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The Condemnation and Rehabilitation Trials of Joan
Jane Marie Pinzino
"I will maintain what I have always said at my trial. And
if I were to be condemned and saw the fire lit and the wood prepared
and the executioner who was to burn me ready to cast me into the
fire, still in the fire would I not say anything other than I
have said. And I will maintain what I have said until death."Joan
of Arc testifying at her heresy trial on May 24, 1431, one week
before her conviction and execution.
Joan of Arc stated her case unequivocally: she was sent from God.
As a prophet for French liberation in the Hundred Years War, Joan
drew many followers among her countrymen. She also drew much controversy
and the scrutiny of the Catholic Church. Joan underwent three
examinations by the Church in a period of twenty-eight years,
in 1429, 1431, and 1450-1457. Three separate panels of churchmen
conducted the proceedings. Two took place while she was alive
and the third after death. Three different outcomes resulted.
In the first, 1429, she was endorsed as a good Christian and useful
to her kingdom in its struggle against the English. In the second,
1431, a major upset occurred and she was condemned as a heretic
and burnt at the stake. Finally, in the third, 1457, the condemnation
was overturned and Joan was exonerated of heresy and proclaimed
a holy woman. Following is an overview of the three proceedings
and suggestions for understanding the turbulent and brief life
of this unusual young woman.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was born in Domrèmy, France
during the long war between France and England over the French
kingdom. The struggle divided the French people into two camps,
Burgundian (pro-English) versus Armagnac (pro-French). At age
seventeen in early 1429, Joan left her peasant home and pledged
her life to the Armagnac cause. While the Burgundians fought on
behalf of the English king, Henry VI, the Armagnacs rallied around
the dauphin Charles as true heir to the French throne. Joan, overcoming
numerous obstacles, gained an audience with Charles in March 1429
and appealed to him for resources to lead the fight against the
English at Orléans. The English had besieged that French
city for a number of months, since October 1428. When Joan met
the dauphin, the citizens of Orléans were starving, despairing
and verging on surrender. Joan boldly announced her mission as
coming from God. Charles wondered what to make of her. Seeking
the counsel of advisors, he sent her to the city of Poitiers for
examination by a panel of clergymen.
THE EXAMINATION AT POITIERS AND VICTORY AT ORLÉANS
This was Joan's first examination by the Church, a series of
hearings about her faith that lasted three weeks. The panel of
clerics questioned Joan about her upbringing, her "voices"
from heaven, and her plan to save France. Joan was also physically
examined by several women and found to be a virgin, just as she
claimed. The clergymen found her to be a good Christian and pure
in motive, and returned her to Charles with their blessings to
make use of her. What was there to lose? Unfortunately for modern
historians, the transcript of the hearings at Poitiers is lost.
In one of European history's most remarkable events, the French
armies under Joan drove the English out of Orléans on May
8, 1429. Joan accomplished.her mission. She was also intent however
on establishing the legitimacy of Charles as king. Her second
goal was to crown Charles at Reims, the traditional site of French
coronations. Proudly carrying her battle-standard, Joan took a
prominent place in the processional in July 1429. Charles VII
officially assumed the throne of France and the political tide
waxed in favor of the Armagnacs. Freedom for the French people
was now becoming tangible. Those moments were the apex of Joan's
Less than a year later however, Joan's fortunes changed. In
a losing battle against Burgundians at Compiègne in May,
1430, Joan was captured and imprisoned. After two failed attempts
to escape from enemy hands, Joan was turned over to Pierre Cauchon,
a Burgundian and Bishop of Beauvais in whose diocese she was seized.
Cauchon brought Joan to a trial of the Inquisition, ostensibly
for matters concerning her faith. Joan's days of glory were now
over, and her days of trial had begun. Joan now faced her Burgundian
enemies on a battleground of Church doctrine.
THE CONDEMNATION TRIAL
This trial took place in the city of Rouen located in Normandy
in northwest France, one of the last strongholds of English control
in France in 1431. Joan had spent eight months in prison before
interrogations commenced in February of that year. The trial had
numerous violations in ecclesiastical court procedure. For example,
during the trial, she was fettered in chains and guarded in the
castle by men where the proceedings took place. Canon law stipulated
that a defendant in a case of the Church ought to be held in an
ecclesiastical prison, (generally less severe than a secular prison)
under the watch of same-sex guards. Joan did not have defense
counsel as stipulated by canon law. Cauchon had offered her an
adviser from among those present, but Joan refused, recognizing
that all present were allies of the English. Joan's refusal was
a welcome convenience for Pierre Cauchon.
