Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Jeanne d'Arc: Her Life and Death Chapter 16

THE ABJURATION. MAY 24, 1431.

On the 23d of May Jeanne was taken back to her prison attended by the officer of the court, Massieu, her frame still thrilling, her heart still high, with that great note of constancy yet defiance. She had been no doubt strongly excited, the commotion within her growing with every repetition of these scenes, each one of which promised to be the last. And the fire and the stake and the executioner had come very near to her; no doubt a whole murmuring world of rumour, of strange information about herself, never long inaudible, never heard outside of the Castle of Rouen, rose half-comprehended from the echoing courtyard outside and the babble of her guards within. She would hear even as she was conveyed along the echoing stone passages something here and there of the popular expectation:–a burning! the wonderful unheard of sight, which by hook or by crook everyone must see; and no doubt among the English talk she might now be able to make out something concerning this long business which had retarded all warlike proceedings but which would soon be over now, and the witch burnt. There must have been some, even among those rude companions, who would be sorry, who would feel that she was no witch, yet be helpless to do anything for her, any more than Massieu could, or Frère Isambard: and if it was all for the sake of certain words to be said, was the wench mad? would it not be better to say anything, to give up anything rather than be burned at the stake? Jeanne, notwithstanding the wonderful courage of her last speech, must have returned to her cell with small illusion possible to her intelligent spirit. The stake had indeed come very near, the flames already dazzled her eyes, she must have felt her slender form shrink together at the thought. All that long night, through the early daylight of the May morning did she lie and ponder, as for far less reasons so many of us have pondered as we lay wakeful through those morning watches. God’s promises are great, but where is the fulfilment? We ask for bread and he gives us, if not a stone, yet something which we cannot realise to be bread till after many days. Jeanne’s voices had never paused in their pledge to her of succour. “Speak boldly, God will help you–fear nothing"; there would be aid for her before three months, and great victory. They went on saying so, though the stake was already being raised. What did they mean? what did they mean? Could she still trust them? or was it possible ––?

Her heart was like to break. At their word she would have faced the fire. She meant to do so now, notwithstanding the terrible, the heartrending ache of hope that was still in her. But they did not give her that heroic command. Still and always, they said God will help you, our Lord will stand by you. What did that mean? It must mean deliverance, deliverance! What else could it mean? If she held her head high as she returned to the horrible monotony of that prison so often left with hope, so often re-entered in sadness, it must soon have dropped upon her tired bosom. Slowly the clouds had settled round her. Over and over again had she affirmed them to be true–these voices that had guided her steps and led her to victory. And they had promised her the aid of God if she went forward boldly, and spoke and did not fear. But now every way of salvation was closing; all around her were fierce soldiers thirsting for her blood, smooth priests who admonished her in charity, threatening her with eternal fire for the soul, temporal fire for the body. She felt that fire, already blowing towards her as if on the breath of the evening wind, and her girlish flesh shrank. Was that what the voices had called deliverance? was that the grand victory, the aid of the Lord?

It may well be imagined that Jeanne slept but little that night; she had reached the lowest depths; her soul had begun to lose itself in bitterness, in the horror of a doubt. The atmosphere of her prison became intolerable, and the noise of her guards keeping up their rough jests half through the night, their stamping and clamour, and the clang of their arms when relieved. Early next morning a party of her usual visitors came in upon her to give her fresh instruction and advice. Something new was about to happen to-day. She was to be led forth, to breathe the air of heaven, to confront the people, the raging sea of men’s faces, all the unknown world about her. The crowd had never been unfriendly to Jeanne. It had closed about her, almost wherever she was visible, with sweet applause and outcries of joy. Perhaps a little hope stirred her heart in the thought of being surrounded once more by the common folk, though probably it did not occur to her to think of these Norman strangers as her own people. And a great day was before her, a day in which something might still be done, in which deliverance might yet come. L’Oyseleur, who was one of her visitors, adjured her now to change her conduct, to accept whatever means of salvation might be offered to her. There was no longer any mention of Pope or Council, but only of the Church to which she ought to yield. How it was that he preserved his influence over her, having been proved to be a member of the tribunal that judged her, and not a fellow-prisoner, nor a fellow-countryman, nor any of the things he had professed to be, no once can tell us; but evidently he had managed to do so. Jeanne would seem to have received him without signs of repulsion or displeasure. Indeed she seems to have been ready to hear anyone, to believe in those who professed to wish her well, even when she did not follow their counsel.

