The Trial of Joan of Arc, which took place before an English-backed church court at Rouen, Normandy in the first half of the year 1431 was one of the more famous trials in history and the subject of many books and movies. It culminated in the execution of the person known to history as Joan of Arc, the young French peasant girl who was the defendant in the case. The trial verdict would later be reversed on appeal by the Inquisitor-General in 1456, thereby completely exonerating her. She is now a French national heroine and saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
The life of Joan of Arc is one of the best documented of her era. This is especially remarkable when one considers that she was not an aristocrat but rather a peasant girl. In one of history’s genuine ironies, this fact is due partly to the trial record kept by the same individuals who attempted to eradicate her name from memory, and partly due also to the records of the later appeal of her case after the war when the trial was investigated and its verdict was overturned.
Jules Quicherat published the first unabridged version of the trial record in the first volume of his five-volume series Procès de condamnation et de réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc in Paris in the 1840s. But it was not until 1932 that the first unabridged English translation became available when W.P. Barrett published his Trial of Joan of Arc in New York.The procedures of an Inquisitorial trial called for a preliminary investigation into the life of the accused. This investigation consisted of the collection of any evidence about the character of the subject, including witness testimony. This could then be followed by an interrogation of the suspect, in which he or she was compelled to provide testimony which could then be used against them in a subsequent trial.
In a letter of February 20, 1431, to the assessors and others summoning them to appear the morning of the following day for the first public interrogation session of Jeanne, Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, cited the grant of territory within the city of Rouen by the chapter of the cathedral of Rouen for the purpose of conducting the trial against Jeanne. Without such a grant, he would have been unable to conduct the hearings as he was not in his native diocese. He also affirmed that Jeanne was “vehemently suspected of heresy” and that “rumors of her acts and sayings wounding our faith had notoriously spread”. This was the basis for the diffamatio, a necessary ingredient in the bringing of charges against a suspect. He also alluded to the expected absence of the Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen, Jean Le Maistre, whose presence was required by canon law in order to validate the proceedings. On all three points, the Rehabilitation Trial would declare the proceedings to be at fault and would reverse the verdict.
In response to the summons of Bishop Cauchon, priest and usher Jean Massieu, on this same date, reported that Joan had agreed to appear, but that she requested that ecclesiastics of the French side be summoned equal in number to those of the English party, and that she be allowed to hear Mass. In response, promoter Jean d’Estivet forbade Joan to attend the divine offices, citing “especially the impropriety of the garments to which she clung” according to the Trial transcript (Barrett translation).
During the course of several days of interrogations, she was asked concerning matters such as her name, her birth, her parents and godparents, her baptism, and her religious upbringing. When she reported that her mother had taught her the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Credo, Cauchon asked her to repeat her Pater Noster. She replied that she would do so only if she were allowed to be heard in Confession. She stated that at the age of twelve or thirteen, she “had a voice from God to help and guide me”, but that at first she “was much afraid”. She added that the voice was “seldom heard without a light” and that she “often heard the voice” when she came to France. She then related details of her journey from Domrémy, to Chinon, first applying to Robert de Baudricourt in Vaucouleurs for an escort and leaving that city wearing male attire and equipped with a sword supplied by Sir Robert.
Several questions of a theological nature followed, including this one that has become iconic: Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace? To which she replied: If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.
Other questions addressed the saints (called “apparitions” by the questioner, Pierre Cauchon) whom she believed visited her. She was asked whether they were male or female, did they have hair, what language they spoke, etc. Asked whether St. Margaret spoke English, she replied: “Why should she speak English when she is not on the English side?”
A recurring question concerned her adoption of a soldier’s attire, which was considered abominable in a woman. She always responded that she did it by revelation and by God’s command. Joan seemed aware that her inquisitor Pierre Couchon was acting in bad faith. She told him:”You say that you are my judge; I do not know if you are: but take good heed not to judge me ill, because you would put yourself in great peril. And I warn you so that if God punish you for it, I shall have done my duty in telling you.” Asked about any need she felt to confess, she responded that she “did not know of having committed mortal sin” adding that “if I were in mortal sin, I think St. Catherine and St. Margaret would at once abandon me.”
The ordinary, or regular, trial of Joan began on March 26, the day after Palm Sunday, with the drawing up of the 70 articles (later summarized in a 12 article indictment). If Joan refused to answer them, she would be said to have admitted them. On the following day, the articles were read aloud and Joan was questioned in French. The next two days, the extensive list of charges were then read again to her in French. The Ordinary Trial concluded on May 24 with her abjuration, an important turning point in the proceedings.
