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Friday, September 22, 2006

Did Joan of Arc Receive a Fair Trial?

To say that she did so "in the context of the play" doesn't sound very convincing. After all, there are no other trials in the play to compare with Joan's. Then, is our concept of judicial fairness to be defined solely by the people who conducted her trial? When Cauchon says, "I am determined that the woman shall have a fair hearing," do we take him at his word? Why? He has already declared that he is convinced of Joan's guilt even before the trial itself begins:

Warwick: "What can you expect? A beggar on horseback! Her head is turned."

Cauchon: "Who has turned it. The devil. And for a mighty purpose. He is spreading this heresy everywhere...Let all this woman's sins be forgiven her except only this sin; for it is the sin against the Holy Ghost; and if she does not recant, to the fire she shall go if once she falls into my hand."

Since Cauchon is the presiding Bishop at Joan's trial, he is, in a sense, both her judge and jury. But here we see that the proceedings of a trial conducted by the Catholic Church in 1429 are not the same as a criminal trial conducted in our own time. In Joan's day, the accused were not presumed innocent. Cauchon is not trying to determine whether Joan is guilty, for this he already knows. At the trial, he simply wants her confession.

"I am not thinking of this girl's body, which will suffer for a few moments only, and which must in any event die in some more or less painful manner, but of her soul, which may suffer to all eternity."

Most people living in democratic societies today believe the purpose of a trial is to establish the facts concerning a particular case; then to arrive at a fair verdict of guilt or innocence based on a careful examination of those facts. Both judge and jury are supposed to be impartial. But in Shaw's play, the concept of an unbiased trial never enters into Cauchon's mind. For Cauchon, an ecclesiastical trial does not serve the interests of civil society (i.e., the "polis" or political realm); it serves only the interests of God and God's ordained ministers (e.g., himself). Cauchon believes that a person's body (or life in this world) is unimportant since he or she will eventually perish. So, when we ask whether Joan receives a fair trial, we must first consider by what system of morality we are deriving our notion of "justice."

Cauchon's "trial" (or "examination" as it is called) does nothing but search for evidence to be used to convict the defendant. Witnesses are called to testify as to Joan's morals (whether or not she ever used profanity, whether or not she ever had sexual relations, why she insists on dressing like a man). The charge of heresy is broad enough to include just about anything in life with which the Church finds disapproval.

Inquisitor: "Heresy begins with people who are to all appearance better than their neighbors. A gentle and pious girl, or a young man who has obeyed the command of our Lord by giving all his riches to the poor, and putting on the garb of poverty, the life of austerity, and the rule of humility and charity, may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not ruthlessly stamped out in time."

In other words, anyone so foolish as to follow the teaching of Christ and to take his message seriously presents a dire threat to both Church and State, and must be punished. The comparison of Joan of Arc's situation with Socrates must be considered. Both individuals aroused the hostility of religious leaders and of government officials who feared and objected to "people who are...better than their neighbors." In other words, people who will not surrender their conscience to public authority. Joan believes that God speaks directly to her through the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. Is she correct in her belief or is she merely a pawn of the devil? No one at her trial seriously considers that she could be telling the truth. And since she persists in her lies, then she must suffer for the evil within her.

When no external evidence can be found to prove that she practices witchcraft, the Inquisitor is forced to rely strictly on Joan's own testimony. The purpose of the trial is to force her (by means of rational argument or by the threat of physical violence) to renounce her claim that she talks to God. Only when Joan breaks down under the fear of being burned to death does she waver. But when faced with the prospect of life imprisonment in solitary confinement, Joan takes back her recantation and is burned at the stake.

Despite Cauchon's statement that "the justice of the Church is not a mockery," how else can you describe it? No one comes forward to speak for Joan. Where is her counsel? She stands alone to face the combined wrath of Warrick and Cauchon, both of whom are strongly motivated to be rid of her. And both are convinced of her guilt. Joan, herself, seems resigned to her fate and does little to avoid her punishment.

She believes that God's angels will protect her and seems genuinely puzzled when they do not arrive to save the day. But is this an example of her" diabolical pride," as the Inquisitor claims, or her devout faith? Why does Joan say that God is speaking through her? We don't know and are never permitted to hear the voices she hears, though she never sounds arrogant or boastful. At worst, she seems to be a naive girl who is unaware of the irritation she causes to the people around her.

For all her good intentions, she manages to offend the Archbishop, King Charles, and even Dunois, her compatriot in arms. None of them believe that Joan is evil, but they feel she is very foolish, and that she would be better off if she remained silent. But this she cannot do. She is convinced that God has a special role for her, just as he did for Abraham. Joan believes her destiny is to save France from the English invaders. And, despite all the skeptics and naysayers (on both sides of the Channel), she does just what she claims she has been sent to do. Then, almost as a distant memory of her Lord's sacrifice, she is burned to death by those who can't acknowledge the truth within her.


Blogger Unknown said...

Joan of arc was a truly inspiring person! You can find a lot more about her including the complete trial transcripts at

9/04/2010 8:08 PM  

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