Saint Joan d’Arc: The Maiden on Fire (4) 

[O God,] thou hast been my protector and helper
and hast delivered my body from destruction
and from the snare of a slanderous tongue,
from lips that utter lies.
Before those who stood by
thou wast my helper, and didst deliver me.
in the greatness of thy mercy and of thy name,
from the gnashings of teeth about to devour me,
from the hand of those who sought my life,
from the many afflictions that I endured,
from choking fire on every side,
and from the midst of fire which I did not kindle.

(Ecclesiasticus 51:1-4) 

The records of Joan of Arc’s heresy trial dispel the common impression that medieval society was obsessed with mystery and superstition.

What emerges from the records is a picture of a clergy that ignored the supernatural and other matters unless they could be used as evidence against Joan. They did not believe in the mysteries of God, and clearly were not concerned about the whereabouts of souls after death.

Joan succumbed to threats.

On May 24, 1431, in order to intimidate Joan, who had so far refused to succumb, Cauchon took her to the cemetery at St. Ouen, and threatened to have her burned there. He also made her an offer, namely: that if she stopped dressing like a man, and signed a “confession,” she would be transferred to a church prison where she would be guarded by women, as she wished. 

Joan was exhausted from months of confinement in prison, and by her lengthy trial at the hands of the Inquisition. Finally, in her weakness, the fear of being burned overcame her. Joan, who had made obedience to God her first priority, was deceived by the sweet-sounding words, not of God, but of a man, Cauchon. She agreed to sign the “confession.” Unable to write, she made a small cross mark instead of a signature. 

Cauchon had no intention of keeping his promises to her. While waiving the sentence of excommunication, he asserted at the same time that Joan’s crimes were so terrible that he had no choice but to sentence her to life in prison—namely, her former prison. 

Rowdy prison guards are sent to prison. 

Cauchon’s sentence of indefinite imprisonment angered the 13th Earl of Warwick; he had wished to have Joan summarily executed. After all, she had caused his mission to fail! One of the magistrates, observing the situation, told him not to worry, saying: “Fear not, my lord; you will catch her yet.” (p235) 

In order to perfect their cruel plan against Joan, the judges had sent a group of rowdy, lecherous men to act as watchmen. They were convinced that Joan, in order to protect her chastity, would return to wearing male attire.

And if she did that, her accusers would have her right where they wanted her, since they could claim that for her to dress in men’s clothing again, after having promised to stop doing so, was equivalent to relapsing into heresy after having once recanted. And, of course, a relapsed heretic could be punished by being burned at the stake.

Joan forced to wear men’s clothes 

Joan stopped wearing men’s clothes on Thursday night, and began wearing them again on Sunday. Little is known about the days in between. We do know that when she awoke on Trinity Sunday morning, she asked the soldiers to leave her alone for a moment while she dressed; that one of them stripped her of her women’s clothes and gave her men’s clothes instead; that she had to wear the latter in order to avoid being naked.

The prison guard did not listen to Joan’s pleas. Joan, who needed clothing to not be naked, had no choice but to change into men’s clothing at noon. 

Voices told her of their disappointment. 

St. Catherine and St. Margaret brought Joan a terrible message. In Joan’s words:

“They told me of the great sorrow they felt on account of the treason to which I have been led, namely, my abjuring and renouncing my deeds in order to save my life. By so doing, they said, I have lost my soul.” 

It seems that the deadly sin that Joan’s voices spoke to her of was tantamount to a betrayal of God. The most famous person in the Bible who betrayed God is probably Judas Iscariot.

Referring to Judas Iscariot, our Lord said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). Jesus knew that unless Judas repented, his sin of betraying God would land him in the deepest pit of hell for all eternity.  

The courage to follow God. 

Better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in men” (Psalm 118:8).

Having obtained information that Joan was dressed as a man, Cauchon visited her in prison. 

Joan, who had regained the courage to obey God, voluntarily chose physical death over the death of her soul. In answer to Cauchon’s questions, Joan explained that if she was going to be around men, doing men’s work (leading battles), it was more convenient for her to be dressed as a man. She also replied that she had been promised that, if she wore women’s clothing, she would be allowed to attend Mass, be set free from the chains that bound her, and be monitored by women; in fact, she added, all of those promises had been lies. 

