Testament remains one of his enormous legacies to present-day scholarship.

He wrote more than twenty books including commentaries on the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Other works looked at the practical application of Christian teachings to life. He upheld a mystical and sacramental understanding in his theology and it is reflected in many of his books.

He supported Christian missions in India, and helped to establish the Cambridge Mission to Delhi. He had four sons who participated in missions work in India.

In his years as a Bishop he participated in the work of the Christian Social Union (CSU), which had many practical works among the poor and pursued issues of social justice. The CSU had theological affinities with the social gospel. Westcott himself acted as a mediator in brokering a solution to a strike taken by the workers at the Durham Collieries and the owners.

Several of his books went through multiple editions including works that examined the formation of the canon of the Bible. Another important book that he revised and had republished several times was The Gospel of the Resurrection.


Unlike many theologians today who down-play or take it for granted, Westcott saw Christ’s resurrection as the lynchpin of faith. He saw the resurrection as undergirding the very principles of Christian ethics, and by inference that must shape any Christian ethical behaviour  about animals.

In my recently published co-written book The Cross Is Not Enough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), I closed our chapter on the resurrection in church history (page 221) by quoting Westcott:

“The message of the Resurrection sums up in one fact the teaching of the Gospel. It is the one central link between the seen and the unseen. We cannot allow our thoughts to be vague or undecided upon it with impunity. We must place it in the very front of our confession, with all that it includes, or we must be prepared to lay aside the Christian name. Even in its ethical aspect Christianity does not offer a system of morality, but a universal principle of morality which springs out of the Resurrection. The elements of dogma and morality are indeed inseparably united in the Resurrection of Christ; for the same fact which reveals the glory of the Lord, reveals at the same time the destiny of man and the permanence of all that goes to make up the fullness of life. If the Resurrection be not true, the basis of Christian morality, no less than the basis of Christian theology, is gone. The issue cannot be stated too broadly. We are not Christians unless we are clear in our confession on this point. To preach the fact of Resurrection was the first function of the Evangelists; to embody the doctrine of the Resurrection is the great office of the Church; to learn the meaning of the Resurrection is the task of not one age only, but of all.” (Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel of the Resurrection, London and Cambridge: MacMillan, 1866, pp 6-7).

The centrality of the resurrection is crystal clear in Westcott’s thinking as he values it as the theological lynchpin upon which all else rests.


Although Westcott did not write a work in animal theology, he did make scattered remarks that ought to be remembered. Westcott (1884: 58) took a Christocentric view about the natural world, which by extension he saw as a call to Christians to be reverential, tender, watchful and loving towards all creatures:

Christ as the light opens the secrets of the visible order of Nature. We too on our part by reverence, by tenderness, by patience, by watchful and loving care for all creatures can make it felt about us that we can look for Him and see Him in His works, and know that through them He is still waiting to teach us more of the wonderful things of His law.

Westcott (1897: 375-376) believed that a callous disregard for the life of creatures through the sport of shooting and the practice of vivisection reflected badly on the character of those involved. In Westcott’s view this showed a complete lack of reverence toward the life given by God to all creatures, which stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of tenderness found in Christ:

The flower torn up and thrown upon the ground, the sea-bird shot upon the wing in the wantonness of skill, the dog tortured in vain curiosity show the same temper. And such actions trivial as they may seem, profoundly affect the character of the doer. When we violate the reverence due to God’s creatures we grow insensible to the joy which they can bring. We spoil and waste our heritage. On the other hand the spirit of devotion is strengthened by habitual tenderness.

Another long-forgotten contribution from Westcott came in a sermon he delivered during his time as a Canon at Westminster Abbey. In September 2011, I obtained from a British antiquarian book dealer two small tracts that use excerpts from the sermon that Westcott preached at the Abbey on 18 August, 1889.

One was distributed by the Society United for Prayer for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Especially with regard to the Practice of Vivisection (North Kensington, London). The second was distributed by the National Anti-Vivisection Society (Victoria Street, London).


Arthur Westcott, Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott D.D., D.C.L. Sometime Bishop of Durham, 2 Vols (Vol. 1; Vol. 2; London & New York: MacMillan, 1903).

Brooke Foss Westcott, Christian Aspects of Life (London: Macmillan, 1897).

Brooke Foss Westcott, The Revelation of the Father: Short lectures on the titles of the lord in the Gospel of St. John (London: MacMillan, 1884).

Animals in Johannes Kepler’s Thought

N.B. The following text in this blog-post Animals in Johannes Kepler’s Thought is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


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Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German born mathematician and astronomer. Among his many contributions to astronomy, Kepler is well-known for formulating “three laws” of planetary motion, which gave crucial validation to the Copernican theory about the Sun as the centre of the solar system.

Kepler was also a devout Lutheran, and although his scientific labours were in mathematics and astronomy, he made some remarks about animals that deserve mention.


