Shaw's "St. Joan"

 

 

 

Shaw's "St. Joan" versus History
 
 

A recent performance of George Bernard Shaw's play "Saint Joan", this time in Minneapolis, MN, has been followed by the inevitable internet reviews which have unfortunately made the mistake of interpreting this fictional play - which claims that Joan was a radical convicted on accurate charges of heresy by an unbiased French court - as if it were an authentic representation of history. As so many of my fellow historians have pointed out over the years, Shaw's version distorted the issue beyond recognition: as even English government records and a number of the tribunal members themselves admitted, Joan was convicted by an English-run court on a set of deliberately false charges by pro-English clergy,n1 a number of whom nevertheless developed scruples about the process and had to be coerced into agreeing to a guilty verdict.

For a selection of the evidence on these issues, see:
- Trial motives & conduct.
- English government records.

Margin Note 1: Most of these clergy were Burgundians or "collaborators" except for the three who were native Englishmen.

Joan's actual views on orthodoxy can be seen in a letter she dictated on 23 March 1430, in which she threatened to lead a crusading army against a heretical group called the Hussites unless they returned to orthodox Catholicism. This echoes the view in numerous accounts, from chronicles to private letters to the later testimony of 115 witnesses at the posthumous appeal (the "Rehabilitation" or "Nullification" Trial) when a more balanced tribunal of the Inquisition overturned the verdict (in 1456) after the English were finally driven out of Rouen.
Click here for the full text of this letter.

Shaw's notion that she was convicted based on "valid" concerns about heresy stemmed from a profound ignorance about the nature of the opposition to Joan, the conduct of the trial, the credibility (or lack thereof) of the transcript, and the significance of Joan's statements. It is not coincidence that calls for her trial emanated from the clergy at the University of Paris, which had long served as a mouthpiece for the English occupation government ever since Paris came under their control in 1419; nor is it coincidence that her judge was Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who had long been a "collaborator" and a paid member of the occupation council which governed English-controlled Normandy, as well as having been a well-documented "renegade" (as some historians have rightly put it) of very dubious orthodoxy himself.
We know that most of the other clergy throughout Europe either supported her or took a neutral stance, as there are supportive treatises written during her campaigns by the Archbishop of Embrun, the famous theologian Jean Gerson, and other prominent clergy; we additionally know from foreign writers that throughout Europe she was already widely considered, as the Venetian Pancrazio Giustiniani said c. May 20th 1429, "another Saint Catherine come down to earth." There was little opposition to her aside from pro-English clergy and their cronies, such as Johannes Nider.
 
Nor did she refuse to submit herself to the Church: eyewitnesses said that the ambiguous nature of the transcript's version of her responses on that subject was a product of the rather selective recording of her words as well as her accusers' attempts to confuse the issue by hypocritically demanding that she submit to themselves while denying her repeated appeals to the Pope. She had actually said at many points that she would submit to both the Pope and Council of Basel, but not to the members of the enemy faction who were running the trial - a position which was perfectly within her rights under the rules of Inquisitorial courts, since such tribunals were required to contain neutral representatives of the clergy and the accused was allowed to appeal directly to the Papacy. Much of the debate between Joan and her accusers over "submission to the Church" revolved around the paradoxical situation whereby she was being asked to submit to the "Ecclesia Militans" while being denied the right to be tried by valid representatives of the entire Ecclesia Militans - the "Church" was being invoked in what was little more than a secular trial. The eyewitnesses said that she saw through this charade and therefore: 1) rightly considered their use of the term "Church" to refer only to the tribunal itself, and 2) called their bluff by demanding to be given a valid ecclesiastic trial. Unfortunately, her judges - insulated by English armies and conducting the trial behind closed doors - were able to simply gloss over her request while dishonestly claiming that her refusal to submit to themselves would constitute "heresy".
 

Click here for testimony concerning her submission to the Church.