This Pierre Cauchon, formerly rector of the University of Paris,
summoned support for the trial from Burgundian allies among the
clergy, including faculty members of the university. Sixty or
so theologians and clerics served as assessors in the trial, though
rarely were all participants present at the same time. Cauchon
conducted the trial sessions along with the Deputy Inquisitor
of France. Under the guise of charitably saving her soul Cauchon
built a case against her. Jean D'Estivet as "promoter,"
i.e. prosecutor, drew up a brief in the form of seventy articles
prior to the interrogations.
The trial was conducted and transcribed in French by court
recorders, then subsequently translated into Latin for the official
record. A complete second-generation copy of his French minutes
is found in the "Orléans" manuscript, MS 518
located at the Bibliothèque Municipale d'Orléans.
W.S. Scott's The Trial of Joan of Arc is the standard English
translation of the Orléans manuscript, and is used here
in this essay. The original manuscript of the Latin translation
is lost. However, three copies of the original signed and sealed
by Pierre Cauchon survive.
At the first public session on February 21, 1431, Joan was
informed that she would be tried concerning the Christian faith.
The bishop required that she swear on the Gospels to tell the
truth concerning all that she knew. Joan balked. She agreed to
tell the truth concerning everything but the matter of her revelations
from God. Cauchon proceeded with the trial despite Joan's resistance.
Disclosure of her revelations became a nagging source of contention
during the three months of interrogations. Under pressure, Joan
At the second public session, Joan explained that at age thirteen
she received her revelations from God in the form of a voice accompanied
by a light. After hearing the voice three times, she knew it was
that of an angel. The voice taught her how to behave, that she
should go to church, and that she must go into France to save
the kingdom. Joan was asked whether the voices came directly from
God or through an intermediary. Joan at first evaded the query.
Later, she stated that the voices were those of Saints Catherine
and Margaret, and that she also received instruction from St.
Michael, the archangel. In subsequent sessions the examiners interrogated
Joan on the physical appearances of her angels and saints, whether
they wore crowns, whether they smelt pleasant, whether they touched
her, what language they spoke and what they taught her. Joan however
insisted on keeping her visions to herself as much as possible.
At one session she responded in exasperation, "I am not going
to tell you everything, for I have not permission; and also my
oath does not touch that; but I do say to you that it is a beautiful
voice, righteous and worthy; otherwise I am not bound to answer
you." Joan asserted a strong sense of personal freedom in
faith. Her freedom however was a strict obedience to the command
of God as she experienced it.
The matter of her man's dress was an additional source of strong
disagreement between Joan and the tribunal. Joan reasoned that
since she lived among men, it was reasonable that she dressed
like one. The examiners strongly rebuked her on this issue several
times. Joan resisted changing her dress as long as possible. It
was only in the closing days of the trial after the threat of
torture that she put on a woman's dress.
Joan's revelations and dress were key points of discussion
in the trial, and a number of other topics were touched upon as
well. The twelve articles of condemnation drawn up by the faculty
of the University of Paris covered the following points of discussion:
1) the revelations and apparitions of angels and saints; 2) a
miraculous "sign" that Joan had given to the dauphin
Charles that she was sent by God; 3) her confidence in the advice
and teachings of her angels and saints; 4) her predictions of
future events; 5) her men's dress; 6) her tactics in war; 7) the
treatment of her parents in leaving home without their knowledge;
8) the act of leaping from the tower in Compiègne; 9) her
assurance that she would go to heaven; 10) her assertion that
God is on the side of the French and not the English; 11) her
vow of virginity to her angels and saints without counsel of a
priest; and 12) her unwillingness to obey the Church on earth.
Joan was declared guilty of wrongdoing on all counts.
During the final week of the trial after being shown instruments
of torture, Joan relented, put on women's dress, renounced her
voices and promised obedience to the Church. She signed the following
I JEANNE, CALLED THE PUCELLE, A MISERABLE SINNER, AFTER I
RECOGNIZED THE SNARE OF ERROR IN WHICH I WAS HELD; AND NOW THAT
I HAVE, BY GOD'S GRACE RETURNED TO OUR MOTHER HOLY CHURCH; IN
ORDER THAT IT MAY BE APPARENT THAT NOT FEIGNEDLY BUT WITH GOOD
HEART AND WILL I HAVE RETURNED TO HER; I DO CONFESS THAT I HAVE
GRIEVIOUSLY SINNED, IN FALSELY PRETENDING THAT I HAVE HAD REVELATIONS
FROM GOD AND HIS ANGELS, SAINT CATHERINE AND SAINT MARGARET,
AND ALL MY WORDS AND DEEDS WHICH ARE CONTRARY TO THE CHURCH,
I DO REVOKE; AND I DESIRE TO LIVE IN UNITY WITH THE CHURCH, NEVERMORE
IN WITNESS WHEREOF MY SIGN MANUAL,
Signed JHENNE +
Several days later however, Joan resumed wearing men's dress
and expressed regret that she had renounced her voices. The court
pronounced her a relapsed heretic and sent her to her death on
May 30, 1431.
