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The Trial of Joan of Arc

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc, Translated by W. P. Barrett. With an essay on the Trial, Dramatis Personae, etc., by Pierre Champion, translated by Coley Taylor and Ruth P. Kerr. New York; Gotham House. $4.00.

Except for an incomplete version which appeared thirty years ago, “The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc” represents the first attempt to translate into English the documents and minutes that relate to the trial of “a certain woman, commonly called The Maid.” For that matter, the record remained in manuscript until 1841, when, translated into French, it became available to the imaginative. It is well to recall this when we think of Schiller and Voltaire, each of whom, in his own way, attempted to deal with the passion of Rouen. It is to the Quicherat version of 1841 that we may trace the efforts of the modern writers who have made Joan their own: Anatole France, Andrew Lang, Mark Twain, and, greatest of all, Bernard Shaw, with his play and preface, “Saint Joan.” Worthy of mention in this connection, also, is the essay contributed to the present volume by M. Champion, an authority on the period of English occupation that resulted from the marriage between Henry V, victor of Agincourt, and the daughter of the French king. But now the average reader may see for himself, not only what was done by a person who is officially a saint, but what was done to her, under color of regularity, by a court which lacked even technical jurisdiction.

But the book will interest many who care nothing for points of jurisdiction. There was never a State trial that did not give, on every margin, an illumination of the life of the period; not life as it affects the great merely, but life as it appears to the lowly. For the State trial means one against the gods of popular feeling; and community prejudice is community life. And so when a person is tried for treason, heresy, or witchcraft, as distinct from burglary, the facts as marshalled make the reader feel as though he were looking out of a window into the market place. Even the last treason trial that has taken place in England, that of Roger Casement, opens with the tone of a Good Friday morning on the Irish coast.

The present record gives us the pageant which began at Domremy and ended with the affair before Compiegne wherein Joan was captured by “the Bastard of Wandomme,” a feudatory of the Duke of Burgundy, then an ally of the English. The minutes, it is true, were taken down in the French that was used by accused, judge, and assessors. But the Latin transcript which has come down to us was made immediately after the trial; and so faithful does it appear to be that in many instances the notaries who drew it up are compelled to drop into the vernacular. Thus with the military terms, “assault-at-arms,” “sally”; thus with the “demi-charger” (not a big war horse, but a lighter animal of the sort that a lady warrior naturally would prefer); thus with the simple oaths which Joan admitted using, “bon gre Dieu,” “Nostre Dame,” and “Saint Jehan.” And so with “this proverb in the French tongue: Aide toy, et Dieu te aidera.” Not even the Latin of the fifteenth century schools had room for such expressions, as most assuredly it had no words for millinery of the period, “white armour” and the like. There is of course the agony that lies in the questioning, the recantation, the relapse, and the awful judgment by which the victim, already on the fagots, was handed over to the secular arm. But one may look at green fields while this issue of life and death is proceeding. We hear of the tree near Domremy that the elves visited, and of voices coming through the dusk as church bells rang for compline; but we learn other things not so commonly mentioned. Not only did fairies haunt the old oak in the meadow, but Joan’s godmother, it appears, had seen the Little People. All know how Joan consorted with personages of the French court; but this record shows that in her captivity she met two ladies of far more interest. They glide across the page and then vanish forever, do those great dames who visited Joan while yet the Burgundians held her, and undertook that never should she be given over to the English if only she would quit wearing men’s dress. That they could perform this promise they seemed confident; nor did Joan doubt it, for one was the wife of the lord who held Joan in custody, and the other was “the ancient demoiselle of Luxembourg.” Against the united will of those ladies what would have been the power of Burgundy, or of England? Then we have Joan’s replies to her judges; her quoting of little proverbs of the country in a nervous French for which the stenographers could find no Latin equivalent. And, for counterpoint, we have the coarse joke, with a worse implication, gotten off by Robert de Baudricourt before that rough captain of a frontier post decided to start Joan on her way to the Dauphin. Yet the girl, be it noted, was pure at heart and in act. The police circulars, if we may so call them, issued before the Burgundians turned The Maid over to the English, called her a woman of evil life; but these statements failed of even the shadow of proof, and Joan was adjudged guilty of crimes quite different in character and effect. There was talk of a breach of promise suit, tried at Toul, in which she figured, but she had been defendant, not plaintiff; the disobedient girl having refused to accept a suitor whom her father (a small bourgeois, be it noted, and not a peasant) had selected for her in good French fashion.

