Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Jeanne d'Arc: Her Life and Death Chapter 11

THE JUDGES.
1431.

The name of Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, appears to us at this long distance as arising out of the infernal mists, into which, when his ministry of shame was accomplished, he disappeared again, bearing with him nothing but hatred and ill fame. Yet in his own day and to his contemporaries, he was not an inconsiderable man. He was of Rheims, a great student, and excellent scholar, the friend of many good men, highly esteemed among the ranks of the learned, a good man of business, which is not always the attribute of a scholar, and at the same time a Burgundian of pronounced sentiments, holding for his Duke, against the King. When Beauvais was summoned by Charles, after his coronation, at that moment of universal triumph when all seemed open for him to march upon Paris if he would, the city had joyfully thrown open its doors to the royal army, and in doing so had driven out its Bishop, who was hot on the other side. He would not seem to have been wanted in Paris at that moment. The “triste Bedford,” as Michelet calls him, had no means of employing an ambitious priest, no dirty work for the moment to give him. It is natural to suppose that a man so admirably adapted for that employment went in search of it to the ecclesiastical court, not beloved of England, which the Cardinal Bishop of Winchester held there. Winchester was the only one of the House of Lancaster who had money to carry on the government either at home or abroad. The two priests, as the historians are always pleased to insinuate in respect to ecclesiastics, soon understood each other, and Winchester became aware that he had in Cauchon a tool ready for any shameful enterprise. It is not, however, necessary to assume so much as this, for we have not the least reason to believe that either one or the other of them had the slightest doubt on the subject of Jeanne, or as to her character. She was a pernicious witch, filling a hitherto invincible army with that savage fright which is but too well understood among men, and which produces cruel outrages as well as cowardly panic. The air of this very day, while I write, is ringing with the story of a woman burnt to death by her own family under the influence of that same horrible panic and terror. Cauchon was the countryman, almost the pays–an untranslatable expression,–of Jeanne; but he did not believe in her any more than the loftier ecclesiastics of France believed in Bernadette of Lourdes, who was of the spiritual lineage of Jeanne, nor than we should believe to-day in a similar pretender. It seems unnecessary then to think of dark plots hatched between these two dark priests against the white, angelic apparition of the Maid.

What services Cauchon had done to recommend him to the favour of Winchester we are not told, but he was so much in favour that the Cardinal had recommended him to the Pope for the vacant archbishopric of Rouen a few months before there was any immediate question of Jeanne. The appointment was opposed by the clergy of Rouen, and the Pope had not come to any decision as yet on the subject. But no doubt the ambition of Cauchon made him very eager, with such a tempting prize before him, to recommend himself to his English patron by every means in his power. And he it was who undertook the office of negotiating the ransom of Jeanne from the hands of Jean de Luxembourg. We doubt whether after all it would be just even to call this a nefarious bargain. To the careless seigneur it would probably be very much a matter of course. The ransom offered–six thousand francs–was as good as if she had been a prince. The ladies at home might be indignant, but what was their foolish fancy for a high-flown girl in comparison with these substantial crowns in his pocket; and to be free from the responsibility of guarding her would be an advantage too. And if her own party did not stir on her behalf, why should he? A most pertinent question. Cauchon, on the other hand, could assure all objectors that no summary vengeance was to be taken on the Maid. She was to be judged by the Church, and by the best men the University could provide, and if she were found innocent, no doubt would go free.

They must have been sanguine indeed who hoped for a triumphant acquittal of Jeanne; but still it may have been hoped that a trial by her countrymen would in every case be better for her than to languish in prison or to be seized perhaps by the English on some after occasion, and to perish by their hands. Let us therefore be fair to Cauchon, if possible, up to the beginning of the Procès. He was no Frenchman, but a Burgundian; his allegiance was to his Duke, not to the King of England; but his natural sovereign did so, and many, very many men of note and importance were equally base, and did not esteem it base at all. Had the inhabitants of Rheims, his native town, or of Rouen, in which his trial and downfall took place as well as Jeanne’s, pronounced for the King of Prussia in the last war, and proclaimed themselves his subjects, the traitors would have been hung with infamy from their own high towers, or driven into their river headlong. But things were very different in the fifteenth century. There has never been a moment in our history when either England or Scotland has pronounced for a foreign sway. Scotland fought with desperation for centuries against the mere name of suzerainty, though of a kindred race. There have been terrible moments of forced subjugation at the point of the sword; but never any such phenomena as appeared in France, so far on in the world’s history as was that brilliant and highly cultured age. Such a state of affairs is to our minds impossible to understand or almost to believe: but in the interests of justice it must be fully acknowledged and understood.