The rise of the current social protest movement concerning animal rights pretty much takes as its springboard the works of Richard Ryder and Peter Singer. A strong criticism has been levelled against Christianity that its teaching and practices are largely infused with an anthropocentric (i.e. almost exclusively human-centred) outlook. It is also alleged that Christianity is guilty of propagating speciesism (i.e. discriminates by favouring human interests over those of other animals).

The charge about speciesism has some validity but it does have to be modified somewhat in light of a lot of ignored evidence from church history. The other sweeping charge that Christianity is anthropocentric is always going to be susceptible to critical rebuttal because critics who are in a hurry to make a point can readily forget a fundamental point about theology: Christian teaching is theocentric.

Consider, from the Lutheran side of the Reformation, the theocentric perspective that shaped the scientific labours of Johannes Kepler. Richard Westfall (1986: 219-220) remarks:

 in Kepler’s religious thought Christianity remained intact, harmoniously interwoven with his science and scarcely altered by it. His personal piety furnished the background to his work, forcing itself as it were into the printed page, as though he were unable to contain it.

This theocentric outlook of Kepler’s is very apparent in his many writings.

Kepler concluded his book on astronomy Harmonies of the World (1995: 240) with a prayer:

O Thou Who dost by the light of nature promote in us the desire for the light of grace, that by its means Thou mayest transport us into the light of glory, I give thanks to Thee, O Lord Creator, Who hast delighted me with Thy makings and in the works of Thy hand have I exulted. Behold! now, I have completed the work of my profession, having employed as much power of mind as Thou didst give to me; to the men who are going to read those demonstrations I have made manifest the glory of Thy works, as much of its infinity as the narrows of my intellect could apprehend … If I have been allured into rashness by the wonderful beauty of Thy works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while I am advancing in the work destined for Thy glory, be gentle and merciful and pardon me; and finally deign graciously to effect that these demonstrations give way to Thy glory and the salvation of souls and nowhere be an obstacle to that.

This passage is theocentric in emphasis namely that all of creation is centred in God not man, and that creation in all facets reflects divine glory and is intended to glorify God. It also points to Kepler’s humility, his gratitude to God, and his valuing the essential priority of the gospel above even his research.


Kepler added a speculative epilogue to his book Harmonies of the World concerning a hymn about the sun that was composed by the Platonic philosopher Proclus. Kepler seeks theological meaning in the harmonious geometrical relations he discerns between the sun and planets that orbit it. He notes in passing how his own teacher and colleague Tycho Brahe (a Danish Lutheran astronomer) pondered the possibility that other worlds are inhabited. Kepler speculates that as the earth is inhabited there may similarly be creatures inhabiting the other planets in the solar system. If there are other creatures inhabiting the planets then the implication of what Kepler wrote is that they do not exist for man’s use. Kepler (1995:244-245) seeks a parallel on earth for what might be true on other worlds:

For He Who created the species which should inhabit the waters, beneath which however there is no room for the air which living things draw in; Who sent birds supported on wings into the wilderness of the air; Who gave white bears and white wolves to the snowy regions of the North, and as food for the bears the whale, and for the wolves, birds’ eggs; Who gave lions to the deserts of burning Libya and camels to the wide-spread plains of Syria, and to the lions an endurance of hunger, and to the camels an endurance of thirst: did He use up every art in the globe of the Earth so that He was unable, every goodness so that he did not wish, to adorn the other globes too with their fitting creatures, as either the long or short revolutions, or the  nearness or removal of the sun, or the variety of eccentricities or the shine or darkness of the bodies, or the properties of the figures wherewith any region is supported persuaded?

Kepler (1995: 245) breaks off his conjectures by citing the Psalms and reinforces the theocentric perspective of praising God as creator “for out of Him and through Him and in Him are all things … To Him be praise, honour, and glory, world without end. Amen.”


Scottish theologian John Baillie (1951:35-36) made these sagely remarks concerning modern attitudes towards the natural world:

When nature is believed to have no preordained meaning or purpose in itself, the speculative interest in it fails, and the remaining concern is only to subdue its inherent purposelessness to our own chosen ends. Yet if, in their turn, these ends of ours are not themselves informed by faith, if they are merely chosen and not prescribed, if they represent only human preferences dictated by interest instead of solemn obligations emanating from a source beyond ourselves, then science becomes a desperately dangerous tool to put in men’s hands.

Baillie’s words should give us pause for thought about some of the sweeping claims that are made by some critics who blame Christianity for being the principal ideological fountainhead that has spurred on the exploitation of animals, and the degradation of eco-systems.


John Baillie (1951). Natural Science and the Spiritual Life (London: Oxford University Press).

Johannes Kepler (1995). Harmonies of the World, Book 5 in Epitome of Copernican Astronomy and Harmonies of the World, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis (Amherst, New York: Prometheus).

