Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Jeanne d'Arc: Her Life and Death Chapter 18

AFTER.

The natural burst of remorse which follows such an event is well known in history; and is as certainly to be expected as the details of the great catastrophe itself. We feel almost as if, had there not been fact and evidence for such a revulsion of feeling, it must have been recorded all the same, being inevitable. The executioner, perhaps the most innocent of all, sought out Frère Isambard, and confessed to him in an anguish of remorse fearing never to be pardoned for what he had done. An Englishman who had sworn to add a faggot to the flames in which the witch should be burned, when he rushed forward to keep his word was seized with sudden compunction–believed that he saw a white dove flutter forth from amid the smoke over her head, and, almost fainting at the sight, had to be led by his comrades to the nearest tavern for refreshment, a life-like touch in which we recognise our countryman; but he too found his way that afternoon to Frère Isambard like the other. A horrible story is told by the Bourgeois de Paris, whose contemporary journal is one of the authorities for this period, that “the fire was drawn aside” in order that Jeanne’s form, with all its clothing burned away, should be visible by one last act of shameless insult to the crowd. The fifteenth century believed, as we have said, everything that is cruel and horrible, as indeed the vulgar mind does at all ages; but such brutal imaginings have seldom any truth to support them, and there is no such suggestion in the actual record. Isambard and Massieu heard from one of the officials that when every other part of her body was destroyed the heart was found intact, but was, by the order of Winchester, flung into the Seine along with all the ashes of that sacrifice. It was wise no doubt that no relics should be kept.

Other details were murmured abroad amid the excited talk that followed this dreadful scene. “When she was enveloped by the smoke, she cried out for water, holy water, and called to St. Michæl; then hung her head upon her breast and breathing forth the name of Jesus, gently died.” “Being in the flame her voice never ceased repeating in a loud voice the holy name of Jesus, and invoking without cease the saints of paradise, she gave up her spirit, bowing her head and saying the name of Jesus in sign of the fervour of her faith.” One of the Canons of Rouen, standing sobbing in the crowd, said to another: “Would that my soul were in the same place where the soul of that woman is at this moment"; which indeed is not very different from the authorised saying of Pierre Morice in the prison. Guillaume Manchon, the reporter, he who wrote superba responsio on his margin, and had written down every word of her long examination–his occupation for three months,– says that he “never wept so much for anything that happened to himself, and that for a whole month he could not recover his calm." This man adds a very characteristic touch, to wit, that “with part of the pay which he had for the trial, he bought a missal, that he might have a reason for praying for her.” Jean Tressat, “secretary to the King of England” (whatever that office may have been), went home from the execution crying out, “We are all lost, for we have burned a saint.” A priest, afterwards bishop, Jean Fabry, “did not believe that there was any man who could restrain his tears.”

The modern historians speak of the mockeries of the English, but none are visible in the record. Indeed, the part of the English in it is extraordinarily diminished on investigation; they are the supposed inspirers of the whole proceedings; they are believed to be continually pushing on the inquisitors; still more, they are supposed to have bought all that large tribunal, the sixty or seventy judges, among whom were the most learned and esteemed Doctors in France; but of none of this is there any proof given. That they were anxious to procure Jeanne’s condemnation and death, is very certain. Not one among them believed in her sacred mission, almost all considered her a sorceress, the most dangerous of evil influences, a witch who had brought shame and loss to England by her incantations and evil spells. On that point there could be no doubt whatever. She alone had stopped the progress of the invaders, and broken the charm of their invariable success. But all that she had done had been in favour of Charles, who made no attempt to serve or help her, and who had thwarted her plans, and hindered her work so long as it was possible to do so, even when she was performing miracles for his sake. And Alençon, Dunois, La Hire, where were they and all the knights? Two of them at least were at Louvins, within a day’s march, but never made a step to rescue her. We need not ask where were the statesmen and clergy on the French side, for they were unfeignedly glad to have the burden of condemning her taken from their hands. No one in her own country said a word or struck a blow for Jeanne. As for the suborning of the University of Paris en masse, and all its best members in particular, that is a general baseness in which it is impossible to believe. There is no appearance even of any particular pressure put upon the judges. Jean de la Fontaine disappeared, we are told, and no one ever knew what became of him: but it was from Cauchon he fled. And nothing seems to have happened to the monks who attended the Maid to the scaffold, nor to the others who sobbed about the pile. On the other side, the Doctors who condemned her were in no way persecuted or troubled by the French authorities when the King came to his own. There was at the time a universal tacit consent in France to all that was done at Rouen on the 31st of May, 1431.

