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The Truth About Joan of Arc | The Foreword and Preface to The Retrial of Joan of Arc by Régine Pernoud

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Foreword to The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence For Her Vindication by Régine Pernoud | Katherine Anne Porter

In the many hundreds of books in French about the condemnation and retrial of Joan of Arc, the authors invariably base their criticism of the first trial on the evidence given by witnesses in the second. None of these books has been translated into English. The French seem to write them for each other, or perhaps even at this late day the English reader does not enjoy seeing his nation put so soundly and irreparably in the poorest light of its history. Whatever the reason, this is the first book based firmly on the retrial of Joan of Arc to be translated into English, and the whole tremendous history is told again, this time by her childhood playmates and relatives, her royal and noble friends, her confessor, her valet, her squires and heralds, and her fellow soldiers. There are a few of the old enemies of the first court still in Rouen, but they can do her no more harm: and indeed their presence here perhaps lends even a more powerful authenticity to this story than if we heard only from her friends.

It is indeed a beautiful book, well translated, with the speed and symmetry and direction of the life it celebrates; and besides its merit as a work of scholarship, there is warmth and sanity in it, often absent from books about Joan of Arc, who inspires strange fervors and theories. In my small collection, out of the hundreds, there is one that proves to the hilt that Joan was a Catharist, that outcropping of ancient Manichaeism in medieval Provence; another, that she and her fellow captain, Gilles de Laval, Sire de Rais, were sorcerers, adept in Black Magic. The fact that Joan's first trial has been exposed in its falseness over and over has no effect on these infatuated minds; nor that Gilles de Rais, though proved a man of bad morals, still was tried and condemned by a court as corrupt as that which condemned Joan. Still a third book has been published to prove that Joan was a by-blow of the blood royal, and that the "secret" she whispered to the Dauphin in proof of her mission was that she was his half-sister, bastard daughter of his father King Charles VI, the virgin sent to save France after France had been betrayed by a woman.

The woman who had betrayed France was the infamous Isabeau of Bavaria who disavowed her son the Dauphin to make way for Henry VI of England; she had riddled the royal family with bastardy in so many directions, it is possible she may not have been certain which of her many children were legitimate. There is still a small school of thought in France, more Royalist than any king, which holds that only royal blood could have given Joan her splendor of courage and faith. There is not a word anywhere in the records of either trial to support a claim of royal blood, yet from time to time it is put forth again with passionate lunatic arguments.

The people of Domremy knew exactly who Joan was. Her old friends, neighbors, former playmates, godmothers and godfathers, confessors, and "uncles" by marriage in a distant connection--each in turn tells us something about her, with great freshness of feeling and speech. Remembering her tragedy during all those years when they were silenced by the fact that she was a condemned heretic, now that the Inquisition had lifted its ban, and they were free to say what they really thought, they claimed her for their own. When they said, "She was just like us", they meant to say also, "We are like her; she is one of the family; we never thought her so unusual; there were many others like her." They never denied her superiority in all the general virtues, but admired it and wished to borrow virtue from her; and indeed, what happened is so gently and Christianly true--she borrowed virtue from them, in turn. As they shed light on her childhood and young girlhood among them, by their love and remembrance saving her true story for us, so she shed glory on them. There is a nimbus around every humble country figure, "good Catholics, as those farming people are", said Dunois, who came forward to speak for her before the papal commissioners who were--remotely at the request of King Charles VII, directly by permission from the Pope and the heads of the Inquisition itself--preparing a retrial for her, nearly twenty years after her death. After five centuries, they stand there in the pure light of day, in their breathing bodies, and we hear their voices raised in their natural speech: "When Joan left her father's house, I saw her pass before the house with her uncle, Durand Laxart. Joan said to her father then, 'Good-bye, I am going to Vaucouleurs.' . . ." She was on horseback, wearing the customary farm woman's dress of coarse red wool. We do not know how tall she was, nor how she looked, but every one of her witnesses who spoke of the matter at all had one word for her: she was beautiful. Joan's uncle was taking her to Lord Robert de Baudricourt, where she was going to ask to be taken to the King, or rather as she called him properly, the Dauphin, whom she was to cause to become King Charles VII of France. She had promised her uncle that she would help his wife in her coming childbirth if he would escort her to Lord Robert. This gentleman, on first sight of her, began her career, and the most tremendous event in French history, by advising her uncle to give her a good slapping and take her home. After talking with her, he gave her a safe-conduct to the Duke of Lorraine. And she was on her splendid way to Orleans, to Rheims, to Compiègne, to the stake at Rouen.

All attempts to account rationally for Joan of Arc's life end no better than those that try to shape it to fit some fantastic theory. She is unique, and a mystery, and as you read about her and think about her life, you are led up to a threshold beyond which she eludes you, you cannot cross it. Madame Régine Pernoud has the reassuring ground of firm Catholic belief in the practical efficacy of divine inspiration, and as you follow her attentively through her remarkably clear, detailed tracing of this history told by living tongues, netting the testimonies together with her learned, perfectly placed notes, you begin to share with her the experience of those men who were making the investigation little by little, one step at a time, one bit of evidence added to another, or compared, they were arriving at Truth beyond the truth they had hoped to find; her method, so direct and knowledgeable, so dedicated to the discovery and presentation of the mystical truth that inheres in the accumulated, eagerly honest, spoken and recorded testimony, simply leads the way to that truth. Of all the books I have read on this subject, this is my choice, and the last, profoundly satisfying word for me, for any time to come.