When Cauchon asked Joan about her voices, she explained to him that the saints were saddened that she had committed a mortal sin. She admitted that she had signed the “confession” out of fear of being burned, but added that it had been a great mistake, that she had no intention of denying her voices, and that she still believed that she was a messenger of God. Finally, she stated that he would rather die than remain a prisoner any longer. 

Into secular hands to be burned

Joan was once again found guilty of heresy. Since she was now (in the judges’ view) a relapsed heretic, the judges saw fit to hand her over to the secular authorities. The medieval Church forbade Church authorities to sentence heretics to death, to execute them, or even to assist in their execution. The Ecumenical Council of 1215 (the Fourth Lateran Council) states this clearly, as follows: 

“No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out.” 

In heresy trials, therefore, the Church’s aim was simply to use its theological expertise to determine whether a person was or was not an impenitent heretic. If a person was found to be so, it was up to the secular government to administer the appropriate punishment, in accordance with the law. In those days, it was commonly accepted that obdurately impenitent heresy was a horrible crime, and the legal penalty for it, in many jurisdictions, was death by burning.  

Regarding Joan’s heresy trial, Pope Benedict XVI said that “the whole trial was actually conducted by a large group of theologians from the famous University of Paris, who participated in the trial as judges” (256th General Audience Address of St. Joan d’Arc, January 26, 2011). 

When Joan’s judges handed down their decision that she was a relapsed and impenitent heretic, fit to be handed over to the secular legal system, no one raised any objections. Some, no doubt, were silent because of fear, but it seems as though most theologians and clergymen at the time were fully supportive of Cauchon. 

The Morning of the Burning 

Early in the morning of Wednesday, May 30, 1430, two priests were sent to Joan to give her the terrible news that she was to be burned. When Joan received the news, she sobbed and lamented her fate, saying that she would rather be beheaded seven times than burned. 

When Cauchon entered the dungeon, she said, “My fate is due to your decision, for I would not have been sentenced to burn if I had not been handed over to the secular authorities. You are responsible for my death.” To which Cauchon replied, “You broke your promise, and you are going to die.” Joan declared to Cauchon that she would hold him accountable before God. 

Joan on her way to the pyre 

“Am I not to be given a cross?” asked the Maid. An English soldier, overcome by pity, took two pieces of wood, and made a rough cross out of them with a piece of twine.

Joan, dressed in a long white robe, with a hat on her head, was placed on a cart and taken to the square where she was to be executed. The streets were filled with crowds of people, and the sound of Joan’s prayers moved them to tears. 

In the center of the square stood a stake set high so that her burning could be seen from everywhere. The high pyre was also to prevent Joan from being suffocated by smoke before she was burned to death by fire.  A preacher, Nicolas Midi, declared that since Joan had reverted to being a heretic, the church excommunicated her, separated her from the church, and placed her in secular hands. 

Joan, who forgave all and went up on the pyre 

If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). 

As the cart arrived at the square, a certain friar brought a cross from the Church of Saint-Sauveur for Joan, who had been begging for one. Joan piously kissed the cross and went up to the pyre weeping. 

Once on the pyre, Joan turned to the crowd and told them that the king was blameless and asked them all to pray for her soul. She forgave everyone. She also told them that she had never doubted her voices, and asked them to forgive her if she had done them any harm. 

Joan’s humble and pained tone brought tears to people’s eyes, including many of her enemies, who had done everything in their power to kill her. It is said that even Cauchon had tears in his eyes. 

White Dove and the Death

Joan’s hat was taken away, and in its place a paper hat, shaped like a judge’s hat, was placed on her shaved head. On the hat were written the charges against her: “heretic, sinner, apostate, idolater,” and so on. Joan was bound with chains attached to a stake.

Seeing the fire strewn across the four corners of the pyre, she called out to the priest Isambard de la Pierre, who was standing nearby. She asked him to hold up the crucifix so that she could see it. “Keep it,” she said to him, “keep it always before my eyes, till death.”