Cauchon arises accordingly, not at first with any infamy, out of the obscurity. He had been expelled and dethroned from his See, but this only for political reasons. He was ecclesiastically Bishop of Beauvais still; it was within his diocese that the Maid had taken prisoner, and there also her last acts of magic, if magic there was, had taken place. He had therefore a legal right to claim the jurisdiction, a right which no one had any interest in taking from him. If Paris was disappointed at not having so interesting a trial carried on before its courts, there was compensation in the fact that many doctors of the University were called to assist Cauchon in his examination of the Maid, and to bring her, witch, sorceress, heretic, whatever she might be, to question. These doctors were not undistinguished or unworthy men. A number of them held high office in the Church; almost all were honourably connected with the University, the source of learning in France. “With what art were they chosen!” exclaims M. Blaze de Bury. “A number of theologians, the élite of the time, had been named to represent France at the council of Bâle; of these Cauchon chose the flower.” This does not seem on the face of it to be a fact against, but rather in favour of, the tribunal, which the reader naturally supposes must have been the better, the more just, for being chosen among the flower of learning in France. They were not men who could be imagined to be the tools of any Bishop. Quicherat, in his moderate and able remarks on this subject, selects for special mention three men who took a very important part in it, Guillame Érard, Nicole Midi, and Tomas de Courcelles. They were all men who held a high place in the respect of their generation. Érard was a friend of Machet, the confessor of Charles VII., who had been a member of the tribunal at Poitiers which first pronounced upon the pretensions of Jeanne; yet after the trial of the Maid Machet still describes him as a man of the highest virtue and heavenly wisdom. Nicole Midi continued to hold an honourable place in his University for many years, and was the man chosen to congratulate Charles when Paris finally became again the residence of the King. Courcelles was considered the first theologian of the age. “He was an austere and eloquent young man,” says Quicherat, “of a lucid mind, though nourished on abstractions. He was the first of theologians long before he had attained the age at which he could assume the rank of doctor, and even before he had finished his studies he was considered as the successor of Gerson. He was the light of the council of Bâle. Eneas Piccolomini (Pope Pius II.) speaks with admiration of his capacity and his modesty. In him we recognise the father of the freedom of the Gallican Church. His disinterestedness is shown by the simple position with which he contented himself. He died with no higher rank than that of Dean of the Chapter of Paris.”

Did this in Cæsar seem ambitious? Was this the man to be used for their vile ends by a savage English party thirsting for the blood of an innocent victim, and by the vile priest who was its tool? It does not seem so to our eyes across the long level of the centuries which clear away so many mists. And no more dreadful accusation can be brought against France than the suggestion that men like these, her best and most carefully trained, were willing to act as blood-hounds for the advantage and the pay of the invader. But there are many French historians to whom the mere fact of a black gown or at least an ecclesiastical robe, confounds every testimony, and to whom even the name of Frenchman does not make it appear possible that a priest should retain a shred of honour or of honesty. We should have said by the light of nature and probability that had every guarantee been required for the impartiality and justice of such a tribunal, they could not have been better secured than by the selection of such men to conduct its proceedings. They made a great and terrible mistake, as the wisest of men have made before now. They did much worse, they behaved to an unfortunate girl who was in their power with indescribable ferocity and cruelty; but we must hope that this was owing to the period at which they lived rather than to themselves.

It is not perhaps indeed from the wise and learned, the Stoics and Pundits of a University, that we should choose judges for the divine simplicity of those babes and sucklings out of whose mouth praise is perfected. At the same time to choose the best men is not generally the way adopted to procure a base judgement. Cauchon might have been subject to this blame had he filled the benches of his court with creatures of his own, nameless priests and dialecticians, knowing nothing but their own poor science of words. He did not do so. There were but two Englishmen in the assembly, neither of them men of any importance or influence although there must have been many English priests in the country and in the train of Winchester. There were not even any special partisans of Burgundy, though some of the assessors were Burgundian by birth. We should have said, had we known no more than this, that every precaution had been taken to give the Maid the fairest trial. But at the same time a trial which is conducted under the name of the Inquisition is always suspect. The mere fact of that terrible name seems to establish a foregone conclusion; few are the prisoners at that bar who have ever escaped. This fact is almost all that can be set against the high character of the individuals who composed the tribunal. At all events it is no argument against the English that they permitted the best men in France to be chosen as Jeanne’s judges. It is the most bewildering and astonishing of historical facts that they were so, and yet came to the conclusion they did, by the means they did, and that without falling under the condemnation, or scorn, or horror of their fellow-men.

