Saint Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc after a French Church trial in Rouen 500 years ago was handed over to English secular justice and burnt at the stake in 1431.

I always thought that the story of Joan of Arc was a straight forward tale of English malice versus French purity, but this is not strictly true. Indeed long inexplicable delays have occurred between the date of her death by burning at the stake in 1431 and her canonisation 500 years later. This appears more to be related to politics in France in the 1920s than any sudden discovery of Joan’s historical importance and holiness.

Her Voices in Domremy

Listening to her ‘voices’ Joan left her village of Domremy and traveled to the castle of Chinon to tell the weak King Charles VII ‘ that she had come to drive the English out of France and crown him in Rheims.This she did, but it is generally agreed that once King, Charles VII, did little to help save Joan.

Her Capture by the English/Burgundians

After her capture by the English at Compiegne, Joan’s church trial started in January 1431. She had the religious book thrown at her and went on to her death by burning at the stake in May. It was a full scale trialfor heresy, headed by the French inquisition, to prove she was a sorceress, apostate, schismatic, and heretic. I suppose our view today would be that this was a political show trial supported by the winners – the English – and their allies the Burgundians, but the French Church must have also agreed.

Heresy Trial by French Inquisition

It all must have been enough to frighten the life out of a girl of 17, and yet although she abjured to save her life, but then retracted in the end, her courage in awful circumstances for any person has to be admired. I particularly like the comment in Latin of the clerk recording the trial on some of Joan’s replies. —- “Responsio mortifera” – ‘fatal answer” in Latin – and “Responsio superba” – “superb answer” again in Latin – made by a peasant girl with no education.

A Saint 500 Years Later

What are we to make of the religious trial of St Joan? Perhaps that human nature has not changed and that our leaders and politicians have no compunction today in twisting the truth to achieve political objectives, either through genuine ignorance or political aims. In the 500 years since the trial of Joan of Arc( ‘Jehanne la Pucelle’), we have not moved far from the belief system that existed in England and France in 1430.

Not only the English!

St Joan was not directly condemned by the English themselves but was handed over by the French inquisition to the English as the “secular’ authority as was usual in all cases involving the Church with capital punishment. St Joan was then burnt by the English at the stake in Rouen on 31st May 1431.

French Justice/English Pragmaticism

My surprise was to find that St Joan was tried by an essentially French inquisition, headed by the Bishop of Beauvais, Bishop ‘Cauchon’ , assisted by a large contingent of French speaking priests, often theological experts, selected from the University of Paris. The original trial transcripts in Latin were all written by the (French) inquisition, and Joan was condemned by them as a heretic and handed back to ‘secular’ English justice as the Church could not itself condemn people to death.

The story of ‘Jehanne La Pucelle ‘is certainly a story of international relations, where we still have problems of separating national views from real justice!