One reason for this was not far to seek. We have perhaps already sufficiently dwelt upon it. It was that France was not France at that dolorous moment. It was no unanimous nation repulsing an invader. It was two at least, if not more countries, one of them frankly and sympathetically attaching itself to the invader, almost as nearly allied to him in blood, and more nearly by other bonds, than any tie existing between France and Burgundy. This does not account for the hostile indifference of southern France and of the French monarch to Jeanne, who had delivered them; but it accounts for the hostility of Paris and the adjacent provinces, and Normandy. She was as much against them as against the English, and the national sentiment to which she, a patriot before her age, appealed,–bidding not only the English go home, or fight and be vanquished, which was their only alternative–but the Burgundians to be converted and to live in peace with their brothers,–did not exist. Neither to Burgundians, Picards, or Normans was the daughter of far Champagne a fellow countrywoman. There was neither sympathy nor kindness in their hearts on that score. Some were humane and full of pity for a simple woman in such terrible straits; but no more in Paris than in Rouen was the Maid of Orleans a native champion persecuted by the English; she was to both an enemy, a sorceress, putting their soldiers and themselves to shame.

I have no desire to lessen our[1] guilt, whatever cruelty may have been practised by English hands against the Heavenly Maid. And much was practised–the iron cage, the chains, the brutal guards, the final stake, for which may God and also the world, forgive a crime fully and often confessed. But it was by French wits and French ingenuity that she was tortured for three months and betrayed to her death. A prisoner of war, yet taken and tried as a criminal, the first step in her downfall was a disgrace to two chivalrous nations; but the shame is greater upon those who sold than upon those who bought; and greatest of all upon those who did not move Heaven and earth, nay, did not move a finger, to rescue. And indeed we have been the most penitent of all concerned; we have shrived ourselves by open confession and tears. We have quarrelled with our Shakespeare on account of the Maid, and do not know how we could have forgiven him, but for the notable and delightful discovery that it was not he after all, but another and a lesser hand that endeavoured to befoul her shining garments. France has never quarrelled with her Voltaire for a much fouler and more intentional blasphemy.

The most significant and the most curious after-scene, a pendant to the remorse and pity of so many of the humbler spectators, was the assembly held on the Thursday after Jeanne’s death, how and when we are not told. It consisted of “nos judices antedicti,” but neither is the place of meeting named, nor the person who presided. Its sole testimonial is that the manuscript is in the same hand which has written the previous records: but whereas each page in that record was signed at the bottom by responsible notaries, Manchon and his colleagues, no name whatever certifies this. Seven men, Doctors and persons of high importance, all judges on the trial, all concerned in that last scene in the prison, stand up and give their report of what happened there–part of which we have quoted–their object being to establish that Jeanne at the last acknowledged herself to be deceived. According to their own showing it was exactly such an acknowledgment as our Lord might have been supposed to make in the moment of his agony when the words of the psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” burst from his lips. There seems no reason that we can see, why this evidence should not be received as substantially true. The inference that any real recantation on Jeanne’s part was then made, is untrue, and not even asserted. She was deceived in respect to her deliverance, and felt it to the bottom of her heart. It was to her the bitterness of death. But the flames of her burning showed her the truth, and with her last breath she proclaimed her renewed conviction. The scene at the stake would lose something of its greatness without that momentary cloud which weighed down her troubled soul.