Similarly, the direct cause cited as an excuse for her conviction - her "resumption of male clothing" - was based on a far worse act of fraud perpetrated by her judges. Many eyewitnesses said that she had been wearing this clothing principally because, having "laces and points" by which the pants and tunic could be securely tied together, it could serve as a defense against the attempted rape she had endured at the hands of her guards, a necessity-based circumstance which was specifically allowed as a special exemption by the medieval Church, as is stated in the "Summa Theologica", the "Scivias", and other medieval theological documents. Her judges not only refused to acknowledge this, but came up with a particularly reprehensible ploy to utilize the situation: according to eyewitnesses, after she had finally been bullied into giving up this clothing the incidences of attempted rape were increased, followed by the removal of the female clothes she had been given to wear, thereby leaving her nothing but the forbidden male clothing. According to the bailiff at the trial, Jean Massieu, she finally put the offending garments back on after arguing with the guards "until noon", and was then promptly declared "relapsed" and sentenced to die based solely on that.
Click here for testimony on the 'male clothing' issue.

Click here for excerpts from medieval theological opinions on that issue.

There were numerous other illegal acts and examples of fraud, such as the unnotarized final "confession" in a section of the transcript dated a full eight days after her death, which the notaries later confirmed had never been signed because they thought the alleged "confession" was, in essence, a fictional attempt to provide bogus proof in the absence of any compelling evidence against her.
In short, her judges were running a flagrantly unlawful trial for the purposes of exacting revenge on behalf of their secular faction; and it was because of all these issues that the Inquisitor-General who presided over the postwar appeal described Joan as a martyr for the faith while accusing Cauchon and the other tribunal members of having acted in a spirit of, quote, "manifest malice against the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed heresy" ("malicia manifesta contra Ecclesiam Romanam, aut etiam ab heresi") in his final summary of the evidence, the "Recollectio" (June 1456). She was thus already officially considered a martyr shortly after the war.

Beyond Pop 'History'

It is often popularly believed that she was convicted for having relied on her visions and her own "conscience", and that she was allegedly rejected by the entire Church until the later canonization in 1920. Both are falsifications of history: it should be well-known that since Joan had already been accepted as a valid visionary by the clergy at Poitiers in March of 1429 (before being granted an army), it was not an act of heresy for her to insist on the validity of such approved visions - especially during an era in which so many other visionaries had done the same. Only a few decades earlier, St. Catherine of Siena had relied on her visions to make pronouncements on the Papacy itself, and was accepted, and actually deferred to, by many of the clergy. Nor is an individual's "conscience" ever an issue in such cases, since: 1) visionaries, by definition, are relaying direct and overt messages from God rather than claiming that their own personal feelings, inclinations, or intuition would represent a vague "inner voice" from God - two entirely different things; 2) such visionaries had to demonstrate both doctrinal orthodoxy as well as miraculous signs in order to prove that they were in fact in direct communication with God. Joan proved herself in this manner to the clergy of her faction before being accepted: it's therefore not accurate to say she was declaring that her own unsubstantiated personal views should be accepted without proof of Divine guidance.

Similarly, the idea that Joan was allegedly rejected or ignored by the Church up until her later canonization - which is often cited as "proof" that her judges were allegedly in step with the Church as a whole - is also a misconception. During her trial itself, she retained such support among much of the clergy that there are records of public Masses being held on her behalf as far away as the Alps. In the few years immediately following her death, some (such as Martin le Franc in 1440) compared her execution to that of Christ, and a festival and religious play in her honor was held at Orleans beginning in 1435, shortly after her death. This event was declared a pilgrimage site meriting an indulgence by the Church already in 1452. In the 16th century she was utilized as a symbol by the Catholic League during the wars against Protestantism, and was the subject of much popular devotion throughout the period prior to her official canonization. The long delay leading up to the latter event is not terribly unusual: e.g., it took 707 years to canonize St. Agnes of Prague, 400 years for St. Thomas More, 717 for St. Hermann Joseph, etc. St. Hildegard still has not been officially canonized (only beatified) after 824 years despite being considered a de-facto saint by the Church. The process often takes a considerable time and the delay is seemingly random.