The smoke and flames coming from all directions soon made it hard for people to see her. When the flames first touched her, her screams of grief terrified the people, and the crowd fell silent. Joan’s voice calling out to God and the saints was mingled with the sound of the flames.

“Jesus!” She cried out, so loudly that her head snapped back and then fell to her chest. At that moment, many people saw a white dove fly away. Many considered the white dove to be a sign that Joan had gone directly to Heaven after her short life of 19 years.

Joan died a penitent woman who persevered to the end and never held a grudge against anyone. Even if she had sinned, she must have been forgiven by God, as stated in Matthew 6:14. 

The Desecration of Joan’s Ashes

When the execution was over, the executioner moved the wood on the pyre and exposed Joan’s charred body, with its clothes burned off, to the public. There had been rumors that the woman being burned was not the real Joan, and it is said that this was done to prove that the rumors were false.

Her body was then further burned and reduced to ashes to prevent it from being recovered as a relic. While gathering the ashes, the executioner reportedly discovered that her heart was still intact. Later, the executioner visited the Dominican friary and cried out to Fr. Ladvenu, “I fear Heaven will not forgive us; we have burned a saint! “

By order of Cardinal Winchester, Joan’s ashes were cast into the Seine River, without a Christian burial. This fact was recorded by Friar Matthew, who remained with Joan until the end.

What Happened Afterward to Those Who Passed Sentence on Joan 

After Joan’s martyrdom, what happened to those involved in her cruel execution? 

Nicolais Midi: Before Joan’s execution, he was the one who maintained that it was necessary to cut away the “corrupt and rotten body” (the guilty Joan) from the “body of the Church,” in order to prevent others from falling into sin. After Joan’s execution, he was stricken with leprosy and died. 

In the Bible, leprosy is seen as (in some cases) a “curse from God” resulting from terrible sin. Not surprisingly, it was whispered by many that Midi’s death was retribution for the murder of a saint. 

Jean d’Estivet: A man of ill repute who was said to never open his mouth except to speak ill of others. He was the prosecutor in Joan’s heresy trial. He visited Joan in prison and continually abused her, calling her “trash,” “a whore,” and so on. Shortly after Joan’s death, he was found dead in a muddy ditch with his head smashed in. 

Nicolas Loiseleur: Teacher of theology, and close friend of Cauchon. He was also one of the people who most strongly wanted Joan to be tortured. He tried to trap Joan by pretending to be kind to her, in order to get her to reveal secrets to him. He also urged her to submit to Cauchon and sign (with her cross mark) the “confession” document.

During the years when there were two Popes, one at Rome and one in Avignon, he supported the French Pope, and thus was at odds with Rome. This led to his being deprived of his source of income, the church of Rouen. Afterwards, he took refuge with his sisters, but died suddenly in Basel around 1442, before Joan’s rehabilitation trial. 

Nemesis, Pierre Cauchon 

Pierre Cauchon: He played the most important role in the heresy trial, and remained alive for about 10 years after Joan’s martyrdom. He wanted the Archbishopric of Rouen, but, even after the execution of Joan, he could not get it, and instead became bishop of Lisieux. 

In 1431, he brought Henry VI of England to the throne as King of France, but the English did not maintain their power for long.

On April 13, 1436, Paris was occupied by French troops. Joan’s prophecy, that “within seven years England would lose more than it had gained at Orleans,” had come true. 

By 1441, England had lost almost all of the conquered lands that it had gained over the previous 100 years. 

What did Cauchon feel about the fulfillment of Joan’s prophecy regarding the decline of England? No doubt it was a great vexation for Cauchon, who had hoped to receive a reward from the English. 

On Tuesday, December 18, 1442, he died suddenly, at the age of 71, while having his beard shaved. Cauchon’s body is buried in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Lisieux. 

The Special Antiphon at Vespers on the day of Cauchon’s death 

The official daily prayers of the Church are known as the Divine Office (Divinum Officium), sometimes referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours (Liturgia Horarum). The Divine Office contains various prayer services to be said (or chanted) at various hours of the day.