It would require, however, no great persuasion on L’Oyseleur’s part to convince her that this was a more than usually important day, and that something decisive must be done, now or never. Why should she be so determined to resist her only chance of safety? If she were but delivered from the hands of the English, safe in the gentler keeping of the Church, there would be time to think of everything, even to make her peace with her voices who would surely understand if, for the saving of her life, and out of terror for the dreadful fire, she abandoned them for a moment. She had disobeyed them at Beaurevoir and they had forgiven. One faltering word now, a mark of her hand upon a paper, and she would be safe–even if still all they said was true; and if indeed and in fact, after buoying her up from day to day, such a dreadful thing might be as that they were not true ––

The traitor was at her ear whispering; the cold chill of disappointment, of disillusion, of sickening doubt was in her heart.

Then there came into the prison a better man than L’Oyseleur, Jean Beaupère, her questioner in the public trial, the representative of all these notabilities. What he said was spoken with authority and he came in all seriousness, may not we believe in some kindness too? to warn her. He came with permission of the Bishop, no stealthy visitor. “Jean Beaupère entered alone into the prison of the said Jeanne by permission, and advertised her that she would straightway be taken to the scaffold to be addressed (/pour y être preschée), and that if she was a good Christian she would on that scaffold place all her acts and words under the jurisdiction of our Holy Mother, the Church, and specially of the ecclesiastical judges.” “Accept the woman’s dress and do all that you are told,” her other adviser had said. When the car that was to convey her came to the prison doors, L’Oyseleur accompanied her, no doubt with a show of supporting her to the end. What a change from the confined and gloomy prison to the dazzling clearness of the May daylight, the air, the murmuring streets, the throng that gazed and shouted and followed! Life that had run so low in the prisoner’s veins must have bounded up within her in response to that sunshine and open sky, and movement and sound of existence– summer weather too, and everything softened in the medium of that soft breathing air, sound and sensation and hope. She had been three months in her prison. As the charrette rumbled along the roughly paved streets drawing all those crowds after it, a strange object appeared to Jeanne’s eyes in the midst of the market-place, a lofty scaffold with a stake upon it, rising over the heads of the crowd, the logs all arranged ready for the fire, a car waiting below with four horses, to bring hither the victim. The place of sacrifice was ready, everything arranged–for whom? for her? They drove her noisily past that she might see the preparations. It was all ready; and where then was the great victory, the deliverance in which she had believed?

In front of the beautiful gates of St. Ouen there was a different scene. That stately church was surrounded then by a churchyard, a great open space, which afforded room for a very large assembly. In this were erected two platforms, one facing the other. On the first sat the court of judges in number about forty, Cardinal Winchester having a place by the side of Monseigneur de Beauvais, the president, with several other bishops and dignified ecclesiastics. Opposite, on the other platform, were a pulpit and a place for the accused, to which Jeanne was conducted by Massieu, who never left her, and L’Oyseleur, who kept as near as he could, the rest of the platform being immediately covered by lawyers, doctors, all the camp followers, so to speak, of the black army, who could find footing there. Jeanne was in her usual male dress, the doublet and hose, with her short- clipped hair–no doubt looking like a slim boy among all this dark crowd of men. The people swayed like a sea all about and around–the throng which had gathered in her progress through the streets pushing out the crowd already assembled with a movement like the waves of the sea. Every step of the trial all through had been attended by preaching, by discourses and reasoning and admonishments, charitable and otherwise. Now she was to be “preached” for the last time.

It was Doctor Guillaume Érard who ascended the pulpit, a great preacher, one whom the “copious multitude” ran after and were eager to hear. He himself had not been disposed to accept this office, but no doubt, set up there on that height before the eyes of all the people, he thought of his own reputation, and of the great audience, and Winchester the more than king, the great English Prince, the wealthiest and most influential of men. The preacher took his text from a verse in St. John’s Gospel: “A branch cannot bear fruit except it remain in the vine.” The centre circle containing the two platforms was surrounded by a close ring of English soldiers, understanding none of it, and anxious only that the witch should be condemned.