The condemnation trial provides a window on the world of a
young but powerful woman in the Middle Ages. In the name of the
Church, the freedom of this lay woman and the institutionalized
authority of the clergy parleyed for power. Executed as a relapsed
heretic, Joan died in disgrace and infamy in the eyes of the Church.
However, she would be vindicated twenty-five years later when
a new Church trial, the nullification trial, was called to order.
By then the Hundred Years War would be resolved in favor of Joan's
camp, the supporters of Charles VII. His subjects would memorialize
Joan as a holy woman for succeeding generations. The condemnation
trial was one moment in the turbulent life of a highly controversial
figure, but the story continued.
THE RETRIAL (known also as THE REHABILITATION TRIAL
or THE NULLIFICATION TRIAL)
Upon the reconquest of Normandy in 1449 by Charles VII, Joan's
supporters rallied. Popular outcry demanded an investigation of
her trial. Charles himself had every reason to justify Joan, for
the validity of his kingship was at stake. Joan had escorted him
to be anointed at the cathedral at Reims after her victory at
Orléans and he owed his crown to her. If Joan were a heretic,
what did that make him? The archives in Rouen were opened and
the papers of the condemnation trial delivered to the king's counselor
Bishop Guillaume Bouillé for a preliminary investigation.
So began the rehabilitation process that was conducted in the
years 1450-57 and culminated in the official decision to nullify
The ecclesiastical process was established as via extraordinaria
nullitatis, "the extraordinary means of nullification,"
derived from Roman law and transmitted through Gratian. It was
a procedure by which a dissatisfied litigant or his/her advocate
might challenge a legal decision. Normally employed while the
litigant was still alive, in the case of Joan it was her surviving
family--her mother Isabelle and her two brothers Jean and Pierrewho
presented themselves as the unfairly injured party. The family's
name had wrongly suffered and they sought rehabilitation. Since
the Church had conducted the condemnation trial, only the Church
could conduct the nullification trial. Papal approval was necessary
to carry out the investigation. Nicolas V (1447-1455) and Calixtus
III (1455-58) complied. The Inquisitor of France, Jean Bréhal
engineered the new trial. An extensive process of interviewing
eyewitnesses and gathering legal opinions was conducted over the
course of six years. The unique dossier of legal documents from
this process has not received the attention by historians it deserves
and provides the subject for the remainder of this essay.
Two original manuscripts of the rehabilitation trial are extant,
each bearing the signatures of the official notaries. They are
MS 5970 of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and Stowe
84 of the British Library in London. MS 5970 alone is complete.
The hefty dossier of documents, nine chapters, was preserved in
Latin. There are no traces of original French minutes and to date
no complete English translation is available. Only excerpts of
the eyewitness interrogations appear in English translation in
Pernoud's The Retrial of Joan of Arc. The present essay draws
from the Latin edition published by Pierre Duparc, 1977-1988.
Chapter One contains the rescript submitted to delegates of
the pope by Joan's family. The trial officially opened on November
7, 1455 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The grieving Isabelle,
Joan's mother, bowed low with groans and sighs before the Inquisitor
of France, Jean Bréhal who represented Rome. The rescript
requested that the previous trial be pronounced null and void.
A number of irregularities were cited and included the impassioned
partiality of the judges, the rigor and violence of the imprisonment,
malevolent behavior on the part of guards, insidious questions
that had nothing to do with the subject of the trial, threats,
falsified articles, the abjuration obtained by violence, and fraudulent
Chapter Two of the dossier assigned judges and notaries to
the case and ordered that documents pertaining to the previous
trial be handed over. Chapter Three consisted of a statement that
changed the process from an open inquisition to a directed accusation
against Pierre Cauchon. In Chapter Four, 101 challenges to the
procedures of the condemnation trial were spelt out. Chapter Five
reported the eyewitness testimonies gathered by the traveling
tribunal in 1456 of which more will be said below. Chapter Six
cited the immoral conduct of the accused. Chapter Seven identified
the bases in canon law that nullified the trial. Eight legal consilia
provided by prelates who judged the first trial comprised Chapter
Eight. The ninth and final chapter ordered public display of the
documents that pronounced the nullification.