Some elements of the Office are the same every day; others vary according to the day of the week and the season of the year. For example, at Vespers (Evening prayer), the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) is sung or said every day. However, before and after the Magnificat a special short sentence or phrase is said, known as an antiphon. Different Magnificat Antiphons (or Antiphons at Vespers) are used for different days of the year; some are specific to certain saints’ days, others are for certain seasons, and so on.

In the week leading up to Christmas, the Divine Office prescribes a special set of Antiphons at Vespers, each beginning with the Latin word “O” (an interjection used when calling out to someone). These “O” Antiphons use imagery from the Old Testament to implore Christ, the Light of the World, to save the souls bound in the darkness of despair. Each “O” Antiphon is said only on its appointed day, and is not used during the rest of the year.

Today, the “O” Antiphons are the same everywhere, but in the Middle Ages, they varied somewhat from place to place. On the day that Cauchon died, December 18, 1442, the “O” Antiphon used at Vespers in France was as follows: 

O Clavis David 

OClavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; 
qui aperis, et nemo claudit; 
claudis, et nemo aperit: 
veni, eteduc vinctum de domo carceris, 
sedentem in tenebris et umbra mortis. 
O Key of David, and Scepter of the House of Israel; 
who openest and no one shutteth; 
who shuttest and no one openeth: 
Come and lead forth the prisoners from the prison house, 
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

Remember, this particular antiphon was used only on this one day in the whole year. And it was exactly suitable for the dying Cauchon, who had wrongfully impeached Joan.

Jesus preaching repentance

15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

In Mark 1:15, Jesus preaches repentance. Repentance is emphasized throughout the Bible. Did Cauchon and the other enemies of Joan ever feel remorse for having put her to death? Did they ever repent of their sins against her? Only God knows the answer. It would seem, however, that they were taken by death suddenly, and without adequate preparation.

Cauchon, for example, who died suddenly while having his beard shaved, would not have been able to receive the last sacrament, let alone attend Vespers, with its special antiphon. The horror of dying without receiving the sacrament must have been felt most keenly by a clergyman such as himself. What must have been the feelings of the others left behind who had also accused Joan of heresy and helped put her to death?

Rehabilitation Trial

Joan’s father was informed of her death, and died two years later, in sorrow. The rest of her family wanted to somehow clear Joan’s name, since she had been executed as a heretic.

Meanwhile, the French armies continued to win battles against the English. The tide had turned in the Hundred Years’ War, in favor of the French. King Charles VII must have been uncomfortable (to say the least) knowing that the now-legendary “Maid of Orléans,” who had been instrumental in enabling him to secure his throne, was, according to the official records, a condemned heretic and suspected witch. Charles wanted to prove to the world that his claim to the throne of France was not associated with heresy and witchcraft, but rather had been validated by God through a miracle-working saint.

In 1459, the city of Rouen, where the records of Joan’s trial were stored, was re-taken by the French. Now it was possible, for the first time since the trial, to re-examine the case against her.

On February 15, 1450, Charles VII declared that it was the king’s intention “to reveal the truth about Joan” in order to clear her name, and remove from her the stigma of heresy and witchcraft.

At the same time, Joan’s mother and brothers petitioned Pope Nicholas V to have the Inquisition’s judgment corrected. However, the heresy trial was not re-examined until the accession of Pope Calixtus III in 1455.

The Testimony at the Rehabilitation Trial

With the accession of Calixtus III, the investigation for Joan’s rehabilitation trial began.

At the rehabilitation trial, many witnesses were called, including Joan’s childhood acquaintances, soldiers, and priests. They testified to Joan’s simple character, her being a good Catholic, and her incredible knowledge of battle. They also believed that Joan had saved the land from the English in the name of God.

The next witness was John d’Aulon, knight, Seneschal of Beaucaire, member of the King’s Council; he made it clear that Joan was declared a witch for political reasons convenient for the English. Also, John de Mailly, Bishop of Noyon, who had been in the service of the King of England, revealed that Cauchon had received money from England.

Then there was the record-keeper, or judges’ clerk, William Manchon. Manchon recorded the general view that “never was there a greater sign of a good Christian than in the way she endured her last ordeal.”