It was in this strange and crowded scene that the sermon which was long and eloquent began. When it was half over, in one of his fine periods admired by all the people, the preacher, after heaping every reproach upon the head of Jeanne, suddenly turned to apostrophise the House of France, and the head of that House, “Charles who calls himself King.” “He has,” cried the preacher, stimulated no doubt by the eye of Winchester upon him, “adhered, like a schismatic and heretical person as he is, to the words and acts of a useless woman, disgraced and full of dishonour; and not he only, but the clergy who are under his sway, and the nobility. This guilt is thine, Jeanne, and to thee I say that thy King is a schismatic and a heretic.”

In the full flood of his oratory the preacher was arrested here by that clear voice that had so often made itself heard through the tumult of battle. Jeanne could bear much, but not this. She was used to abuse in her own person, but all her spirit came back at this assault on her King. And interruption to a sermon has always a dramatic and startling effect, but when that voice arose now, when the startled speaker stopped, and every dulled attention revived, it is easy to imagine what a stir, what a wonderful, sudden sensation must have arisen in the midst of the crowd. “By my faith, sire,” cried Jeanne, “saving your respect, I swear upon my life that my King is the most noble Christian of all Christians, that he is not what you say.”

The sermon, however, was resumed after this interruption. And finally the preacher turned to Jeanne, who had subsided from that start of animation, and was again the subdued and silent prisoner, her heart overwhelmed with many heavy thoughts. “Here,” said Èrard, “are my lords the judges who have so often summoned and required of you to submit your acts and words to our Holy Mother the Church; because in these acts and words there are many things which it seemed to the clergy were not good either to say or to sustain.”

To which she replied (we quote again from the formal records), “I will answer you.” And as to her submission to the Church she said: “I have told them on that point that all the works which I have done and said may be sent to Rome, to our Holy Father the Pope, to whom, but to God first, I refer in all. And as for my acts and words I have done all on the part of God.” She also said that no one was to blame for her acts and words, neither her King nor any other; and if there were faults in them, the blame was hers and no other’s.

Asked, if she would renounce all that she had done wrong; answered, “I refer everything to God and to our Holy Father the Pope.”

It was then told her that this was not enough, and that our Holy Father was too far off; also that the Ordinaries were judges each in his diocese, and it was necessary that she should submit to our Mother the Holy Church, and that she should confess that the clergy and officers of the Church had a right to determine in her case. And of this she was admonished three times.

After this the Bishop began to read the definitive sentence. When a great part of it was read, Jeanne began to speak and said that she would hold to all that the judges and the Church said, and obey in everything their ordinance and will. And there in the presence of the above-named and of the great multitude assembled she made her abjuration in the manner that follows:

And she said several times that since the Church said her apparitions and revelations should not be sustained or believed, she would not sustain them; but in everything submit to the judges and to our Mother the Holy Church.

 

In this strange, brief, subdued manner is the formal record made. Manchon writes on his margin: At the end of the sentence Jeanne, fearing the fire, said she would obey the Church. Even into the bare legal document there comes a hush as of awe, the one voice responding in the silence of the crowd, with a quiver in it; the very animation of the previous outcry enhancing the effect of this low and faltering submission, timens igneum–in fear of the fire.

The more familiar record, and the recollections long after of those eye-witnesses, give us another version of the scene. Èrard, from his pulpit, read the form of abjuration prepared. But Jeanne answered that she did not know what abjuration meant, and the preacher called upon Massieu to explain it to her. “And he” (we quote from his own deposition), “after excusing himself, said that it meant this: that if she opposed the said articles she would be burnt; but he advised her to refer it to the Church universal whether she should abjure or not. Which thing she did, saying to Èrard, ’I refer to the Church universal whether I should abjure or not.’ To which Èrard answered, ’You shall abjure at once or you will be burnt.’ Massieu gives further particulars in another part of the Rehabilitation process. Èrard, he says, asked what he was saying to the prisoner, and he answered that she would sign if the schedule was read to her; but Jeanne said that she could not write, and then added that she wished it to be decided by the Church, and ought not to sign unless that was done: and also required that she should be placed in the custody of the Church, and freed from the hands of the English. The same Èrard answered that there had been ample delay, and that if she did not sign at once she should be burned, and forbade Massieu to say any more.”