Richard S. Westfall (1986). “The Rise of Science and the Decline of Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Kepler, Descartes, and Newton.” in God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers Eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press).

The Advocate or The Hour of the Pig

N.B. The following text in this blog-post The Advocate or The Hour of the Pig is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

This is a long post of more than 5,000 words and thus requires a time-commitment to concentrate and digest.


 In 1993 a motion-picture starring Colin Firth, Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence, Jim Carter, Michael Gough, Nicol Williamson, and Amina Annabi was released called The Hour of the Pig.  It was a joint British-French production from BBC-CIBY 2000. It was also released by Miramax in the USA in an edited and shorter version under a different title, The Advocate. The screenplay writer and director of the film is Leslie Megahey.

I have had the benefit of viewing both versions of this film. Various “adult” scenes were censored, which accounts for some of the differences between The Hour of the Pig and The Advocate. A summary of The Hour of the Pig’s plot can also be accessed here.

It is a period-piece set in fifteenth century France, with a mixture of bawdiness, interpersonal drama, racial prejudice, criminal mystery, and social intrigue. It tells the story of a lawyer who defends a pig accused of murdering a child. Does that sound weird to you? Perhaps it does simply because most of us do not know a lot about medieval and Renaissance European history. So, it is not uncommon for people today to express incredulity when they hear that animals were once prosecuted in Europe for crimes in both civil and ecclesiastical court cases. The feeling is probably expressed with words like, “the law is an ass” or “how could they have been so stupid to put animals on trial?”

However, as English historian Darren Oldridge reminds us in Strange Histories (2007: 4), “when we have little understanding of the beliefs of another society, many of the acts that routinely occur within it may strike us as absurd.”

Our present-day incredulity really is a reflection on how ignorant and prejudiced most of us happen to be about the Middle Ages, than it reflects any deep understanding about the era of the animal law trials.

It is one thing for us today to pose the moral question, “should animals have ever been prosecuted for crimes”? It is entirely another matter to take a superficial glance at the past and then pour scorn on an era that one does not even begin to properly understand.


The Advocate/The Hour of the Pig is set in AD 1452 in a rural village named Abbéville, in the feudal county of Ponthieu, in northwestern France. The central character is a lawyer named Richard Courtois (played by Colin Firth) who has departed from Paris accompanied by his law-clerk named Mathieu (played by Jim Carter). Courtois was disillusioned by corruption and decadence in Paris but is also bouyant due to the Renaissance’s humanist impact on learning. He relocates to Abbéville with hopes for an idyllic life, of dispelling superstition, and of representing rural people who need justice.

After arriving in Abbéville, Courtois becomes busily engaged in representing people from a backlog of law-suits.

He is successful in his first case in obtaining an acquittal for a farmer accused of murder.

Image Source: Photo by Marc ROUSSEL

1.1 Trial of a Witch

Courtois’ next case involves defending a villager named Jeannine Martin (played by Harriet Walter) who is accused of witchcraft. Courtois seems confident of securing an acquittal. In this witchcraft case the film plucks out a line of defence used in a real-life sixteenth century animal law suit.

1.11 Bartholomew Chassenée & Rats in Court

There was a case heard in 1522 before the ecclesiastical court in Autun, in the region of Burgundy, France where Bartholomew Chassenée (1480-1540) acted as counsel for rats charged with destroying the local barley-crop. Ecclesiastical courts heard cases involving undomesticated or wild animals that caused harm to communities.

There were complex theological ideas associated with the role and influence of undomesticated animals on communities. Prosecutors and advocates alike would argue the toss about possible divine or malevolent supernatural acts using animals as instruments. In the “logic” of medieval and Renaissance thought it was taken as a “given” that animals were created by God (Genesis 1). Thus when the biblical narrative was taken into account it was understood that animals had a right to exist alongside humans. There was a nascent recognition that undomesticated animals had certain kinds of “rights” conferred on them by God as creator, so the theological underpinning was based in the doctrine of creation. From the standpoint of an ecclesiastical court, animals could not be arbitrarily eradicated because the doctrine of creation had considerable bearing on the problem.

Animals, like the rats who ate the barley-crop, may have been sent by God as agents of punishment for human sinfulness. Then again, as demonology was taken as a serious reality, animals might also be unwittingly influenced by the power of the Devil for malicious and mischievous attacks. The ecclesiastical courts had to adjudicate on cases to determine if the hand of divine judgment was evident or if spiritual malevolence was apparent. It is worth noting in passing that not all ecclesiastical trials ended up in condemnatory judgments against animals. Accused species were sometimes acquitted. Much more can be said on this juridical and theological subject but that task is set aside for a different post.

Chassenée used a legal manoeuvre to explain why all rats in the afflicted diocese would need to be summoned to appear in court but then as proceedings developed he explained that their failure to answer the summons was on the grounds that a court summons is supposed to ensure the accused have a safe journey to court. The rats, he argued, had declined to attend court owing to the fact no safe passage was available due to fear of the local cat population.