The testimonies in Chapter Five were gathered in 1456 by a
tribunal that traveled to the sites where Joan had lived or visited.
The condemnation trial lacked eyewitness testimonies, one of its
procedural violations. The eyewitness testimonies of the nullification
trial are among the most fascinating documents that survive the
Joan of Arc tale. The interrogations were conducted over a period
of several months in a sequence that roughly followed the chronology
of Joan's life: Lorraine (her birthplace), Orléans (her
first battle victory), Paris (numerous of her later acquaintances
lived there), and Rouen (the place of her heresy trial and execution).
The eyewitness interrogations were held in locations popularly
favorable towards Joan. The condemnation trial had been stacked
against Joan, and now the nullification trial tipped the balance
in her favor. Joan's supporters put in the final word.
For two weeks in Lorraine, the tribunal interviewed Joan's
childhood friends and associates. A key point concerned her upbringing
and personal conduct, about which all witnesses attested that
she was an exemplary Christian. Much attention was also directed
to the matter of the "Fairies' Tree" in Domrémy
and its nearby spring. Popular legend among the local folk in
Lorraine had it that the waters at this tree possessed healing
powers. The assessors at Rouen suspected paganism connected with
this tree and insinuated that Joan conjured evil spirits there,
an accusation that she firmly denied. Joan's companions defended
her and testified concerning the yearly rite in spring for all
village youth to picnic, sing and dance at the tree. According
to the testimonies, Joan played there with the other youth but
was never known to have conjured spirits there or even visited
the tree alone.
Next, the tribunal visited Orléans for three weeks.
Joan was much beloved by the people of that town whom she had
liberated from the English. The chief witness was the knight Jean
Dunois, known as the Bastard of Orléans, who had fought
valiantly on behalf of Charles VII against the English. Dunois
and Joan had worked together to raise the siege of Orléans
in May, 1429. Dunois ardently defended "la Pucelle""the
Maid"-- and applauded her military prowess. He believed that
she had divine powers. "Asked if he believed that Joan was
sent by God, he answered that he believed that Joan was sent by
God and her activity in battle was divinely inspired rather than
In Paris for six weeks, nineteen individuals including several
assessors from the heresy trial and several military companions
gave their testimonies. These reports gave a detailed account
of Joan's daily activities from the time she left home in 1429
to the day she was executed in 1431. The portrait that emerges
is of a devout and disciplined young woman single-minded in purpose.
She ate sparingly, confessed frequently and attended mass daily.
On the battlefield she planned strategy, carried a standard and
encouraged the troops. The condemnation verdict declared Joan
to be bloodthirsty, but the testimony of her military comrades
indicated that she hated blood and even comforted an English soldier
as he lay dying. Jean Tiphaine, a priest and master in arts and
medicine and canon of Saint Chapelle in Paris, remarked that Joan
conducted herself beautifully at the trial, that she spoke prudently
and wisely and demonstrated much courage. He reported that an
important Englishman had quipped at the time, "She is truly
a fine woman. If only she were English!"
The final nullification hearings took place at Rouen where
witnesses gave detailed accounts of their participation in the
condemnation trial of 1431. Guillaume Manchon, official court
notary, stated that he had been forced to participate in the condemnation
trial and dared not go against the order of the English king.
He testified that secret notaries were concealed behind curtains.
They recorded Joan's responses to the interrogations in the worse
possible light and urged Manchon to alter his minutes to match
their own. Manchon had refused however. He reported that the trial
had been a set-up and the judges would not have treated Joan in
the same manner had she been English.
Manchon's assistant notary reiterated that the trial against
Joan was clearly motivated by hate on the part of the English.
Colles spoke poignantly of the final moments of Joan's life as
a heart-wrenching event:
He stated that the following Wednesday Joan was taken to the
Old Market in Rouen; Nicolas Midi had the sermon there, and the
sentence of relapse was pronounced by the lord Bishop of Beauvais;
after the pronouncement of the sentence, she was taken immediately,
without further sentence or trial, to the executioner to be burnt.
While she was lead there she lamented piously, invoking the name
of Jesus, and almost all who were present were unable to hold
back their tears.