Meanwhile many cries and entreaties came, as far as they dared, from the crowd. Some one, in the excitement of the moment, would seem to have promised that she should be transferred to the custody of the Church. “Jeanne, why will you die? Jeanne, will you not save yourself?” was called to her by many a bystander. The girl stood fast, but her heart failed her in this terrible climax of her suffering. Once she called out over their heads, “All that I did was done for good, and it was well to do it:"–her last cry. Then she would seem to have recovered in some measure her composure. Probably her agitated brain was unable to understand the formula of recantation which was read to her amid all the increasing noises of the crowd, but she had a vague faith in the condition she had herself stated, that the paper should be submitted to the Church, and that she should at once be transferred to an ecclesiastical prison. Other suggestions are made, namely, that it was a very short document upon which she hastily in her despair made a cross, and that it was a long one, consisting of several pages, which was shown afterwards with Jehanne scribbled underneath. “In fact,” says Massieu, “she abjured and made a cross with the pen which the witness handed to her:” he, if any one must have known exactly what happened.

No doubt all this would be imperfectly heard on the other platform. But the agitation must have been visible enough, the spectators closing round the young figure in the midst, the pleadings, the appeals, seconded by many a cry from the crowd. Such a small matter to risk her young life for! “Sign, sign; why should you die!” Cauchon had gone on reading the sentence, half through the struggle. He had two sentences all ready, two courses of procedure, cut and dry: either to absolve her–which meant condemning her to perpetual imprisonment on bread and water: or to carry her off at once to the stake. The English were impatient for the last. It is a horrible thing to acknowledge, but it is evidently true. They had never wished to play with her as a cat with a mouse, as her learned countrymen had done those three months past; they had desired at once to get her out of their way. But the idea of her perpetual imprisonment did not please them at all; the risk of such a prisoner was more than they chose to encounter. Nevertheless there are some things a churchman cannot do. When it was seen that Jeanne had yielded, that she had put her mark to something on a paper flourished forth in somebody’s hand in the sunshine, the Bishop turned to the Cardinal on his right hand, and asked what he was to do? There was but one answer possible to Winchester, had he been English and Jeanne’s natural enemy ten times over. To admit her to penitence was the only practicable way.

Here arises a great question, already referred to, as to what it was that Jeanne signed. She could not write, she could only put her cross on the document hurriedly read to her, amid the confusion and the murmurs of the crowd. The cédule to which she put her sign “contained eight lines:” what she is reported to have signed is three pages long, and full of detail. Massieu declares certainly that this (the abjuration published) was not the one of which mention is made in the trial; “for the one read by the deponent and signed by the said Jeanne was quite different.” This would seem to prove the fact that a much enlarged version of an act of abjuration, in its original form strictly confined to the necessary points and expressed in few words– was afterwards published as that bearing the sign of the penitent. Her own admissions, as will be seen, are of the scantiest, scarcely enough to tell as an abjuration at all.

When the shouts of the people proved that this great step had been taken, and Winchester had signified his conviction that the penitence must be accepted, Cauchon replaced one sentence by another and pronounced the prisoner’s fate. “Seeing that thou hast returned to the bosom of the Church by the grace of God, and hast revoked and denied all thy errors, we, the Bishop aforesaid, commit thee to perpetual prison, with the bread of sorrow and water of anguish, to purge thy soul by solitary penitence.” Whether the words reached her over all those crowding heads, or whether they were reported to her, or what Jeanne expected to follow standing there upon her platform, more shamed and downcast than through all her trial, no one can tell. There seems even to have been a moment of uncertainty among the officials. Some of them congratulated Jeanne, L’Oyseleur for one pressing forward to say, “You have done a good day’s work, you have saved your soul." She herself, excited and anxious, desired eagerly to know where she was not to go. She would seem for the moment to have accepted the fact of her perpetual imprisonment with complete faith and content. It meant to her instant relief from her hideous prison-house, and she could not contain her impatience and eagerness. “People of the Church –/gens de’ Église–lead me to your prison; let me be no longer in the hands of the English,” she cried with feverish anxiety. To gain this point, to escape the irons and the dreadful durance which she had suffered so long, was all her thought. The men about her could not answer this appeal. Some of them no doubt knew very well what the answer must be, and some must have seen the angry looks and stern exclamation which Warwick addressed to Cauchon, deceived like Jeanne by this unsatisfactory conclusion, and the stir among the soldiers at sight of his displeasure. But perhaps flurried by all that had happened, perhaps hoping to strengthen the victim in her moment of hope, some of them hurried across to the Bishop to ask where they were to take her. One of these was Pierre Miger, friar of Longueville. Where was she to be taken? In Winchester’s hearing, perhaps in Warwick’s, what a question to put! An English bishop, says this witness turned to him angrily and said to Cauchon that this was a “fauteur de ladite Jeanne,” “this fellow was also one of them." Miger excused himself in alarm as St. Peter did before him, and Cauchon turning upon him commanded grimly that she should be taken back whence she came. Thus ended the last hope of the Maid. Her abjuration, which by no just title could be called an abjuration, had been in vain.

