Jeanne D'Arc: her life and death/Chapter XII

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CHAPTER XII — BEFORE THE TRIAL. LENT, 1431.[edit]

We have not, however, sufficiently described the horror of the prison, and the treatment to which Jeanne was exposed, though the picture is already dark enough. It throws a horrible yet also a grotesque light upon the savage manners of the time to find that the chamber in which she was confined, had secret provision for an espionnage of the most base kind, openings made in the walls through which everything that took place in the room, every proceeding of the unfortunate prisoner, could be spied upon and every word heard. The idea of such a secret watch has always been attractive to the vulgar mind, and no doubt it has been believed to exist many times when there was little or no justification for such an infernal thought. From the "ear" of Dionysius, down to the Trou Judas, which early tourists on the Continent were taught to fear in every chamber door, the idea has descended to our own times. It would seem, however, to be beyond doubt that this odious means of acquiring information was in full operation during the trial of Jeanne, and various spies were permitted to peep at her, and to watch for any unadvised word she might say in her most private moments. We are told that the Duke of Bedford made use of the opportunity in a still more revolting way, and was present, a secret spectator, at the fantastic scene when Jeanne was visited by a committee of matrons who examined her person to prove or to disprove one of the hateful insinuations which were made about her. The imagination, however, refuses to conceive that a man of serious age and of high functions should have degraded himself to the level of a Peeping Tom in this way; all the French historians, nevertheless, repeat the story though on the merest hearsay evidence. And they also relate, with more apparent truth, how a double treachery was committed upon the unfortunate prisoner by stationing two secretaries at these openings, to take down her conversation with a spy who had been sent to her in the guise of a countryman of her own; and that not only Cauchon but Warwick also was present on this occasion, listening, while their plot was carried out by the vile traitor inside. The clerks, we are glad to say, are credited with a refusal to act: but Warwick did not shrink from the ignominy. The Englishmen indeed shrank from no ignominy; nor did the great French savants assembled under the presidency of the Bishop. It is necessary to grant to begin with that they were neither ignorant nor base men, yet from the beginning of the trial almost every step taken by them appears base, as well as marked, in the midst of all their subtlety and diabolical cunning, by the profoundest ignorance of human nature. The spy of whom we have spoken, L'Oyseleur (bird-snarer, a significant name), was sent, and consented to be sent, to Jeanne in her prison, as a fellow prisoner, a pays, like herself from Lorraine, to invite her confidence: but his long conversations with the Maid, which were heard behind their backs by the secretaries, elicited nothing from her that she did not say in the public examination. She had no secret devices to betray to a traitor. She would not seem, indeed, to have suspected the man at all, not even when she saw him among her judges taking part against her. Jeanne herself suspected no falsehood, but made her confession to him, when she found that he was a priest, and trusted him fully. The bewildering and confusing fact, turning all the contrivances of her judges into foolishness, was, that she had nothing to confess that she was not ready to tell in the eye of day.

The adoption of this abominable method of eliciting secrets from the candid soul which had none, was justified, it appears, by the manner of her trial, which was after the rules of the Inquisition—by which even more than by those which regulate an ordinary French trial the guilt of the accused is a foregone conclusion for which proof is sought, not a fair investigation of facts for abstract purposes of justice. The first thing to be determined by the tribunal was the counts of the indictment against Jeanne; was she to be tried for magical arts, for sorcery and witchcraft? It is very probable that the mission of L'Oyseleur was to obtain evidence that would clear up this question by means of recalling to her the stories of her childhood, of the enchanted tree, and the Fairies' Well; from which sources, her accusers anxiously hoped to prove that she derived her inspiration. But it is very clear that no such evidence was forthcoming, and that it seemed to them hopeless to attribute sorcery to her; therefore the accusation was changed to that of heresy alone. The following mandate from the University authorising her prosecution will show what the charge was; and the reader will note that one of its darkest items is the costume, which for so many good and sufficient reasons she wore. Here is the official description of the accused:

"A woman, calling herself the Maid, leaving the dress and habit of her sex against the divine law, a thing abominable to God, clothed and armed in the habit and condition of a man, has done cruel deeds of homicide, and as is said has made the simple people believe, in order to abuse and lead them astray, that she was sent by God, and had knowledge of His divine secrets; along with several other doctrines (dogmatisations), very dangerous, prejudicial, and scandalous to our holy Catholic faith, in pursuing which abuses, and exercising hostility against us and our people, she has been taken in arms, before Compiègne, and brought as a prisoner before us."

According to French law the indictment ought to have been founded upon a preliminary examination into the previous life of the accused, which, as it does not appear in the formal accusations, it was supposed had never been made. Recent researches, however, have proved that it was made, but was not of a nature to strengthen or justify any accusation. All that the examiners could discover was that Jeanne d'Arc was a good and honest maid who left a spotless reputation behind her in her native village, and that not a suspicion of dogmatisations, nor worship of fairies, nor any other unseemly thing was associated with her name. Other things less favourable, we are told, were reported of her: the statement, for instance, made in apparent good faith by Monstrelet the Burgundian chronicler, that she had been for some time a servant in an auberge, and there had learned to ride, and to consort with men—a statement totally without foundation, which was scarcely referred to in the trial.