Twenty years after the martyrdom of Jeanne, long after he had, according to her prophecy, regained Paris and all that had been lost, it became a danger to the King of France that it should be possible to imagine that his kingdom had been recovered for him by means of sorcery; and accordingly a great new trial was appointed to revise the decisions of the old. In the same palace of the Archbishop at Rouen, which had witnessed so many scenes of the previous tragedy, the depositions of witnesses collected with the minutest care, and which it had taken a long time to gather from all quarters, were submitted for judgment, and a full and complete reversal of the condemnation was given. The procès was a civil one, instituted (nominally) by the mother and brothers of Jeanne, one of the latter being now a knight, Pierre de Lys, a gentleman of coat armour–against the heirs and representatives of Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, and Lemaître, the Deputy Inquisitor–with other persons chiefly concerned in the judgment. Some of these men were dead, some, wisely, not to be found. The result was such a mass of testimony as put every incident of the life of the Maid in the fullest light from her childhood to her death, and in consequence secured a triumphant and full acquittal of herself and her name from every reproach. This remarkable and indeed unique occurrence does not seem, however, to have roused any enthusiasm. Perhaps France felt herself too guilty: perhaps the extraordinary calm of contemporary opinion which was still too near the catastrophe to see it fully: perhaps that difficulty in the diffusion of news which hindered the common knowledge of a trial–a thing too heavy to be blown upon the winds,–while it promulgated the legend, a thing so much more light to carry: may be the cause of this. But it is an extraordinary fact that Jeanne’s name remained in abeyance for many ages, and that only in this century has it come to any sort of glory, in the country of which Jeanne is the first and greatest of patriots and champions, a country, too, to which national glory is more dear than daily bread.

In the new and wonderful spring of life that succeeded the revolution of 1830, the martyr of the fifteenth century came to light as by a revelation. The episode of the Pucelle in Michelet's History of France touched the heart of the world, and remains one of the finest efforts of history and the most popular picture of the saint. And perhaps, though so much less important in point of art, the maiden work of another maiden of Orleans–the little statue of Jeanne, so pure, so simple, so spiritual, made by the Princess Marie of that house, the daughter of the race which the Maid held in visionary love, and which thus only has ever attempted any return of that devotion– had its part in reawakening her name and memory. It fell again, however, after the great work of Quicherat had finally given to the country the means of fully forming its opinion on the subject which Fabre’s translation, though unfortunately not literal and adorned with modern decorations, was calculated to render popular. A great crop of statues and some pictures not of any great artistic merit have since been dedicated to the memory of the Maid: but yet the public enthusiasm has never risen above the tide mark of literary applause.

There has been, however, a great movement of enthusiasm lately to gain for Jeanne the honour of canonisation[2]; but it seems to have failed, or at least to have sunk again for the moment into silence. Perhaps these honours are out of date in our time. One of the most recent writers on the subject, M. Henri Blaze de Bury, suggests that one reason which retards this final consecration is “England, certainly not a negligible quantity to a Pope of our time.” Let no such illusion move any mind, French or ecclesiastical. Canonisation means to us, I presume, and even to a great number of Catholics, simply the highest honour that can be paid to a holy and spotless name. In that sense there is no distinction of nation, and the English as warmly as the French, both being guilty towards her, and before God on her account– would welcome all honour that could be paid to one who, more truly than any princess of the blood, is Jeanne of France, the Maid, alone in her lofty humility and valour, and in everlasting fragrance of modesty and youth.

[1] The writer must add that personally, as a Scot, she has no right to use this pronoun. Scotland is entirely guiltless of this crime. The Scots were fighting on the side of France through all these wars, a little perhaps for love of France, but much more out of natural hostility to the English. Yet at this time of day, except to state that fact, it is scarcely necessary to throw off the responsibility. The English side is now our side, though it was not so in the fifteenth century: and a writer of the English tongue must naturally desire that there should at least be fair play.

[2] I am informed, however, that she is already “Venerable,” not a very appropriate title–the same, I presume, as Bienheureuse, which is prettier,–and may therefore be addressed by the faithful in prayer, though her rank is only, as it were, brevet rank, and her elevation incomplete.

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