Jeanne was taken back, dismayed and miserable, to the prison which she had perilled her soul to escape. It was very little she had done in reality, and at that moment she could scarcely yet have realised what she had done, except that it had failed. At the end of so long and bitter a struggle she had thrown down her arms–but for what? to escape those horrible gaolers and that accursed room with its ear of Dionysius, its Judas hole in the wall. The bitterness of the going back was beyond words. We hear of no word that she said when she realised the hideous fact that nothing was changed for her; the bitter waters closed over her head. Again the chains to be locked and double locked that bound her to her dreadful bed, again the presence of those men who must have been all the more odious to her from the momentary hope that she had got free from them for ever.

The same afternoon the Vicar-Inquisitor, who had never been hard upon her, accompanied by Nicole Midi, by the young seraphic doctor, Courcelles, and L’Oyseleur, along with various other ecclesiastical persons, visited her prison. The Inquisitor congratulated and almost blessed her, sermonising as usual, but briefly and not ungently, though with a word of warning that should she change her mind and return to her evil ways there would be no further place for repentance. As a return for the mercy and clemency of the Church, he required her immediately to put on the female dress which his attendants had brought. There is something almost ludicrous, could we forget the tragedy to follow, in the bundle of humble clothing brought by such exalted personages, with the solemnity which became a thing upon which hung the issues of life or death. Jeanne replied with the humility of a broken spirit. “I take them willingly,” she said, “and in everything I will obey the Church.” Then silence closed upon her, the horrible silence of the prison, full of hidden listeners and of watching eyes.

Meantime there was great discontent and strife of tongues outside. It was said that many even of the doctors who condemned her would fain have seen Jeanne removed to some less dangerous prison: but Monseigneur de Beauvais had to hold head against the great English authorities who were out of all patience, fearing that the witch might still slip through their fingers and by her spells and incantations make the heart of the troops melt once more within them. If the mind of the Church had been as charitable as it professed to be, I doubt if all the power of Rome could have got the Maid now out of the English grip. They were exasperated, and felt that they too, as well as the prisoner, had been played with. But the Bishop had good hope in his mind, still to be able to content his patrons. Jeanne had abjured, it was true, but the more he inquired into that act, the less secure he must have felt about it. And she might relapse; and if she relapsed there would be no longer any place for repentance. And it is evident that his confidence in the power of the clothes was boundless. In any case a few days more would make all clear.