1.2 Courtois Loses the Case

Courtois uses a similar manoeuvre to that of Chassenée and argues for a dismissal of charges against Jeannine bewitching mice. The court is persuaded by Courtois’ legal gambit and dismisses the specific charges involving bewitched mice.

Nevertheless, much to Courtois’ horror his client is still condemned as being guilty of witchcraft. Courtois evidently imagined that his argument concerning the summons for mice would yield a complete acquittal for Jeannine. Courtois’ blunder prompts his legal opponent, the prosecutor Pincheon (played by Donald Pleasence), to politely point out that he has much to learn about the provincial legal code which differs from the Parisian civil law code that he had been trained in.

At Jeannine’s execution she prophesies that a knight will come one day to the village and recompense all evil. Her prophecy is fulfilled at the very end of the story when a knight arrives, collapses, and when his armour is removed his body is carrying a contagious plague.

1.3 Trial of the Pig

Image Source: Frontispiece to E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London: Heinemann, 1906).

The main law suit that occupies the rest of the story concerns a pig accused of murdering and eating a Jewish boy. It is loosely based on a trial of a sow and six piglets in 1457 at Lavegny that were accused of murdering and eating a five year old boy named Jehan Martin (note the similarity of the boy’s name with that of the woman in the film who is accused of witchcraft).

A number of sub-plots conjoin as the trial of the pig comes to the forefront. At the outset, Courtois declines to represent the pig’s owners, a brother and sister who are Moors (typecast as despised persons much like Gypsies). As intrigue swirls around the dead child and the accused pig, Courtois harbours suspicions that point to the vested interests of the local feudal power-broker the Seigneur Jehan d’Auferre (played by Nicol Williamson). The Seigneur has a daughter and a son both of whom show clear signs of mental instability. For example, the adult son derives pleasure from torturing birds.

Through a chain of events Courtois discovers there is another child corpse, and he comes to believe that there is a serial killer in the district. Courtois is convinced that the Seigneur’s son is the culprit and confronts the Seigneur. The Seigneur, who appears to be enmeshed in a cultic network of underground believers in the Gnostic Cathar heresy, acknowledges that his son is a murderer but has already dispatched him to live abroad. At the trial, the pig is exonerated as being falsely accused because a farmer (Courtois’ first client) gives testimony that it was another pig and not the one on trial.

At different times in the story, Courtois has conversations or brief encounters with Albertus the priest (Ian Holm) and with the prosecutor Pincheon (played by Donald Pleasence). Albertus maintains the surface appearance of being a pious priest but he is sceptical about village ignorance and church-based superstition, and is not averse to flouting his vows on celibacy. Pincheon is an older man who sees something of himself in Courtois. He tells Courtois that it would be better if he went back to work in Paris. Pincheon had come many years earlier holding to similar ideals as those of Courtois but has realised that the village is far from idyllic.

After the trial of the pig is dismissed, the film draws to an end with Courtois and his clerk Mathieu in a horse-drawn carriage leaving Abbéville. The plague-infected knight arrives in the village thus fulfilling the prophecy of the condemned witch Jeannine Martin.

The overall direction given to the actors has yielded, as might be expected, some strong character acting from Colin Firth, Ian Holm, Donald Pleasance, Nicol Wiliamson, Harriet Walters, and Michael Gough, and other cast members. Courtois has a keen mind accompanied by an arrogant attitude towards people of lower class standing and lesser intelligence. There is incipient corruption in the institutions of the village and dreadful ethical compromises made by the characters when forced into the horns of a dilemma. There is some good attention to the period costumes, the music, and creating an atmosphere that brims with brutality, intrigue, obvious poor hygiene, and sheer bawdy humour. The story is unlikely to have an enduring broad appeal although fans of particular actors will doubtless enjoy their performances, and it will be of interest for those who have a vested interest in historical period-pieces and in animal rights issues. Nevertheless, some discernment is needed about modern attitudes of incredulity toward the period of the film and of the story’s accuracy concerning technical points about the trials.


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An effort has been made by the screenplay writer to name characters that fits the period in which the film is set. Mathieu (Jim Carter’s character) is the French name for Matthew. Other names point us to or remind us of some well-known figures in different periods of medieval history. Mention has already been made of the accused witch Jeannine Martin and the real-life case in 1457 of the boy Jehan Martin who was killed by the sow.

The magistrate is named Boniface which reminds us of the Wessex-born eighth century missionary to the Germans, St. Boniface (c. 680-754). The priest played by Ian Holm is named Albertus, and the thirteenth century teacher of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas was St. Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) (c.1206-1280).