The skill of M. Quicherat discovered the substance of those inquiries among the many secondary papers, but they were not made use of in the formal proceedings. This also we are told, though contrary to the habit of French law, was justified by the methods of the Inquisition, which were followed throughout the trial. One breach of law and justice, however, is permitted by no code. It is expressly forbidden by French, and even by inquisitorial law, that a prisoner should be tried by his enemies—that is by judges avowedly hostile to him: an initial difficulty which it would have been impossible to get over and which had therefore to be ignored. One brave and honest man, Nicolas de Houppeville, had the courage to make this observation in one of the earliest sittings of the assembly:

"Neither the Bishop of Beauvais" (he said) "nor the other members of the tribunal ought to be judges in the matter; and it did not seem to him a good mode of procedure that those who were of the opposite party to the accused should be her judges—considering also that she had been examined already by the clergy of Poitiers, and by the Archbishop of Rheims, who was the metropolitan of the said Bishop of Beauvais."

Nicolas de Houppeville was a lawyer and had a right to be heard on such a point; but the reply of the judges was to throw him into prison, not without threats on the part of the civil authorities to carry the point further by throwing him into the Seine. This was the method by which every honest objection was silenced. That the examination at Poitiers, where the judges, as has been seen, were by no means too favourable to Jeanne, should never have been referred to by her present examiners, though there was no doubt it ought to have been one of the most important sources of the preliminary information—is also very remarkable. It was suggested indeed to Jeanne at a late period of the trial, that she might appeal to the Archbishop; but he was, as she well knew, one of her most cruel enemies.

Still more important was the breach of all justice apparent in the fact that she had no advocate, no counsel on her side, no one to speak to her and conduct her defence. It was suggested to her near the end of the proceedings that she might choose one of her judges to fill this office; but even if the proposal had been a genuine one or at all likely to be to her advantage, it was then too late to be of any use. These particulars, we believe, were enough to invalidate any process in strict law; but the name of law seems ridiculous altogether as applied to this rambling and cruel cross-examination in which was neither sense nor decorum. The reader will understand that there were no witnesses either for or against her, the answers of the accused herself forming the entire evidence.

One or two particulars may still be added to make the background at least more clear. The prison of Jeanne, as we have seen, was not left in the usual silence of such a place; the constant noise with which the English troopers filled the air, jesting, gossiping, and carrying on their noisy conversation, if nothing worse and more offensive—sometimes, as Jeanne complains, preventing her from hearing (her sole solace) the soft voices of her saintly visitors—was not her only disturbance. Her solitude was broken by curious and inquisitive visitors of various kinds. L'Oyseleur, the abominable detective, who professed to be her countryman and who beguiled her into talk of her childhood and native place, was the first of these; and it is possible that at first his presence was a pleasure to her. One other visitor of whom we hear accidentally, a citizen of Rouen, Pierre Casquel, seems to have got in private interest and with a more or less good motive and no evil meaning. He warned her to answer with prudence the questions put to her, since it was a matter of life and death. She seemed to him to be "very simple" and still to believe that she might be ransomed. Earl Warwick, the commander of the town, appears on various occasions. He probably had his headquarters in the Castle, and thus heard her cry for help in her danger, executing, let us hope, summary vengeance on her brutal assailant; but he also evidently took advantage of his power to show his interesting prisoner to his friends on occasion. And it was he who took her original captor, Jean de Luxembourg, now Comte de Ligny, by whom she had been given up, to see her, along with an English lord, sometimes named as Lord Sheffield. The Belgian who had put so many good crowns in his pocket for her ransom, thought it good taste to enter with a jesting suggestion that he had come to buy her back.

"Jeanne, I will have you ransomed if you will promise never to bear arms against us again," he said. The Maid was not deceived by this mocking suggestion. "It is well for you to jest," she said, "but I know you have no such power. I know that the English will kill me, believing, after I am dead, that they will be able to win all the kingdom of France: but if there were a hundred thousand more Goddens than there are, they shall never win the kingdom of France." The English lord drew his dagger to strike the helpless girl, all the stories say, but was prevented by Warwick. Warwick, however, we are told, though he had thus saved her twice, "recovered his barbarous instincts" as soon as he got outside, and indignantly lamented the possibility of Jeanne's escape from the stake.