Colles reported also that Cauchon inspired hatred on the part
of many people on that day, and
subsequently died suddenly in a barber's chair, and thus was justice
The eyewitness testimonies of the nullification trial disarmed
the accusations of the condemnation trial and restored Joan's
name to good standing. Companions from each stage of her life
remembered her as virtuous, strong, and according to some, a gift
from God. Now the official task of arguing the nullification remained.
Inquisitor of the faith Jean Bréhal examined the illegality
of procedures. These included the following: lack of defense counsel,
the youth of the defendant, mortal hatred on the part of her judges,
leading questions intended to entrap her, the secular rather than
ecclesiastical prison, the location of the trial, omission of
evidence favorable to her case and omission of eyewitness testimonies.
Bréhal drew together eight legal opinions from an assortment
of prelates who examined the condemnation trial transcript and
composed a summary of their reflections. Bréhal synthesized
the material and wrote a recollectio, a compilation of arguments
that favored Joan. Bréhal's piece justified Joan's mystical
experience as the freedom of God to choose his prophet in the
world and make himself known on his own terms. Through Joan God
demonstrated the prerogative of divine freedom to select a lowly
instrument to proclaim his great glory and power.
Bréhal considered carefully the matter of Joan's visions.
According to traditional doctrine on the discernment of good and
evil spirits four components must be examined in the believer:
time, place, mode, and purpose or end. Concerning time, Bréhal
explained in Joan's defense that she was thirteen-years-old when
she first received a vision--the number "13" having
sacred significance. Thirteen is 10 + 3, ten being the number
of the Ten Commandments and three being the number of the holy
Trinity. Thirteen therefore, according to Bréhal, is a
number of divine perfection. Concerning time of day, Joan heard
the voices at the hour of mass in the morning and at mid-day and
vespers, the hours of Christian prayer. As for place, just as
an angel appeared to Christ in a garden, so too did the angel
appear to Joan in a garden. Moreover, the angel came from her
right side (the side of righteousness) and from the direction
of the church.
With respect to mode, Bréhal laid out a three tier typology
of spiritual substances derived from Augustine. The Christian
experiences divine revelations in one of three possible ways.
First is the intellectual and spiritual mode in which neither
bodies nor physical images are seen, but through incorporeal means
God's will is intuitively perceived by the mind. This is the most
excellent mode. Second is the mode by which God signifies something
symbolically through images appearing in ecstasy or sleep. Third
is the corporeal mode by which God reveals divine secrets in tangible,
outward form. This last mode is the form in which Joan experienced
her divine revelations. Joan had experienced specifically the
faces of Michael the archangel and Saints Catherine and Margaret.
Bréhal argued the face is superior to the lower body for,
in the words of Proverbs 17:24, "On the face the wisdom of
knowledge shines." Finally, as to the purpose or end of revelations,
Bréhal stated simply that they ought to reveal God's secret
mysteries and be congruent with God's character, which was fully
evident in Joan's report.
In sum, the rehabilitation trial exposed the corruption and
malice evident in the procedures and verdicts of the condemnation.
The rehabilitation explicitly "assumed the best" about
Joan. The freedom of God to demonstrate power through a weak and
humble servant was a key argument. Bréhal cited Paul in
the New Testament, "God chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame
the strong,"(1 Corinthians 2: 27).
Why did this young woman, Joan of Arc, evoke the profound reactions
that she did? Taken together, the trials of condemnation and rehabilitation
reveal strong tensions over personal and social liberty in medieval
society. The theme that runs throughout these examinations again
and again is freedom--freedom in three senses, the political freedom
of a people, the spiritual freedom of the individual and the perfect
freedom of God. At the Poitiers hearings, Joan's mission to liberate
the French people was in the foreground. Strong hopes for political
freedom from foreign domination ruled the discussion. At the condemnation
trial, Joan's own spiritual liberty was at stake. Her freedom
to converse with God in her prayer life apart from the mediation
of the Church was bitterly contested. And finally, at the rehabilitation
hearings, belief in the freedom of God to save his people was
foundational. Moreover, the heart of the matter was faith in God's
freedom to choose a simple young woman, instill in her a passion
for human freedom and grant her the power to make it real.
Duparc, Pierre. Procès en Nullité de la Condamnation
de Jeanne d'Arc. 5 vols. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1977-1988.
Pernoud, Régine and Marie-Véronique Clin. Joan
of Arc. Revised and translated by Jeremy duQuesnay Adams. New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Pernoud, Régine. The Retrial of Joan of Arc. Translated
by J.M. Cohen. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955.
Scott, W.S. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Westport, Conn.: Associated