This then was the assembly which gathered in Rouen in the beginning of 1431. Quicherat will not venture to affirm even that intimidation was directly employed to effect their decision. He says that the evidence “tends to prove” that this was the case, but honestly allows that, “it is well to remark that the witnesses contradict each other.” “In all that I have said,” he adds, “my intention has been to prove that the judges of the Maid had in no way the appearance of partisans hotly pursuing a political vengeance; but that, on the contrary, their known weight, the consideration which most of them enjoyed, and the nature of the tribunal for which they were assembled, were all calculated to produce generally an expectation full of confidence and respect.”

Meanwhile there is not a word to be said for the treatment to which Jeanne herself was subjected, she being, so far as is apparent, entirely in English custody. She had been treated with tolerable gentleness it would seem in the first part of her captivity while in the hands of Jean de Luxembourg, the Count de Ligny. The fact that the ladies of the house were for her friends must have assured this, and there is no complaint made anywhere of cruelty or even unkindness. When she arrived in Rouen she was confined in the middle chamber of the donjon, which was the best we may suppose, neither a dungeon under the soil, nor a room under the leads, but one to which there was access by a short flight of steps from the courtyard, and which was fully lighted and not out of reach or sight of life. But in this chamber was an iron cage,[1] within which she was bound, feet, and waist and neck, from the time of her arrival until the beginning of the trial, a period of about six weeks. Five English soldiers of the lowest class watched her night and day, three in the room itself, two at the door. It is enough to think for a moment of the probable manners and morals of these troopers to imagine what torture must have been inflicted by their presence upon a young woman who had always been sensitive above all things to the laws of personal modesty and reserve. Their course jests would no doubt be unintelligible to her, which would be an alleviation; but their coarse laughter, their revolting touch, their impure looks, would be an endless incessant misery. We are told that she indignantly bestowed a hearty buffet on the cheek of a tailor who approached her too closely when it was intended to furnish her with female dress; but she was helpless to defend herself when in her irons, and had to endure as she best could –the bars of her cage let us hope, if cage there was, affording her some little protection from the horror of the continual presence of these rude attendants, with whom it was a shame to English gentlemen and knights to surround a helpless woman.

When her trial began Jeanne was released from her cage, but was still chained by one foot to a wooden beam during the day, and at night to the posts of her bed. Sometimes her guards would wake her to tell her that she had been condemned and was immediately to be led forth to execution; but that was a small matter. Attempts were also made to inflict the barest insult and outrage upon her, and on one occasion she is said to have been saved only by the Earl of Warwick, who heard her cries and went to her rescue. By night as by day she clung to her male garb, tightly fastened by the innumerable “points” of which Shakespeare so often speaks. Such were the horrible circumstances in which she awaited her public appearance before her judges. She was brought before them every day for months together, to be badgered by the keenest wits in France, coming back and back with artful questions upon every detail of every subject, to endeavour to shake her firmness or force her into self-contradiction. Imagine a cross-examination going on for months, like those–only more cruel than those–to which we sometimes see an unfortunate witness exposed in our own courts of law. There is nothing more usual than to see people break down entirely after a day or two of such a tremendous ordeal, in which their hearts and lives are turned inside out, their minds so bewildered that they know not what they are saying, and everything they have done in their lives exhibited in the worst, often in an entirely fictitious, light, to the curiosity and amusement of the world.