They did not have many days to wait. There are two, to all appearance, well-authenticated stories of the cause of Jeanne’s “relapse.” One account is given by Frère Isambard, whom she told in the presence of several others, that she had been assaulted in her cell by a Millourt Anglois, and barbarously used, and in self-defence had resumed again the man’s dress which had been left in her cell. The story of Massieu is different: To him Jeanne explained that when she asked to be released from her bed on the morning of Trinity Sunday, her guards took away her female dress which she was wearing, and emptied the sack containing the other upon her bed. She appealed to them, reminding them that these were forbidden to her; but got no answer except a brutal order to get up. It is very probable that both stories are true. Frère Isambard found her weeping and agitated, and nothing is more probable than this was the occasion on which Warwick heard her cries, and interfered to save her. Massieu’s version, of which he is certain, was communicated to him a day or two after when they happened to be alone together. It was on the Thursday before Trinity Sunday that she put on the female dress, but it would seem that rumours on the subject of a relapse had begun to spread even before the Sunday on which that event happened: and Beaupère and Midi were sent by the Bishop to investigate. But they were very ill-received in the Castle, sworn at by the guards, and forced to go back without seeing Jeanne, there being as yet, it appeared, nothing to see. On the morning of the Monday, however, the rumours arose with greater force; and no doubt secret messages must have informed the Bishop that the hoped-for relapse had taken place. He set out himself accordingly, accompanied by the Vicar-Inquisitor and attended by eight of the familiar names so often quoted, triumphant, important, no doubt with much show of pompous solemnity, to find out for himself. The Castle was all in excitement, report and gossip already busy with the new event so trifling, so all-important. There was no idea now of turning back the visitors. The prison doors were eagerly thrown open, and there indeed once more, in her tunic and hose, was Jeanne, whom they had left four days before painfully contemplating the garments they had given her, and humbly promising obedience. The men burst in upon her with an outcry of astonishment. What she had changed her dress again? “Yes," she replied, “she had resumed the costume of a man.” There was no triumph in what she said, but rather a subdued tone of sadness, as of one who in the most desperate strait has taken her resolution and must abide by it, whether she likes it or not. She was asked why she had resumed that dress, and who had made her do so. There was no question of anything else at first. The tunic and gippon were at once enough to decide her fate.

She answered that she had done it by her own will, no one influencing her to do so; and that she preferred the dress of a man to that of a woman.

She was reminded that she had promised and sworn not to resume the dress of a man. She answered that she was not aware she had ever sworn or had made any such oath.

She was asked why she had done it. She answered that it was more lawful to wear a man’s dress among men, than the dress of a woman; and also that she had taken it back because the promise made to her had not been kept, that she should hear the mass, and receive her Saviour, and be delivered from her irons.

She was asked if she had not abjured that dress, and sworn not to resume it. She answered that she would rather die than be left in irons; but if they would allow her to go to mass and take her out of her irons and put her in a gracious prison, and a woman with her, she would be good, and do whatever the Church pleased.

She was then asked suddenly, as if there had been no condemnation of her voices as lying fables, whether since Thursday she had heard them again. To this she answered, recovering a little courage, “Yes.”

She was asked what they said to her; she answered that they said God had made known to her by St. Catherine and St. Margaret the great pity there was of the treason to which she had consented by making abjuration and revocation in order to save her life: and that she had earned damnation for herself to save her life. Also that before Thursday her voices had told her that she should do what she did that day, that on the scaffold they had told her to answer the preachers boldly, and that this preacher whom she called a false preacher had accused her of many things she never did. She also added that if she said God had not sent her she would damn herself, for true it was that God had sent her. Also that her voices had told her since, that she had done a great sin in confessing that she had sinned; but that for fear of the fire she had said that which she had said.

She was asked (all over again) if she believed that these voices were those of St. Catherine and St. Margaret. She answered, Yes, they were so; and from God. And as for what had been said to her on the scaffold that she had spoken lies and boasted concerning St. Catherine and St. Margaret, she had not intended any such thing. Also she said that she never intended to deny her apparitions, or to say that they were not St. Catherine and St. Margaret. All that she had done was in fear of the fire, and she had denied nothing but what was contrary to truth; and she said that she would like better to make her penitence all at one time–that is to say, in dying, than to endure a long penitence in prison. Also that she had never done anything against God or the faith whatever they might have made her say; and that for what was in the schedule of the abjuration she did not know what it was. Also she said that she never intended to revoke anything so long as it pleased our Lord. At the end she said that if her judges would have her do so, she might put on again her female dress; but for the rest she would do no more.

“What need we any further witness; for we ourselves have heard of his own mouth.” Jeanne’s protracted, broken, yet continuous apology and defence, overawed her judges; they do not seem to have interrupted it with questions. It was enough and more than enough. She had relapsed; the end of all things had come, the will of her enemies could now be accomplished. No one could say she had not had full justice done her; every formality had been fulfilled, every lingering formula carried out. Now there was but one thing before her, whose sad young voice with many pauses thus sighed forth its last utterance; and for her judges, one last spectacle to prepare, and the work to complete which it had taken them three long months to do.

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