In both versions, the film’s pre-credit opens with the villagers gathered together to witness the hanging of a man and an ass that have been prosecuted and condemned for bestiality. On the scaffold stands the condemned man named Roger Landrier and the ass, the executioner, Albertus the priest (Ian Holm), and Magistrate Boniface (Michael Gough). Boniface reads out the criminal sentence of the civil court.

Just before the execution occurs a monk rushes forward calling for a stay of proceedings and hands a written petition to Boniface. The petitioners’ plea is that the ass was an innocent and unwilling victim. Boniface reads the petition, and then announces that the ass is not guilty and may be released. The villagers applaud. The priest Albertus gives the last rites and the condemned man Landrier is hung. Perhaps some viewers of the film interpret this scene as gallows humour that presumably is meant to typify the remainder of the story.

The pre-credit village scene may reflect a trial (but not the same outcome) at Montpellier in 1565 that involved a man and mule condemned for bestiality.


After this scene there is a slight difference between the two versions of the movie. In The Hour of the Pig  there is a brief written caption for the British and European audiences that simply states:

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 succinct text is less susceptible to conveying immediate prejudicial impressions to the viewing audience about the historical period in which the story is told. Perhaps this points to film-production strategies about how the modern European audience would respond to The Hour of the Pig. Perhaps some Europeans are much more in touch with their continental history, or the concise statements simply do not require elaboration once the word “medieval” is used.

It is certainly in great contrast to the extended text contained in The Advocate which was distributed by Miramax for audiences in the United States of America. The Advocate presents a scrolling text:

France – 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 some-times 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.


4.1 Factual Text or Propaganda?

The longer pre-credit text in The Advocate ostensibly explains to the viewing audience the historical backdrop to the story. Even though the story is a piece of historical fiction the film-maker nevertheless says that the animal law cases are “based on historical fact”.

Elements from some historical cases of the prosecution of animals have assuredly been used to tell the story. However, The Advocate’s pre-credit text, coupled with several other incidental elements of the story, contain historical anachronisms.

A few moments of reflection will enable us to see that the message conveyed in the pre-credit text is not a straight-forward piece of information. It sets up negative impressions for the audience to prejudge the era even before the fictitious story has been told. We do not simply have an entertaining story or even a reflective story that encourages viewers to discover a moral message learned from history.

The text carries forward to the audience an implied train of thought contrasting between “us” (today) and “them” (the fifteenth century).

Modern incredulity is embedded in the text but surfaces particularly in the last sentence of the pre-credit, “Unbelievable as it may seem, all cases shown in this film are based on historical fact.” Why should it seem “unbelievable” that animals were once prosecuted in European history, unless one is already being a tad scornful, or tacitly admitting considerable ignorance about a past era?

Moreover, it should be noted that punishment of animals via legal proceedings did not originate in the Church or in medieval Europe. Medieval and Renaissance Europe was not the only cultural context in which such trials have happened. Earlier precedents can be found in classical Greece, and other examples are found in various non-European cultures such as the ancient Near Eastern world, colonial America, India, the Congo, the Malacca of Malaysia, and the Maori of New Zealand.

Of course, most people forming the audience of the film The Advocate at the time of its release in the cinema would have had no prior historical knowledge about animals being prosecuted. So it undoubtedly would seem “unbelievable” to a largely uninformed audience.

How the audience responds to that message prompt and then to the story is another thing. Some probably share the prejudice that people in medieval times were prone to believing in all kinds of “nonsense”. There are customer video reviews on some websites where questions about the prosecution of animals are raised.

Others, it seems, have simply had a jolly old laugh by construing the motion-picture as being primarily an example of “black comedy“, that it is a form of gallows humour. Some of the bawdy elements of the story probably help to reinforce that impression of a black comedy. One can see this in comments of some customer reviews at Amazon and at the popular film-review site Rotten Tomatoes.

4.2 Edward Payson Evans’ Influence

Then there is a second layer to the incredulity that a smaller segment of the audience would mutually agree upon. Some members of the legal profession and other non-lawyer participants in animal rights causes are aware that animals were once prosecuted.

In English-speaking contexts most seem to have formed an understanding on this subject after reading the work of Edward Payson Evans (1831-1917). Evans initially wrote two articles about the phenomenon of animal law suits and these were published in the Atlantic Monthly in August and September 1884. Both articles formed the basis of two chapters in his subsequent book released in 1906, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.

Evans’ book is clearly one of the major sources standing behind the screenplay of The Advocate.

In recent decades, animal rights lawyers, and some scholars in other disciplines, have written academic journal articles about animal law trials. As might be expected, Evans’ book is regarded as an authoritative text that they invariably turn to. Piers Bierne (1994: 28) says of the book’s status that it “occupies a pivotal role in the small English-language literature devoted to the subject.”

Evans was of Welsh extraction raised in a Presbyterian household in nineteenth century USA. He seems to have embraced some of the intellectual scepticism of his day, particularly regarding the historiography of the medieval period. For example, he translated into English the two-volume work The Life and Works of Lessing.

