Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

The Life of Joan of Arc
By Anatole France


TOWARDS the end of the seventeenth century, there lived at Salon-en-Crau, near Aix, a farrier, one François Michel. He came of a respectable family. He himself had served in the cavalry regiment of the Chevalier de Grignan. He was held to be a sensible man, honest and devout. He was close on forty when, in February, 1697, he had a vision.

Returning to his home one evening, he beheld a spectre, holding a torch in its hand. This spectre said to him:

"Fear nothing. Go to Paris and speak to the King. If thou dost not obey this command thou shalt die. When thou shalt approach to within a league of Versailles, I will not fail to make known unto thee what things thou shalt say to his Majesty. Go to the Governor of thy province, who will order all that is necessary for thy journey."

The figure which thus addressed him was in the form of a woman. She wore a royal crown and a mantle embroidered with flowers-de-luce of gold, like the late Queen, Marie-Thérèse, who had died a holy death full fourteen years before.

The poor farrier was greatly afraid. He fell down at the foot of a tree, knowing not whether he dreamed or was awake. Then he went back to his house, and told no man of what he had seen.

Two days afterwards he passed the same spot. There[Pg ii.408] again he beheld the same spectre, who repeated the same orders and the same threats. The farrier could no longer doubt the reality of what he saw; but as yet he could not make up his mind what to do.

A third apparition, more imperious and more importunate than the first, reduced him to obedience. He went to Aix, to the Governor of the province; he saw him and told him how he had been given a mission to speak to the King. The Governor at first paid no great heed to him. But the visionary's patient persistence could not fail to impress him. Moreover, since the King was personally concerned in the matter, it ought not to be entirely neglected. These considerations led the Governor to inquire from the magistrates of Salon touching the farrier's family and manner of life. The result of these inquiries was very favourable. Accordingly the Governor deemed it fitting to proceed forthwith to action. In those days no one was quite sure whether advice, very useful to the most Christian of Kings, might not be sent by some member of the Church Triumphant through the medium of a common artisan. Still less were they sure that some plot in which the welfare of the State was concerned might not be hatched under colour of an apparition. In both contingencies, the second of which was quite probable, it would be advisable to send François Michel to Versailles. And this was the decision arrived at by the Governor.

For the transport of François Michel he adopted measures at once sure and inexpensive. He confided him to an officer who was taking recruits in that direction. After having received the communion in the church of the Franciscans, who were edified by his pious bearing, the farrier set out on February 25 with his Majesty's young soldiers, with whom he travelled as far as La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. On his arrival at Versailles, he asked to see the King or at least one of his Ministers of State. He was directed to M. de Barbezieux, who, when he was still very young, had succeeded his father, M. de Louvois,[Pg ii.409] and in that position had displayed some talent. But the good farrier declined to tell him anything, because he was not a Minister of State.

And it was true that Barbezieux, although a Minister, was not a Minister of State. But that a farrier from Provence should be capable of drawing such a distinction occasioned considerable surprise.

M. de Barbezieux doubtless did not evince such scorn for this compatriot of Nostradamus as would have been shown in his place by a man of broader mind. For he, like his father, was addicted to the practice of astrology, and he was always inquiring concerning his horoscope of a certain Franciscan friar who had predicted the hour of his death.

We do not know whether he gave the King a favourable report of the farrier, or whether the latter was admitted to the presence of M. de Pomponne, who was then at the head of the administration of Provence. But we do know that Louis XIV consented to see the man. He had him brought up the steps leading to the marble courtyard, and then granted him a lengthy audience in his private apartments.

On the morrow, as the King was coming down his private staircase on his way out hunting, he met Marshal de Duras, who was Captain of the King's bodyguard for the day. With his usual freedom of speech the Marshal spoke to the King of the farrier, using a common saying:

"Either the man is mad, or the King is not noble."

At these words the King, contrary to his usual habit, paused and turned to the Marshal de Duras:

"Then I am not noble," he said, "for I talked to him for a long time, and he spoke very sensibly; I assure you he is far from being mad."

The last words he uttered with so solemn a gravity that those who were present were astonished.

Persons who claim to be inspired are expected to show some sign of their mission. In a second interview, François Michel showed the King a sign in fulfilment of a[Pg ii.410] promise he had given. He reminded him of an extraordinary circumstance which the son of Anne of Austria believed known to himself alone. Louis XIV himself admitted it, but for the rest preserved a profound silence touching this interview.

Saint Simon, always eager to collect every court rumour, believed it was a question of some phantom, which more than twenty years before had appeared to Louis XIV in the Forest of Saint-Germain.

For the third and last time the King received the farrier of Salon.

The courtiers displayed so much curiosity in this visionary that he had to be shut up in the monastery of Des Rècollets. There the little Princess of Savoy, who was shortly to marry the Duke of Burgundy, came to see him with several lords and ladies of the court.

He appeared slow to speak, good, simple, and humble. The King ordered him to be furnished with a fine horse, clothes, and money; then he sent him back to Provence.

Public opinion was divided on the subject of the apparition which had appeared to the farrier and the mission he had received from it. Most people believed that he had seen the spirit of Marie-Thérèse; but some said it was Nostradamus.[1164]

It was only at Salon, where he slept in the church of the Franciscans, that this astrologer was absolutely believed in. His "Centuries," which appeared at Paris and at Lyon in no less than ten editions in the course of one century, entertained the credulous throughout the kingdom. In 1693, there had just been published a book of the prophecies of Nostradamus showing how they had been fulfilled in history from the reign of Henry II down to that of Louis the Great.[Pg ii.411]

It came to be believed that in the following mysterious quatrain the farrier's coming had been prophesied:

"Le penultiesme du surnom du Prophète,
Prendra Diane pour son iour et repos:
Loing vaguera par frénétique teste,
En délivrant un grand peuple d'impos."[1165]

An attempt was made to apply these obscure lines to the poor prophet of Salon. In the first line he is said to figure as one of the twelve minor prophets, Micah, which name is closely allied to Michel. In the second line Diane was said to be the mother of the farrier, who was certainly called by that name. But if the line means anything at all, it is more likely to refer to the day of the moon, Monday. It was carefully pointed out that in the third line frénétique means not mad but inspired. The fourth and only intelligible line would suggest that the spectre bade Michel ask the King to lessen the taxes and dues which then weighed so heavily on the good folk of town and country:

En délivrant un grand peuple d'impos. This was enough to make the farrier popular and to cause those unhappy sufferers to centre in this poor windbag their hopes for a better future. His portrait was engraved in copper-plate, and below it was written the quatrain of Nostradamus. M. d'Argenson,[1166] who was at the head of the police department, had these portraits seized. They were suppressed, so says the Gazette d'Amsterdam, on account of the last line of the quatrain written beneath the portrait, the line which runs: En délivrant un grand peuple d'impos. Such an expression was hardly likely to please the court.

No one ever knew exactly what was the mission the farrier received from his spectre. Subtle folk suspected one of Madame de Maintenon's intrigues. She had a friend[Pg ii.412] at Marseille, a Madame Arnoul, who was as ugly as sin, it was said, and yet who managed to make men fall in love with her. They thought that this Madame Arnoul had shown Marie-Thérèse to the good man of Salon in order to induce the King to live honourably with widow Scarron. But in 1697 widow Scarron had been married to Louis for twelve years at least; and one cannot see why ghostly aid should have been necessary to attach the old King to her.

On his return to his native town, François Michel shoed horses as before.

He died at Lançon, near Salon, on December 10, 1726.[1167]


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