Such incidents as these alone lightened or darkened her weary days in prison. A traitor or spy, a prophet of evil shaking his head over her danger, a contemptuous party of jeering nobles; afterwards inquisitors, for ever repeating in private their tedious questions: these all visited her—but never a friend. Jeanne was not afraid of the English lord's dagger, or of the watchful eye of Warwick over her. Even when spying through a hole, if the English earl and knight, indeed permitted himself that strange indulgence, his presence and inspection must have been almost the only defence of the prisoner. Our historians all quote, with an admiration almost as misplaced as their horror of Warwick's "barbarous instincts," the vrai galant homme of an Englishman who in the midst of the trial cried out "Brave femme!" (it is difficult to translate the words, for brave means more than brave)—"why was she not English?" However we are not concerned to defend the English share of the crime. The worst feature of all is that she never seems to have been visited by any one favourable and friendly to her, except afterwards, the two or three pitying priests whose hearts were touched by her great sufferings, though they remained among her judges, and gave sentence against her. No woman seems ever to have entered that dreadful prison except those "matrons" who came officially as has been already said. The ladies de Ligny had cheered her in her first confinement, the kind women of Abbeville had not been shut out even from the gloomy fortress of Le Crotoy. But here no woman ever seems to have been permitted to enter, a fact which must either be taken to prove the hostility of the population, or the very vigorous regulations of the prison. Perhaps the barbarous watch set upon her, the soldiers ever present, may have been a reason for the absence of any female visitor. At all events it is a very distinct fact that during the whole period of her trial, five months of misery, except on the one occasion already referred to, no woman came to console the unfortunate Maid. She had never before during all her vicissitudes been without their constant ministrations.

One woman, the only one we ever hear of who was not the partisan and lover of the Maid, does, however, make herself faintly seen amid the crowd. Catherine of La Rochelle—the woman who had laid claim to saintly visitors and voices like those of Jeanne, and who had been for a time received and fêted at the Court of Charles with vile satisfaction, as making the loss of the Maid no such great thing—had by this time been dropped as useless, on the appearance of the shepherd boy quoted by the Archbishop of Rheims, and had fallen into the hands of the English: was not she too a witch, and admirably qualified to give evidence as to the other witch, for whose blood all around her were thirsting? Catherine was ready to say anything that was evil of her sister sorceress. "Take care of her," she said; "if you lose sight of her for one moment, the devil will carry her away." Perhaps this was the cause of the guard in Jeanne's room, the ceaseless scrutiny to which she was exposed. The vulgar slanderer was allowed to escape after this valuable testimony. She comes into history like a will-o'-the-wisp, one of the marsh lights that mean nothing but putrescence and decay, and then flickers out again with her false witness into the wastes of inanity. That she should have been treated so leniently and Jeanne so cruelly! say the historians. Reason good: she was nothing, came of nothing, and meant nothing. It is profane to associate Jeanne's pure and beautiful name with that of a mountebank. This is the only woman in all her generation, so far as appears to us, who was not the partisan and devoted friend of the spotless Maid.

The aspect of that old-world city of Rouen, still so old and picturesque to the visitor of to-day, though all new since that time except the churches, is curious and interesting to look back upon. It must have hummed and rustled with life through every street; not only with the English troops, and many a Burgundian man-at-arms, swaggering about, swearing big oaths and filling the air with loud voices,—but with all the polished bands of the doctors, men first in fame and learning of the famous University, and beneficed priests of all classes, canons and deans and bishops, with the countless array that followed them, the cardinal's tonsured Court in addition, standing by and taking no share in the business: but all French and English alike, occupied with one subject, talking of the trial, of the new points brought out, of the opinions of this doctor and that, of Maître Nicolas who had presumed on his lawyership to correct the bishop, and had suffered for it: of the bold canon who ventured to whisper a suggestion to the prisoner, and who ever since had had the eye of the governor upon him: of Warwick, keeping a rough shield of protection around the Maid but himself fiercely impatient of the law's delay, anxious to burn the witch and be done with her. And Jeanne herself, the one strange figure that nobody understood; was she a witch? Was she an angelic messenger? Her answers so simple, so bold, so full of the spirit and sentiment of truth, must have been reported from one to another. This is what she said; does that look like a deceiver? could the devils inspire that steadfastness, that constancy and quiet? or was it not rather the angels, the saints as she said? Never, we may be sure, had there been in Rouen a time of so much interest, such a theme for conversations, such a subject for all thoughts. The eager court sat with their tonsured heads together, keen to seize every weak point. Did you observe how she hesitated on this? Let us push that, we'll get an admission on that point to-morrow. It is impossible to believe that in such an assembly every man was a partisan, much less that each one of them was thinking of the fee of the English, the daily allowance which it was the English habit to make. That were to imagine a France, base indeed beyond the limits of human baseness. All the Norman dignitaries of the Church, all the most learned doctors of the University—no! that is too great a stretch of our faith. The greater part no doubt believed as an indisputable fact, that Jeanne was either a witch or an impostor, as we should all probably do now. And the vertigo of Inquisition gained upon them; they became day by day more exasperated with her seeming innocence, with what must have seemed to them the cunning and cleverness, impossible to her age and sex, of her replies. Who could have kept the girl so cool, so dauntless, so embarrassing in her straight-forwardness and sincerity? The saints? the saints were not dialecticians; far more likely the evil one himself, in whom the Church has always such faith. "He hath a devil and by Beelzebub casteth out devils." It was all like a play, only more exciting than any play, and going on endlessly, the excitement always getting stronger till it became the chief stimulus and occupation of life.