Evans’ critical attitude on medieval animal law suits is reflected in his vocabulary (1906:12):

The judicial prosecution of animals, resulting in their excommunication by the Church or their execution by the hangman, had its origin in the common superstition of the age.

Evans speaks of “the common superstition of the age”, and that remark is the colour filter through which the medieval world and animal trials are then interpreted.

While not all current scholarship necessarily follows all of Evans’ theoretical explanations about “why” animals were prosecuted, nevertheless his late nineteenth century sceptical incredulity endures.

4.21 Lawyers & Scholars since Evans

In the years following the release of The Advocate, legal scholarship persists with the theme that animal law suits are bizarre. Paul Schiff Berman (1994: 290) notes the “weirdness” but also tempers this with some wise caution:

It would be impossible to discover with any certainty the reasons for this seemingly irrational custom. No doubt the motivations–psychological, economic, religious–varied from community to community, and from one social class to another. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to dismiss the animal trials as the unenlightened custom of a bygone era.

Another much more recent example is in Katie Sykes’ (2011:274) essay when she introduces the subject by saying:

It is about a historical practice that seems like far-fetched fiction.

Melodie Slabbert (2004: 160) picks up the impression of the “strangeness” of animal law trials:

What appears to have been acceptable acts in these times are today seen as puzzling and bizarre. It is strange that in the case of these animal trials, guilt (both in a moral and juridical sense) appears to have been attributed to these animals … It is indeed strange that intellectuals in late medieval and early modern Europe regarded acts such as filing a suit against mice, or officially punishing pigs by the hangmen of local towns, as perfectly reasonable.

Just like Sykes’ brief comment, Slabbert’s introductory remarks in her essay points to the “strangeness” of medieval intellectuals who had deemed it “reasonable” to prosecute animals. Embedded in these quotations are thoughts that illustrate the problem raised by the historian Darren Oldridge. Animal law suits only seem “strange” to us largely because we today are hopelessly unfamiliar with the “logic” of medieval thought and society. To which it might be added that sadly fewer and fewer undergraduate students in law enrol in elective courses on jurisprudence or devote much time to the study of legal history.

4.3 The Book of Days

It seems to be a “forgotten truth” that in the second half of the nineteenth century The Book of Days was a popular two-volume compendium of older cultural curiosities. It was compiled by Robert Chambers (1802-1871), first published in 1863 and reprinted many times.

In volume one, the entry for January 17 includes an article, “St Anthony and the Pigs: Legal Prosecutions of the Lower Animals” (pp 126-129). Chambers pointed out that animals came under different legal jurisdictions depending on whether they were domesticated or wild:

On the Continent, down to a comparatively late period, the lower animals were in all respects considered amenable to the laws. Domestic animals were tried in the common criminal courts, and their punishment on conviction was death; wild animals fell under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, and their punishment was banishment and death by exorcism and excommunication. (p 126)

Book of Days 1869 edition p 128.

Chambers also drew attention to Chassenée’s rat case (pp 127-128), and also to the trial of the pig in 1457. Chambers had an artist draw a scene about the pig’s trial which appears on page 128. Chambers remarks: “Our artist has endeavoured to represent this scene; but we fear that his sense of the ludicrous has incapacitated him for giving it with the due solemnity” (p 128).

As The Book of Days (1863) enjoyed wide circulation as a popular compendium, it can be inferred that some general knowledge about animal law suits was within the public domain of Britain more than two decades before Evans had his articles published in the Atlantic Monthly (1884), and over forty years before Evan’s full-length investigation was published in 1906. Evans’ scholastic scorn about the prosecution of animals in earlier times was clearly matched beforehand in the wider public domain.

It is worth keeping The Book of Days in mind in light of the sub-title of Hampton Carson’s essay in 1917: “A little known chapter of Medieval Jurisprudence”; and again Bierne’s essay abstract (1994:27), “I address a little-known chapter in the lengthy history of crimes against (nonhuman) animals.” From 1917 to 1994 we have the same point echoed that the animal law trials are “little-known”. How out-of-touch it seems both writers are with The Book of Days, a popular nineteenth century source that recounted some animal trials! Needless to say there is greater remoteness on the part of people writing today from the primary sources written in Latin from the medieval and Renaissance eras on the subject.

4.4 Latin, Anyone?

Everyone writing today about animal trials relies on what Evans has written. Evans was an accomplished linguist and he quite rightly referred to earlier French and Latin sources. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a present-day legal scholar going back directly to the sources that Evans’ consulted. Instead current day legal discussions about the animal trials come to us mediated through the filter of Evans’ book. The lack of modern critical editions of these French and Latin primary sources being translated into English is a telling point. Thus Chassenée’s own work (A Treatise on the Excommunication of Insects; published thrice during the sixteenth century) remains to this day untranslated from the Latin.