The lawyer who reads this book should note a point that may go harder with him than with the historian or the general reader—a point, indeed, which colors the whole trial. There are certain situations, it must be admitted, wherein the judicial process is inadequate and of its nature must be. Of course, somewhere in the preface of this book, there is the inevitable comparison of Joan with Christ. But there is no need of that. The idea can be expressed more effectively by asking whether intelligent persons among the Allied statesmen (if there were any) really wanted to capture the Kaiser; whether thoughtful Englishmen were pleased when Napoleon came on board their battleship after the Hundred Days; and whether, on a little more reflection, the Johnson administration would have proceeded to an arraignment of Mr. Davis at Richmond. The court which tried Joan was not canonically instituted; and its treatment of her was inconsistent with the rules that governed proceedings of this character. But above and beyond lay the fact, revealed at the time to the feminine mind at least, as represented by the prisoner and the two ladies who visited Joan while she was in the power of Burgundy—that the case was not meant for Englishmen, or Frenchmen either.

This appears on the face of the record. There were the Voices; there were the three Saints who appeared to Joan; she had made prophecies; she wore men’s dress by the command of her Voices, not only in camp and the English prison at Rouen, when really there was need, but even in the more or less friendly castle where she was first a prisoner. Were these revelations divine, were they from the spirit of evil, or was she crazy? It is noteworthy that, in the opinions of numerous learned men which the court took before it gave judgment, one or two reserved the issue of sanity. But apart from that question, the point arising on the undisputed facts was solely of theology. The doctors of the law, as distinct from those learned in divinity, developed this clearly in the opinions they rendered. But as the clerical assessors laboured under bias, the case of Joan developed into a proposition for which there was but one court, and that was at Rome. To Rome, indeed, she herself appealed; and in the evasive answer that was given to this demand were the seeds that germinated, centuries later, in her canonization.

This is one of the three great questions that attend the history of Joan. For it, as for the other two, there can be no room in this short review. It seems fitting, however, that Rome, acknowledged then by all sides to be the court of last resort, has spoken. As to the rest, the reader should reflect upon the fascinating suggestions made by Mr. Bernard Shaw as to the questions: why did the English want to get rid of Joan, and why did the local representatives of the Church (all in the English power) take over a case that in those brutal days might be handled summarily by the victor? The suggestion is at least plausible that the English leaders did not think as deeply as Mr. Shaw supposes, that all they wanted was to satisfy the “hang the Kaiser” element, and that a happy accident furnished them with a method. Convicted of heresy, this girl, whether handed over to the secular arm or merely imprisoned in a church penitentiary after recantation, would be [thoroughly discredited, and never again could inspire generals or inflame men-at-arms. As for Cauchon, the refugee Bishop of Beauvais, and the University of Paris, it is just possible that their motives in part, at least, had more to do with the routine of their common job than with policies based upon Lollardry and the Hussite insurrection. At the time there was a local bother about a Brother Richard and several Holy Rollers of the female persuasion who were troublesome around Paris. Rumor associated Joan with them; and perhaps the action of the local dignitaries, under English control though they were, was as automatic as would be that of a modern coroner who is advised that a corpse has been found bearing marks of foul play. The trial developed the points on which the case finally turned, rather than being a result of them.

But be all that as it may, Joan is now safe. The Church has canonized her; and even her own country, save for those intervals when France feels the urge to pull something down that was up, thinks well of her. Unfortunately for her, perhaps, she also belongs to us. Our fact finders are looking into her ease, as well as Mr, Shaw. Brilliant things have been written about her; but it is rather a penance that this genius who was a labarum for the discouraged should also be a focal point for the commonplace.


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