But all our processes are mercy in comparison with those to which French prisoners at the bar are still exposed. It is unnecessary to enter into an account of these which are so well known; but they show that even such a trial as that of Jeanne was by no means so contrary to common usage, as it would be, and always would have been in England. In England we warn the accused to utter no rash word which may be used against him; in France the first principle is to draw from him every rash word that he can be made to bring forth. This was the method employed with Jeanne. Her judges were all Churchmen and dialecticians of the subtlest wit and most dexterous faculties in France; they had all, or almost all, a strong prepossession against her. Though we cannot believe that men of such quality were suborned, there was, no doubt, enough of jealous and indignant feeling among them to make the desire of convicting Jeanne more powerful with them than the desire for pure justice. She was a true Christian, but not perhaps the soundest of Church-women. Her visions had not the sanction of any priest’s approval, except indeed the official but not warm affirmation of the Council at Poitiers. She had not hastened to take the Church into her confidence nor to put herself under its protection. Though her claims had been guaranteed by the company of divines at Poitiers, she herself had always appealed to her private instructions, through her saints, rather than to the guiding of any priest. The chief ecclesiastical dignitary of her own party had just held her up to the reprobation of the people for this cause: she was too independent, so proud that she would take no advice but acted according to her own will. The more accustomed a Churchman is to experience the unbounded devotion and obedience of women, the more enraged he is against those who judge for themselves or have other guides on whom they rely. Jeanne was, beside all other sins alleged against her, a presumptuous woman: and very few of these men had any desire to acquit her. They were little accustomed to researches which were solely intended to discover the truth: their principle rather was, as it has been the principle of many, to obtain proofs that their own particular way of thinking was the right one. It is not perhaps very good even for a system of doctrine when this is the principle by which it is tested. It is more fatal still, on this principle, to judge an individual for death or for life. It will be abundantly proved, however, by all that is to follow, that in face of this tribunal, learned, able, powerful, and prejudiced, the peasant girl of nineteen stood like a rock, unmoved by all their cleverness, undaunted by their severity, seldom or never losing her head, or her temper, her modest steadfastness, or her high spirit. If they hoped to have an easy bargain of her, never were men more mistaken. Not knowing a from b, as she herself said, untrained, unaided, she was more than a match for them all.

Round about this centre of eager intelligence, curiosity, and prejudice, the cathedral and council chamber teeming with Churchmen, was a dark and silent ring of laymen and soldiers. A number of the English leaders were in Rouen, but they appear very little. Winchester, who had very lately come from England with an army, which according to some of the historians would not budge from Calais, where it had landed, “for fear of the Maid"–was the chief person in the place, but did not make any appearance at the trial, curiously enough; the Duke of Bedford we are informed was visible on one shameful occasion, but no more. But Warwick, who was the Governor of the town, appears frequently and various other lords with him. We see them in the mirror held up to us by the French historians, pressing round in an ever narrowing circle, closing up upon the tribunal in the midst, pricking the priests with perpetual sword points if they seem to loiter. They would have had everything pushed on, no delay, no possibility of escape. It is very possible that this was the case, for it is evident that the Witch was deeply obnoxious to the English, and that they were eager to have her and her endless process out of the way; but the evidence for their terror and fierce desire to expedite matters is of the feeblest. A canon of Rouen declared at the trial that he had heard it said by Maître Pierre Morice, and Nicolas l’Oyseleur, judges assessors, and by other whose names he does not recollect, “that the said English were so afraid of her that they did not dare to begin the siege of Louviers until she was dead; and that it was necessary if one would please them, to hasten the trial as much as possible and to find the means of condemning her.” Very likely this was quite true: but it cannot at all be taken for proved by such evidence. Another contemporary witness allows that though some of the English pushed on her trial for hate, some were well disposed to her; the manner of Jeanne’s imprisonment is the only thing which inclines the reader to believe every evil thing that is said against them.

Such were the circumstances in which Jeanne was brought to trail. The population, moved to pity and to tears as any population would have been, before the end, would seem at the beginning to have been indifferent and not to have taken much interest one way or another: the court, a hundred men and more with all their hangers-on, the cleverest men in France, one more distinguished and impeccable than the others: the stern ring of the Englishmen outside keeping an eye upon the tedious suit and all its convolutions: these all appear before us, surrounding as with bands of iron the young lonely victim in the donjon, who submitting to every indignity, and deprived of every aid, feeling that all her friends had abandoned her, yet stood steadfast and strong in her absolute simplicity and honesty. It was but two years in that same spring weather since she had left Vaucouleurs to seek the fortune of France, to offer herself to the struggle which now was coming to an end. Not a soul had Jeanne to comfort or stand by her. She had her saints who–one wonders if such a thought ever entered into her young visionary head–had lured her to her doom, and who still comforted her with enigmatical words, promises which came true in so sadly different a sense from that in which they were understood.

[1] We are glad to add that the learned Quicherat has doubts on the subject of the cage.

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