 

Shaw's Rehabilitation of Cauchon

It was Joan's judge, Bishop Pierre Cauchon, whose orthodoxy was suspect: historians have long described him as a "revolutionary prelate" and a "renegade". We know that he himself committed heresy by engaging in bribery (as revealed in a letter of authorization dated 26 July 1415) in order to corrupt deliberations at the Council of Constance regarding an assassination which his (then) secular master, Duke Jean-sans-Peur of Burgundy, had ordered.n2 Two years earlier he had helped promote the Cabochien Revolt in Paris, again as part of a Burgundian plot, for which he was exiled as a criminal after the revolt was put down. Following the alliance between the Duke of Burgundy and England, he adopted the staunch pro-English allegiancen3 which would lead him to convict Joan on their behalf. He was one of the most corrupt clergymen of his era - as much a politician as a cleric - and generations of historians have correctly noted that it was this "Renegade Bishop", not his innocent victim, who was the genuine heretic under the rules of that era. But unfortunately George Bernard Shaw, it must be said, decided to whitewash this fellow's record while shamefully perpetuating the slander he had invented against the woman he cruelly put to death.



Margin Note 2: Cauchon was given this order in a letter written by Duke Jean-sans-Peur of Burgundy. Eight large barrels of fine wine - the Duke's normal choice for oiling the machinery of state - was dispatched to Cauchon to liberally dole out in order to "expedite Our affairs there."

Margin Note 3: Cauchon was paid 1,000 pounds per year for his service to the English occupation government, enjoying a seat on the Duke of Bedford's council which governed occupied Normandy as well as serving in such positions as Chancellor to the Queen of England. He was a prominent figure whom Joan well knew to be a member of the enemy faction.


Shaw's Version of Joan's Role

As a final issue, Shaw took considerable liberties with what he saw as Joan's "nationalism" and "feminism" - two anachronisms which are based on a number of unhistorical assumptions about the motives and purpose of her role and her alleged "uniqueness" as a woman in such a role. Concerning "nationalism": this idea is particularly out of place during an era when the French were divided into feudal "Armagnac" and "Burgundian" factions. Joan said she supported the Armagnacs and Charles VII only because God had ordered her to do so, not due to any motive equating to "nationalist" sentiment, and she always used the term "France" itself in its original feudal sense. Concerning "feminism": firstly, the reason she was placed at the head of an army was simply the same reason other religious figures were sometimes given such positions during the Middle Ages; secondly, she was hardly the "only woman", as is often claimed, to be granted a similar role during that era, given that there were many aristocratic ladies - e.g., Countess Jehanne de Montfort, Duchess Marie de Bourbon, Lady Jehanne de Belleville, Countess Jehanne de Penthievre, Countess Agnes of March, etc - who had been given various forms of military command in the absence of their husbands or sons - a standard trait of the feudal system. Joan was unique in many respects, but not because she was a woman who was given titular command of an army in that era. Finally and most importantly: we have quotes from Joan, relayed by eyewitnesses, stating that (if it hadn't been for her visions) "I would prefer to spin wool beside my poor mother, because this [i.e. leading an army] is not of my social station" and similar comments which certainly do not sound much like feminism. Her stated goal was, after all, not to "overthrow the patriarchy" nor to promote the cause of nationalism, but rather to place Charles VII on his throne simply because God supported him as the valid heir rather than Henry VI.
Shaw seems to have tried to call into question her close ties to her king, and thereby justify his own version, by 1) making Joan refer to him with flippant remarks that she never would have made: in all her recorded statements, she referred to him respectfully as "le gentil roi Charles" ("the noble King Charles") or similar titles. 2) Shaw puts forth the allegation that Charles betrayed her - an allegation which has been repeated by many pop authors but is not justified by any known documentary evidence, and in fact is soundly contradicted by what evidence we do have on that subject. Even enemy (Anglo-Burgundian) sources state that after her capture, Charles' faction was "doing everything in their power" to get her back "by extraordinary means, and worse, by money or ransom" (as found in a letter from the University of Paris to Joan's captor, John of Luxembourg, on 14 July 1430), and this is also borne out by neutral sources such as the Morosini correspondence, in which it is stated flatly that Charles had tried to force the Burgundians to ransom her back to her own side, and threatened to treat Burgundian prisoners according to whatever procedure was adopted in Joan's case. Her transfer to the English in exchange for the usual monetary compensation was not a "prisoner auction" in which Charles could have "outbid" the English, as is sometimes erroneously assumed, but was merely the standard practice whenever prisoners were transferred among lords who belonged to the same faction - e.g., the same was done when English lords transferred their Agincourt prisoners to Henry V in exchange for money to compensate them for the ransom they could otherwise have gained. As with some of these prisoners, Charles VII was never given the option to ransom Joan.
Additionally, Shaw's version of Charles as a frivolous buffoon, for whom Joan's efforts and affections were allegedly misplaced, misguided, or disingenuous, is based on a caricature only loosely drawn from history: while Charles certainly had his faults, the main impression of him that emerges from the documents is that of a sorrowful man who, in one moment of despair on November 1, 1428, had allegedly prayed God to punish only himself rather than allowing his people to suffer if his claim to the throne was truly invalid (as the English claimed) and his pursuit of the crown therefore sinful. He could be merciful: there is a curious pattern in the archives of the Royal Court of Appeals indicating that Charles obeyed Joan's request to forgive anyone who asked pardon, as virtually every condemned criminal who asked for clemency received it - a pattern which has puzzled some historians who were unaware of Joan's request of Charles. He therefore doesn't appear to have betrayed her either by selling her out to her enemies nor by betraying most of the principles which she had asked him to govern by, with the notable exception of his unfortunate later adoption of a mistress, Agnes Sorel, for which Joan would have been outraged.
In short: there appears to have been mutual loyalty and respect between Joan and her King, and nowhere in any of her many recorded statements do we find anything equating to either nationalism, feminism or any other modern philosophy of either the Left or the Right: she always said that she did what she did solely in obedience to God.