 4.5 Trial numbers

It should also be kept in mind that the number of the known recorded law suits involving animals is about two hundred or so in total. This spans a very lengthy period stretching from the Middle Ages (A. D. 824 ecclesiastical court in Aosta Valley, northern Italy) right up to 1906 (civil court in Switzerland).

The figure needs to be kept in mind to avoid creating exaggerated perceptions that possibly many thousands of animals were executed by the Church in medieval times. To which it must also be kept in mind that law suits against individual animals still took place in the civil (not ecclesiastical) courts in parts of Europe in  the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and as noted right up to 1906 in Switzerland.


To the minds of almost everyone living in the centuries when animal law trials were held there was a clear societal, theological, metaphysical, and jurisprudential “logic” operating that made the trials “normative” for the times.

Of course it can be pointed out that there were a few critical eyebrows raised about prosecuting animals, one of which was the thirteenth century Dominican priest and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Here we encounter Oldridge’s fundamental point that “when we have little understanding of the beliefs of another society, many of the acts that routinely occur within it may strike us as absurd.” The era of fifteenth century France is deliberately typecast in the pre-credit text as a time when people were generally superstitious and ignorant. They were “unenlightened” which stands in contrast to how “enlightened” we must be today.


The longer pre-credit text for The Advocate presents selected morsels of information about the broad period known as the Middle Ages. However, the vocabulary used employs rhetoric to express late-twentieth century incredulity about the Middle Ages.

6.1 Dark Ages an Anachronism

The first problem in The Advocate’s pre-credit text is describing fifteenth century France as the “dark ages.”

The term “dark ages” probably conjures up at a popular level today images of an era characterised by superstition and ignorance and a lack of scientific knowledge. The term might reinforce a smugness on our part when comparing our “sophisticated” time with the “ignorance” and “superstition” of an earlier age.

The expression was originally coined by the Italian Cardinal Caesar Baronius in 1602 to refer to patterns of events discerned in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Later, it became common to refer to the period spanning from the collapse of the Roman Empire until the rise of the Italian Renaissance as the “dark ages.” In other words that long era in European history spanning from the sixth century to the thirteenth century.

In terms of historiography, the “dark ages” once signified that the surviving written sources from the early Middle Ages were limited and scant. Among professional historians today, however, the term “dark ages” has been discarded, especially as a much greater depth of understanding now exists about the medieval world.

So The Advocate’s pre-credit uses a term that is (a) anachronistic (b) discredited and (c) fallen out of usage among professional historians because it is not a helpful descriptive term for understanding the medieval period.

The medieval world is not allowed to speak for itself on its own terms and within its own social “logic” but rather is filtered to us through the prejudices of the film-maker. A value-judgment is made at the start of the film about the period in which the story is set, and the pre-credit message seeks to both impart and to reinforce a negative impression to the audience.

6.2 Plague as an Anachronism

The second problem in The Advocate’s pre-credit concerns the plague. The pre-credit message also alludes to the fear of divine retribution via “plague”. At the close of the film a plague-infected knight arrives in the village. One could allow some leeway in that there was good reason to be fearful about outbreaks of plague, and people did interpret the plague as a sign of divine punishment.

The drawback with the pre-credit text and with the diseased knight in the story is that the year is 1452 (fifteenth century). However, the “Black Death” plague that decimated the population of Europe actually occurred one hundred years earlier in the fourteenth century and hit its peak in the years 1348-1350. Other kinds of plague broke out in different parts of Europe in the seventeenth century. Abbéville does not appear to have been affected by any known outbreaks of plague during the mid-fifteenth century.

6.3 Creative Licence & Muddled Law-Suits

According to the extra chapters on the DVD of The Advocate, the fictional lawyer Richard Courtois is based on the French jurist Bartholomew Chassenée. However, it needs to be kept clearly in mind that Chassenée was born in 1480 almost thirty years later than the story in The Advocate. Chassenée’s role as an advocate for animals involved cases heard before the ecclesiastical courts in France from 1500-1530.Aside from that anachronism, the film muddies the waters at a technical level concerning the law suits. The real case about the rats and the fictional case about Jeannine’s witchcraft were dealing with very different crimes. In other words, Chassenée’s case defending the rats was not about a law suit involving people charged with witchcraft.

Chassenée’s case was argued in an ecclesiastical court. Courtois argues cases in a civil or secular court. The film takes two different categories of historical crimes, and merges cases from two different jurisdictions (ecclesiastical and civil courts). Some creative licence is allowable for a film but we must recall that the story filters information. We are entitled to be mildly sceptical about the film’s pre-credit claim that all the cases told are “based on historical fact.” Yes, there are historical elements but the trial of Jeannine Martin is not a strictly accurate adaptation of one particular animal law trial.