On May 24, Joan was taken to a scaffold set up in the cemetery next to Saint-Ouen Church, and told that she would be burned immediately unless she signed a document renouncing her visions and agreeing to stop wearing soldiers’ clothing. She had been wearing a soldiers’ outfit consisting of a tunic, hosen, and long boots that went up to the waist, tied together with cords around the waist. The clergy who served on the tribunal later said Joan had kept this clothing tied tightly together during her months in prison because she said she needed such an outfit to protect herself from possible rape.The trial record omits much information on this issue, but does contain quotes from her protesting that she was not doing anything wrong; but faced with immediate execution on May 24, she agreed to give up this clothing and sign the abjuration document.
On May 28, Joan recanted her previous abjuration, donned men’s apparel once more, and was accused of relapsing into heresy. The chief trial notary later said: “she was asked why she had readopted this male clothing, to which she replied that she had done it for the protection of her virginity, for she was not secure while wearing female clothing with her guards, who had tried to rape her. She seemed to be fearful of death at the stake. She is documented as saying “Through His Saints, God informed me of His great sorrow for the treason that I had committed by signing the abjuration. To save my life I betrayed Him and in so doing I damned myself!” ( In the margin of his paper the court notary wrote: “Responsio Mortifera” which means, “fatal answer.”) All that I said and revoked that Thursday, I did for fear of the fire!”
She was declared “relapsed”, giving the court nominal justification to have her executed. “Only those who had relapsed – that is, those who having once adjured their errors returned to them – could be condemned to death by a tribunal of the Inquisition and delivered for death.”
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the Old Marketplace in Rouen.
When the French regained Rouen in 1449, a series of investigations were launched in 1452 which led to a formal appeal run by the Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal at the request of Joan’s mother Isabelle Romée in 1455. A posthumous retrial of Joan of Arc was authorized by Pope Callixtus III. The aim of the trial was to investigate whether the trial of condemnation and its verdict had been handled justly and according to canon law. The final summary in June, 1456 described Joan as a martyr and implicated the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. The court declared her innocence on 7 July 1456.Her legend would grow from there, leading to her beatification in 1909 and her canonization in 1920.
Joan’s impact has been manifold. Although currently she has been embraced by French nationalists and members of traditionalist French Catholicism, her image and story also have been appropriated by many artists and writers who have admired her self-determination and courage, as well as political movements advocating women’s right to vote. In 1909, the French hairdresser Antoine created the “Joan of Arc” haircut, i.e., the bob that became popular in the 1920’s as the style for modern women. It has been a style widely accepted in the 20th century until today.
THE POLARIZED IMPACT OF JOAN OF ARC
The preceding summaries quotes segments of the Wikipedia articles on the Condemnation and Rehabilitation Trials of Joan of Arc, which in turn cite the following resources:
- An English translation of most of the testimony from these postwar investigations can be found in “The Retrial of Joan of Arc; The Evidence at the Trial For Her Rehabilitation 1450 – 1456” by Régine Pernoud, translated into English by J.M. Cohen.
- DuParc, Pierre (1977). Procès en Nullité de la Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc, Volume 1. Société de l’Histoire de France. p. 426.
- DuParc, Pierre (1977). Procès en Nullité de la Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc, Volume 1. Société de l’Histoire de France. p. 181.
- DuParc, Pierre (1977). Procès en Nullité de la Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc, Volume 1. Société de l’Histoire de France. p. 427.
- Quicherat, Jules (1844). Procès de Condamnation et de Réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc, Volume 2. Société de l’Histoire de France. p. 18.
- Pernoud, Régine; Marie Véronique Clin (1998). Joan of Arc. St. Martin’s Press. p. 132.
- “Joan’s Trial and Execution at Rouen”, in Joan of Arc: Her Story by Régine Pernoud and Marie-Véronique Clin.
- Transcription of the Condemnation documents, in Procès de condamnation et de réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc volume I, by Jules Quicherat (transcriber and editor).
- “The Trial of Condemnation”, in Joan of Arc, By Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud, translated by Edward Hyams. Includes lengthy excerpts from the transcript and descriptions by the eyewitnesses.
- “The Trial of Joan of Arc”, by Daniel Hobbins, translator.
- “Medieval Sourcebook: The Trial of Joan of Arc” by W.P. Barrett
- Sources for the Condemnation Trial at Stejeannedarc.net. Includes 15th century sources, plans of the prison and trial location, and other information.
- The text of the condemnation trial at MedievalHistory.org.
This article incorporates material from the Citizendium article “Trial of Joan of Arc“, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License but not under the GFDL.