On an issue indirectly related to the feminism topic: some reviewers have commended the recent production of Shaw's play for placing the 5'10" Kate Eifrig in the lead character, based on the stereotype that Joan would have had to have been physically large to perform her role, in contrast to the traditional "petite" portrayals; but we have a good idea of her actual size thanks to a letter (dated 30 September 1429) concerning two items of clothing bought for her by the council at Orleans and then ratified by the city's Duke. Since this letter gives the amount as well as type of cloth purchased for each item, we can estimate Joan's maximum possible height: even if the entire roll of cloth had been used, she would have been no more than about 5'2". Since cloth was always purchased at the nearest number of whole units above what was actually needed, this maximum estimate would almost certainly be above her actual height, consistent with eyewitness accounts stating that she was "short" - since the average woman of that era was at or under 5 feet, "short" in this context would have to mean something decidedly less than 5'2".
Since her stated role was to carry her banner - sources on both sides quote her as saying that she had never killed anyone, and preferred to carry her banner into battle [rather than a weapon] - a small size would not preclude such a role. Similarly, plate armor for someone of this size would, it has been estimated, perhaps weigh only 30 pounds (in contrast to the astronomical guesses put forth by some modern authors). She would have needed stamina and, above all else, the ability to endure the constant pain from the plates bruising her body, but great size and physical strength would not be required.

Unfortunately, Shaw was working from a very incomplete knowledge of the subject and decided to add a great deal of his own fiction. The result not only falsifies history but also frequently repeats the slanderous version invented by Joan's accusers, portraying these men as "sincere" pillars of orthodoxy which we know they most emphatically were not, while casting Joan as a "rebel" who was guilty as charged, which the preponderance of the historical evidence proves to be outrageously false. Readers are encouraged to view the evidence presented elsewhere on this site: the surviving letters which she dictated to scribes, the testimony of those who knew her, and other such information which contradicts the propaganda of her enemies. The woman who emerges from the more balanced documents is a complex person with a sense of humor as well as deep piety, courage, and compassion even for the English soldiers who were killed by her troops. Each person should be able to find something in her to love, regardless of whether she fits the modern stereotypes they may be accustomed to.
 


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Copyright 2004, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.