Eric Sharpe observed in Understanding Religion (1983: 16) that “it cannot have escaped the notice of today’s educationalists that very many students no longer acknowledge the Judaeo-Christian tradition as a positive element in western society.” Sharpe recognised that all too-often people today make instant and dismissive judgments about past epochs that are little understood by those who scornfully dismiss them.

Sharpe insisted that undergraduate students must strive to genuinely understand history and religions on their own terms and in their own contexts before taking any further steps in critical analysis. He illustrated this with the reactions he often encountered among contemporary undergraduate students who had had some personal background in the Christian church:

Even the study of the Judaeo-Christian past does not absolve the student from the exercise of imaginative sympathy. When ordinary Christian students find it almost impossible to enter imaginatively into the Christianity of a hundred years ago, which they dismiss with a phrase such as ‘Victorian smugness’ or ‘imperialistic arrogance’, and decline to study more closely, is it not likely that the same difficulty will present itself magnified a thousandfold when the time comes to examine Christian origins or the Protestant reformation? One suspects in both these cases that what is being studied is less the first or the sixteenth century than the impression which each has left on the mind of the twentieth. (1983: 16-17).

Sharpe’s remarks could equally apply to the way in which today’s film-makers, lawyers and law-students should exercise great care in examining the history and the jurisprudence of Europe’s animal law trials.


Paul Schiff Berman (1994). “Rats, Pigs and Statues on Trial: The Creation of Cultural Narratives in the Prosecution of Animals and Inanimate Objects,” New York University Law Review 69: 288-326.

Piers Bierne (1994). “The Law Is An Ass: Reading E. P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.Society and Animals 2: 27-46.

Robert Chambers ed. (1869). The Book of Days. A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in connection with The Calendar, 2 Vols. (London and Edinburgh: W & R. Chambers).

Darren Oldridge (2007). Strange Histories: The trial of the pig, the walking dead, and other matters of fact from the medieval and Renaissance worlds (London and New York: Routledge).

Eric J. Sharpe (1983). Understanding Religion (London: Duckworth).

Melodie Slabbert (2004). “Prosecuting Animals in Medieval Europe: Possible Explanations.” Fundamina: A Journal of Legal History 10: 159-179.

Katie Sykes (2011). “Human Drama, Animal Trials: What The Medieval Animal Trials Can Teach Us About Justice For Animals.”   Animal Law 17: 273-311.


Paul Schiff Berman, “Rats, Pigs and Statues on Trial: The Creation of Cultural Narratives in the Prosecution of Animals and Inanimate Objects,” New York University Law Review 69 (1994): 288-326.

Paul Schiff Berman, “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?” Hastings Law Review 52 (2000): 123-178.

Piers Bierne, “The Law Is An Ass: Reading E. P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals,” Society and Animals 2 (1994): 27-46.

Gerald Carlson, Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Hampton L. Carson, “The Trial of Animals and Insects. A Little Known Chapter of Medieval Jurisprudence,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 56 (1971): 410-415.

Esther Cohen, “Law, Folklore and Animal Lore,” Past and Present 110 (1986): 6-37.

Peter Dinzelbacher, “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22 (2002): 405-421.

Edward Payson Evans, “Bugs and Beasts before The Law,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 54 (August 1884): 235-246.

Edward Payson Evans, “Mediaeval and Modern Punishment,” The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 54 (September 1884): 302-308.

Edward Payson Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1906/London: William Heinemann, 1906).

Jacob J. Finkelstein, “The Goring Ox: Some Historical Perspectives on Deodands, Forfeitures, Wrongful Death and the Western Notion of Sovereignty,” Temple Law Quarterly 46 (Winter 1973): 169-290.

Jacob J. Finkelstein, The Ox That Gored, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 71 Part 2 (1981) (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society).

Jen Girgen, “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals,” Animal Law 9 (2003): 97-103.

Bernard S. Jackson, “The Goring Ox,” in Essays in Jewish and Comparative Legal History, vol. 10, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 108-152.

Bernard S. Jackson, “Liability For Animals in Scottish Legal Literature: From The Auld Lawes to the Sixteenth Century,” The Irish Jurist 10 NS (1975): 334-351.

Bernard S. Jackson, “Liability For Animals in Roman Law: An Historical Sketch,” Cambridge Law Journal 37 (1978): 122-143.

Philip Jamieson, “Animal Liability in Early Law,” The Cambrian Law Review 19 (1988): 45-68.

Geoffrey MacCormack, “On Thing-Liability (Sachhaftung) in Early Law,” The Irish Jurist 19 (NS) (1984): 322-349.

Melodie Slabbert, “Prosecuting Animals in Medieval Europe: Possible ExplanationsFundamina: A Journal of Legal History 10 (2004): 159-179.

Katie Sykes, “Human Drama, Animal Trials: What The Medieval Animal Trials Can Teach Us About Justice For Animals,”   Animal Law 17 (2011): 273-311.