AskHistorians: Tuesday Trivia!
The AskHistorians Subreddit invited me to pitch in on their latest Tuesday Trivia event. This week theme was FIRE.
Fire in the hole! …and in the house, castle courtyard, barn loft, cave, wiping out entire cities. What are some of the major flame-related disasters in your era? How did people fight fires?
I could just not pass on such an honor and I did my best to come up with a good story to share.
My Personal Contribution
If you know me you guess by then what I decided to talk about. Again. Joan of Arc.
This is the story of how she died and how she burned.
Joan’s judges had found her guilty on twelve accounts. Chief among them was the charge that her visions were nothing but superstitious delusions that proceeded from evil and diabolical spirits. Joan was also found guilty of attempted suicide because she jumped from the tower of the Beaurevoir castle when she tried to escape from her Burgundian ward, Jean de Luxembourg (a tale that I already briefly mentioned in a former post).
I will be lazy for a minute and briefly remind that suicide was deemed as a very serious crime in the 15th century, France. If you committed suicide, your belongings were confiscated—meaning you could leave no inheritance to your relatives—and your body would have to suffer a degrading sentence. We have actually found pardon letters addressed to people who committed suicide, blaming their death on insanity or something else, meaning they were eventually not responsible of their own demise.
On a less judicial and more spiritual level, let me quote Benjamin Zweig on that one (and be a doll, check out his thesis on the Images of Suicide in Medieval Art):
As the German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen tells us, suicide is unforgivable because it is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But, then, what makes suicide blasphemous? Because, she and other medieval theologians might respond, suicide denies the possibility of God’s forgiveness. By flinging one’s own body into death, one doubts God’s mercy. When one denies God’s grace, one repudiates God’s very essence—that is, the Holy Spirit. To kill oneself is to proclaim one’s disbelief in God. But unlike blasphemous words, for which one can plead mercy, suicide cannot be undone. One cannot repent after death.
I’ll just conclude in reminding that in his touring of the circles of Hell, Dante visits the Forest of Suicide. It should serve as a final proof that attempted suicide was a good reason to find anyone guilty of something immoral. Of course, Joan tried to escape, and ultimately to live, but it didn’t bother her judges. She jumped and it was constructed as a guilty charge against her.
The fact that Joan sided against the Burgundians also played against her. It was seen as a transgression against God’s commandment to “love thy neighbor”. No one bothered to mention her quarrel against the English, which indicates the political ties of her judges and who might have really been pissed at her. She’d sent a letter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. I bet that letter was very ill received. She also met him, and Monstrelet records it. He reports that he was there himself, but that he forgot what the Duke said to the Maid. How convenient… Let’s not forget that he later offered his chronicles to Philip the Good.
Last, but not least, Joan’s unwillingness to answer her judges on certain matters—like her personal exchanges with Charles VII—were constructed as a rebellion against the church. She was therefore charged as schismatic.
On May 24, 1431, Joan was put in front of a stake and her charges were read to her. Everything was ready for her to burn alive and be done with like Jean Hus and many others before her. However, before the end of the sentencing, Joan finally cracked under the pressure, pleaded guilty and asked for a pardon, which was granted to her. She was brought back to her cell and probably raped by her English wards.
Among the twelve charges, Joan had also been found guilty of wearing men’s clothes. It was deemed as blasphemous. Therefore when she was seen wearing them again after her “confession”, maybe as a way to repel her wards, she was deemed relapse. It meant that the church couldn’t do anything for her anymore. Her soul was beyond saving. She had to burn at the stake…
Burning at the Stake
It was a Wednesday. Joan was brought out of her cell for the very last time on May 30, 1431, at the sweet age of nineteen.
We think indeed that she was born in 1412, which is why her biography and dictionary written by Philippe Contamine, Xavier Hélary and Olivier Bouzy was published in 2012, six hundred years after she was born.
Martin Ladvenu, who heard Joan’s last confession and escorted her to the stake, reported that until the bitter end, she maintained that her visions were sent to her by God and that she didn’t believe that she’d been fooled by any evil spirit.
By ten o’clock in the morning, Joan was already where she would die, on a scaffold where everyone could see her. The good people of Rouen didn’t dare to move to help her. They were still under the shock of the 1418-1419 siege that cost them so many lives. However, we can guess that they didn’t really like what they saw. One very sarcastic Norman chronicler, Pierre Cochon—not to be mistaken with Pierre Cauchon, Joan’s chief judge—stopped his chronicle at the very moment Joan entered Rouen. He never mentioned her in his work. Yet he was a close friend to several of the clerks who attended her trials and who, for the most part, pleaded heavily in favor of Joan on her second trial.
Silence, in some case, is more meaningful than any formulated opinion…
Clément de Fauquembergue, clerks for the Parliament in Paris, wrote that Joan wore a miter which displayed four words: “Heretic. Relapse. Apostate. Idolatrous.” There was also a board that described Joan as the wickedest witch of the West.
The executioner put the stake on fire and Joan burned alive. However, the fire was extinguished halfway to show that under her men’s clothes she was indeed a woman. Eventually, her ashes were spilled in the Seine to make sure no one could turn any of her remnant into a relic.
How She Was Replaced
The 1999 telefilm that cast Neil Patrick Harris as Charles VII shows how La Hire and Jean de Metz arrived too late to save Joan at Rouen. They see the flames from beyond the city walls. They know she is dead… However, historically, the French captains and the French court remained quite indifferent to Joan’s passing.
La Hire was otherwise busy at the time. Earlier that year he’d taken the city of Louviers in a successful commando mission that freed the most skilled and wisest French captain of the time, a man so dangerous that the English had always refused to discuss any ransom and kept his location secret, Arnaud-Guilhem de Barbazan, the man who singlehandedly defended Melun nine months in 1420 against Henry V and all of his army.
The English were in the business to retake Louviers and La Hire swooped back in the city in April to manage its defense. As he sneaked out of town to fetch for reinforcements at La Ferté he was captured, taken to Dourdan and released in exchange for several hostages. He still had yet to pay for his ransom and La Hire therefore went to Chinon to ask the king for help. Charles VII, who couldn’t pull out money the way his grandfather did to help out Du Guesclin, allowed La Hire to write to the good cities of France to raise money for his ransom. We know that La Hire wrote at least to Lyon and Tours.
In the end, he was nowhere near Rouen when Joan died and not the least concerned with her passing. Jean de Metz? We don’t know where he was at the time…
On August 12, 1431, La Hire had forgotten Joan of Arc altogether. According to the chronicler Jean Lefèvre de Saint-Rémy, La Hire and several captains put a young shepherd at the front of their army to lead them to victory but the poor boy didn’t have Joan’s nerves. He was captured, brought back to Rouen and probably thrown in the Seine to drown. No one bothered with a “proper trial” on that one.
More about Joan: