L’Affaire Contrafatto: Law and Narrative

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On October 15 1827, a 28-year old priest, Joseph Contrafatto, was sentenced for raping five-year old Hortense Le Bon. My article analyses the trial of this cause célèbre, especially the rhetorical strategies used by the prosecution and defense. This is the first study that interprets Contrafatto’s 58-page trial within Robert Cover’s legal framework. Applying Cover’s analyses of “innovative legal arguments” to the Contrafatto case illuminates how the prosecution’s closing arguments were the precursor to new legal definitions of especially article 332 of the Code Pénal. Moreover, omissions and unclear language in the Code contributed to judges and lawyers’ ability to modify rape penal code over time. French jurisprudence would come to include la violence morale (a type of coercion or abuse of an individual’s trust or naivety) and the requirement of consent as constitutive parts of the rape statues concerning children and adults in 1857. This paper considers how narrative shapes law to reflect social mores. For Cover, when a dynamic model of law and judicial processes occur, legal statutes are not static; they are always “becoming” (6). Contrafatto’s trial, analyzed within the context of 19th-century rape penal law, laid the foundation for the evolution of France’s 1810 Penal Code as differing interpretations and social understandings of rape entered into French jurisprudence throughout the century.