-- Katherine Anne Porter

Preface to The Retrial of Joan of Arc | Régine Pernoud

In 1839, that learned scholar Vallet de Viriville assessed the number of works devoted to Joan of Arc at five hundred; fifty years later the figure had increased fivefold. Yet the interest she aroused in the nineteenth century is as nothing compared with the interest she has aroused since then. In France, her day has become both a religious and a national festival, Church and state finding themselves at one in raising her likeness on the altar and in the public square. More important, Joan has assumed for our age a living reality unimaginable a hundred years ago.

This being so, it is strange that a document of cardinal importance in Joan's story has been neglected. The detailed record of the trial in which Joan was condemned has been several times published and translated and is familiar in outline even to the general public; one cannot say the same of the record of the proceedings that led to her rehabilitation. This record is well known to specialists and has been much drawn upon by historians--generally at second hand--but the only edition today available is a transcription of the Latin version prepared by Jules Quicherat. It is an admirable work, but it has been unprocurable for many years, not only in the bookshops but also in the majority of libraries. As for translations, there is only the very fragmentary one made by Eugene O'Reilly [1] and used by Joseph Fabre, dating from 1868 and 1888 respectively; [2] and it is, moreover, stiff reading.

That is all that we have of the only great document--except the account of her trial and condemnation--that throws on Joan, her personality, and her times the direct light of living men's evidence, reflected by no distorting mirror of chronicle or tale. What is more, the account of her condemnation, though it gives the drama at Rouen, leaves the details of Joan's life in shadow, whereas the record of her rehabilitation presents all the stages and essential episodes, one by one, from her baptism in the parish church of Domremy to her burning. (It also shows the impression she made on the crowds.) And it is her childhood friends, her comrades in arms, her former judges, who come, one after another, to evoke her memory; those same persons who had been the actors, or at least the supernumeraries, in the drama of which she was the heroine.

What is more, this rehabilitation suit, staged a bare twenty years after Joan's execution, in itself forms a strange enough page in history; it dealt with events still recent and tinged with the miraculous, events of which men were then free to measure the repercussions. For if we are in a better position than her contemporaries to analyze their effect on the structure of Europe, there was not, on the other hand, a single peasant or townsman in France whose life would not have been changed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the outcome of those battles that decided whether France should remain attached to England or be free. Finally, the case that was being argued was a singularly moving one: a victim, a woman, a mere girl had been burnt alive by judicial decree, and the question was whether that victim was a heroine or a simple visionary--that is to say, a dangerous heretic.

The majority of historians have, inexplicably, failed to recognize the importance of the case. Many, looking through entirely modern spectacles, have been unable to see what it revealed to contemporaries. They have assumed the knowledge at that time of certain truths that, in fact, could not have come to light but for the suit for Joan's rehabilitation. It is, however, indisputable that the details, both of her career and her condemnation, were unknown to the great majority: the details of her heroism to people who had lived in the occupied zone, the details of her trial to the former inhabitants of free France. Facts that are absolutely familiar to us--the falsification or omission of certain documents in her trial--were totally unknown to those very men who undertook her rehabilitation. Finally, it is beyond doubt that public opinion, whether for or against Joan, was only inaccurately informed about her story, and that it was the suit that brought the truth to light. Some historians have even thought it possible to regard the whole rehabilitation suit as a cleverly staged play, put on either by the Church or the King. But if one takes the trouble to follow the stages of this affair, the development of which took no less than seven years and called together people from every district of France and from all social classes, it is clear that a piece of mummery on such a scale would have been difficult to carry through.

It will be up to the reader, in any case, to judge the facts from the documents of the case, which we intend to put before him in a translation as close as possible to the original text. There could be no question of publishing the complete record of the trial. With the account of each hearing and such legal documents as writs and summonses, it fills no less than octavo pages in Quicherat's edition--and even so he omitted the majority of the preliminary reports (nineteen in all) drawn up in preparation for the case, and likewise the Recollectio, or general résumé of the whole proceedings made by Jean Bréhal (the Inquisitor entrusted with its conduct), which alone takes up a whole volume. We have extracted only the parts that are to us most alive and most valuable--that is to say, the statements of the witnesses- suppressing only repetitions that would have made the book bulkier without adding anything new. We have, in addition, put back into the first person those statements that the scribe had transposed into the third on translating them into Latin--"The witness says that ... , etc."--in which he followed the habitual procedure in ecclesiastical courts.

-- Régine Pernoud


[1] This was, of course, a translation into French.

[2] For these works, see the Bibliography.

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Régine Pernoud, a renowned French archivist and historian, is among the greatest medievalists of recent times, and the success of her books has helped to bring the Middle Ages closer to modern readers. Among her numerous works are Those Terrible Middle Ages!, Martin of Tours, and Women in the Days of the Cathedrals.

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