Guesdon, Aron, Caval, Marcel, and Fébry declared that “she had died as a Catholic.”

It is on record that several people testified, regarding her, that she had been free from heresy (and heresy, of course, had been the official reason for her burning).

Rape Allegations

In the Rehabilitation trial that began some 25 years after Joan’s death, the Dominican friar Isambard de la Pierre testified to Joan’s appearance on the day she went back to wearing male attire. He testified that when Cauchon went to Joan’s dungeon, she was weeping, hurt, and indignant, and showed signs of having undergone a violent struggle. (p. 235) 

Moreover, the testimony of Martin Ladvenu, the priest who heard Joan’s last confession, indicated that not only soldiers, but also a certain English nobleman committed shameful acts against her. 

The Horror of Sexual Sin as Preached by Jesus 

The Bible says that if you have the urge to commit sexual sin, it is better to get rid of the part of the body that was trying to sin than to have your whole body cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30) 

The shameful act against Joan took place on the feast of the Holy Trinity. On the Church calendar, then as now, the Feast of the Holy Trinity is a major Feast Day, of the same rank as Christmas. On such a sacred day, they did something that blasphemed God. It is clear that they were people devoid of faith, who did not worry about what happened to their souls after death.

Canonized as a Virgin, not a Martyr

In June 1456, the verdict of “heresy” against Joan was finally declared null and void. It was recognized that she had been a devout Catholic, but had been executed because of an unjust trial.

A martyr is a person who is killed because of his or her Christian faith. In Joan’s case, she was executed not because she was a Christian (after all, her judges were Christians, too, albeit not good ones), but because her accusers were corrupt and determined to kill her for political reasons. For this reason, Joan is canonized as a virgin, not as a martyr.

Four Miracles Recognized as Intercessions of St. Joan

Although martyrdom does not require proof of a miracle, Joan, being categorized as a Virgin, needed four miracles in order to be canonized.

On January 6, 1904, Pope Pius X approved three miracles, in each of which a nun prayed for Joan’s intercession and was healed of a serious illness. The fourth approved miracle was that, during her lifetime, Joan saved France from the English. By 1920, two more miracles had been attested and approved.

On May 16, 1920, almost 500 years after Joan’s death, she was canonized by Benedict XV as Saint Joan, the Maid of Orléans. Since then, she has continued to work miracles for the faithful.

Benedict XVI’s message

Almost 600 years have passed since Joan was burned. The time in which she lived seems to be a story from the past that has nothing in common with the modern world, but in fact, it is not.

Benedict XVI once compared St. Catherine of Siena and St. Joan, telling us that they each lived in a time of conflict between two Popes, and that they were both devout mystics, while living in the very dramatic reality of the Church and the world (256th General Audience: Address on St. Joan of Arc, January 26, 2011).

What no one anticipated at the time was that two years later, in 2013, Benedict XVI would step down, while continuing to live in the Vatican and wear Papal vestments. That meant that, from the election of Pope Francis until the death of Benedict XVI, it looked as though there were two Popes. Moreover, the Church and the world today are in serious trouble, just as they were in Joan’s days.

Benedict XVI, referring to St. Joan’s love and trust in Jesus, her constant dialogue with the Lord in prayer, and her love for the Church to the end, encourages the faithful to strive for a higher standard of Christian life. He concludes by saying that, like St. Joan, we should love the Church deeply, with the love of Jesus.

The Pope’s message about St. Joan tells us what is most needed in our time. No doubt the love and faith of St. Joan must have protected the Church, as well as France, in the past; and no doubt she continues to guide and protect the Church today. And the late Pope Benedict XVI, like St. Joan and many other saints, is surely working from his heavenly kingdom for the good of the Church and of the world.

I would like to take the message of Benedict XVI to heart. I pray that, like St. Joan, I too may have an abundance love and devotion toward God.

Fabré, Lucien. Joan of Arc. London: Odhams. 1955.

Gower, Ronald Sutherland, Lord. Joan of Arc. London: J.C. 1893.

Image: Scene From The Life Of Joan Of Arc , ca 1913 by Lionel Noel Royer

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