30 May 2014

Burned at the stake for wearing pants?

Anyone who claims history is boring has never actually delved into it; the deeper you go, the more bizarre it appears and you either then simply have to laugh or go off into a deep depression. The best historians recognize and tell the stories of those gone before us with a bit of humor.

Some weeks ago one of the English priests living with us here at the Casa Santa Maria lent me Stephen Clarkes' 1,000 Years of Annoying the French. I'm nearly finished with the book now, which I have greatly enjoyed, and has given me an outward chuckle - and even an occasional guffaw - every few pages (though the tone does change when Clarke arrives at World War I and becomes somewhat more serious for the remainder of the book).

One of his chapters is devoted to Saint Joan of Arc, whom he calls a "martyr to French propaganda. After describing her life, Clarke describes her trial and execution:

The charges against Joan were many and varied; there were seventy of them, including witchcraft, blasphemy, fighting a battle on a Sunday and, most heinous of all, wearing men's clothes - and pretty well all of them carried the death sentence. Even though she was only a teenager, and convinced that she had been given her instructions by God, Joan must have understand the situation well enough to know that she stood no chance of being acquitted.

Nevertheless, she put up a spirited defense at the hearings, which went on for months. Professors of theology were shipped in from Paris University to try and catch her out with cunningly worded trick questions. For example, Joan was asked whether she thought she had obtained the grace of God. A 'yes' would have been blasphemy because only God knows who is in a state of grace, whereas a 'no' would have been a confession that she had committed mortal sins. But Joan answered: 'If not, I pray God puts me there, if so, that he keeps me there'. It was the perfect reply, the ecclesiastic equivalent of an untrained kid avoiding a punch from an Olympic boxing champion, and then flooring him with the riposte.

Joan also dodged leading questions about whether she had not only heard voices and seen angels, but also smelt and touched them. One might assume that this would be a logical extension of her visions, but saying yes would have been a confession of idolatry and a moral sin; as far as divine visitations went, it was a case of 'look - and listen - but don't touch'. In the event, though, Joan was so careful with her answers, so devout and pious in her opinions, that it even looked for a time as though she might escape death.


Whatever Joan's original reason, by the time of her trial she was so scared of being raped by her (English) prison guards that she refused to exchange her trousers for a skirt. Bizarrely to modern minds, the guards seem to have been too scared to touch her while she was dressed as a man in case she was a witch or a she-devil.

Joan's judges knew about her fears, and used the knowledge to trap her - they offered to spare her life and have her transferred away from her guards to a religious prison if she would only confess her sins and put on a dress. Joan, who still believed that God would ultimately boot the English out of France and install her good friend Charles VII on the throne as the unchallenged king,  accepted the plea bargain, no doubt thinking that she would be freed as soon as the political pendulum swung Charles' way again.

A ceremony - probably one in the Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris - was held in a Rouen cemetery at which Joan, wearing a dress for the first time in at least two years, publicly signed a confession, or rather drew a cross because there was no prison education system and she hadn't learned to write.

But yet again, the French betrayed her. As soon as she had signed, she was taken back to her old prison with its rapacious guards. Terrified, she put her trousers back on, to the delight of her judges, who declared her a 'relapsed heretic' and condemned her to be burnt at the stake in Rouen 's market square.

On 30 May 1431, her head shaven, Joan was made to walk through the streets past a jeering (French) mob, and when she arrived at the place of execution, her judges denied her the comfort of a crucifix to take to her death. It was an English soldier who put two sticks from the bonfire together to make her an improvised cross.

The French joke to this day about Joan being 'the only thing the English have ever cooked properly'. This probably refers to the fact that, after the fire had burnt out, the executioner raked through the ashes to expose the charred body and prove to the crowd that she was indeed female - the Bourgeois de Paris says that 'the fire was pulled back and everyone saw her naked, and all the secrets that a woman must have... When they had seen all they wanted, the executioner lit the fire again and the pitiful carcass was completely consumed by the flames'.

So yes, the English are guilty as charged of killing Joan of Arc. They burned her, and then burned her again to make sure. But the people who made sure she ended up tied to the stake were Frenchmen, who were collaborating with the English invaders. In short, les Francais got les Anglais to to their dirty work, and have spent the last 500-odd years in denial. And there's a lot to deny, because the bare truth of the matter is that France martyred its own future patron saint for wearing trousers. Which, it could be argued, is taking the famous French fashion sense just a step too far (136-140).
If you're looking for an enjoyable - and thorough - book on English or French history, give this one a read; you won't regret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment