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The Death of Jeanne d’Arc

By Jules Michelet (1798–1874)

From the ‘History of France’: Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

THE END of the sad journey was the Vieux-Marché, the fishmarket. Three scaffolds had been erected. Upon one were the episcopal and royal chairs, and the throne of the cardinal of England amid the seats of his prelates. On the other were to figure the personages of the dismal drama: the preacher, the judges, the bailiff, and lastly the condemned one. Apart was seen a large scaffold of masonry, loaded and overloaded with wood. As to the pyre, there was nothing to complain of: it frightened by its height. This was not merely to make the execution more solemn: there was an intention in it; it was that the pile being built so high, the executioner could only reach the bottom portion to light it, and thus he could not abridge the martyrdom nor expedite the end, as he sometimes did to others, sparing them the flame. Here there was no idea of defrauding justice, or giving a dead body to the fire; they wished her to be well burned, alive, and so that, placed on the summit of this mountain of wood, and dominating the circle of lances and swords around her, she could be seen from all parts of the place. Slowly burned under the eyes of a curious crowd, there was reason to believe that at the end she would be surprised into some weakness, that something would escape her that might pass as a disavowal; at the least, confused words to be interpreted, low prayers, humiliating cries for mercy, as from a distracted woman.

The ghastly ceremony began by a sermon. Master Nicolay Midy, one of the lights of the University of Paris, preached on this edifying text: “When a member of the Church is ill, the whole Church is ill.” This poor Church could only cure itself by cutting off a member. He concluded by the formula, “Jeanne, go in peace: the Church cannot defend you.”

Then the judge of the Church, the bishop of Beauvais, benignly exhorted her to think of her soul, and to recall all her misdeeds in order to excite herself to contrition. The Assertors had judged that it was according to law to read to her her abjuration: the bishop did not do anything of the kind,—he feared her denials, her reclamations. But the poor girl did not dream of thus quibbling for her life: she had far other thoughts. Before they could even exhort her to contrition, she was on her knees invoking God, the Virgin, St. Michael, and St. Catherine; forgiving everybody, and asking forgiveness; saying to the assistants, “Pray for me.” She requested each of the priests, particularly, to say a mass for her soul. All this in such a devout fashion, so humble, so touching, that emotion spreading, no one could control himself: the bishop of Beauvais began to weep, he of Boulogne sobbed; and behold the English themselves crying and weeping also—Winchester with the others.

But the judges, who had for a moment lost countenance, recovered and hardened themselves. The bishop of Beauvais, wiping his eyes, began to read the condemnation. He reminded the culprit of her crimes,—schism, idolatry, invocation of demons; how she had been admitted to penitence; and how, seduced by the Prince of Lies, she had fallen again—oh sorrow!—like the dog which returns to his vomit. “Therefore we pronounce you a rotten member, and as such, cut off from the Church. We deliver you over to the secular power, praying it nevertheless to moderate its judgment, by sparing you death and the mutilation of your members.”

Thus forsaken by the Church, she committed herself in all confidence to God. She asked for the cross. An Englishman passed to her a cross, which he made of sticks: she received it none the less devoutly; she kissed it, and placed it, this rough cross, beneath her clothes and on her flesh. But she wished to hold the Church’s cross before her eyes till death; and the good bailiff Massieu and brother Isambart were so moved by her insistence that they brought her that of the parish church of Saint-Sauveur. As she was embracing this cross and being couraged by Isambart, the English began to find all this very long: it must be at least midday; the soldiers grumbled, the captains said, “How, priest, will you make us dine here?” Then losing patience, and not awaiting the order of the bailiff, who nevertheless alone had authority to send her to death, they made two soldiers climb up to remove her out of the priests’ hands. At the foot of the tribunal she was seized by armed men, who dragged her to the executioner and said to him, “Do your work.” This fury of the soldiers caused horror; several of the assistants, even the judges, fled in order not to see more. When she found herself below in the open square amid these Englishmen, who laid hands on her, nature suffered and the flesh was troubled; she cried anew, “O Rouen! you will then be my last dwelling-place.” She said no more, and sinned not by her lips even in this moment of terror and trouble; she accused neither her king nor his saints. But, the top of the pile reached, seeing that great city, that immovable and silent crowd, she could not keep from saying, “O Rouen! Rouen! I have a great fear that you will have to suffer for my death!” She who had saved the people and whom the people abandoned, expressed in dying only admirable sweetness of soul, only compassion for them. She was tied beneath the infamous writing, crowned with a mitre, on which was to be read, “Heretic, pervert, apostate, idolater”—and then the executioner lighted the fire. She saw it from above, and uttered a cry. Then, as the brother who was exhorting her paid no attention to the flames, she feared for him; forgetting herself, she made him go down.

Which well proves that up to then she had retracted nothing expressedly; and that the unfortunate Cauchon was obliged, no doubt by the high Satanic will which presided, to come to the foot of the pyre, to front the face of his victim, to try to draw out some word. He only obtained one despairing one. She said to him with sweetness what she had already said: “Bishop, I die by your hand. If you had put me in the Church’s prisons this would not have happened.” They had doubtless hoped that believing herself abandoned by her king, she would at the last accuse him, say something against him. She still defended him. “Whether I did well or ill, my king had nothing to do with it; it was not he who counseled me.”

But the flame rose. At the moment it touched her, the unfortunate one shuddered, and asked for holy water; for water—it was apparently the cry of fright. But recovering herself instantly, she no longer named any but God, his angels and his saints. She testified, “Yes, my voices were from God; my voices did not deceive me!” This vanishing of all doubt, in the flames, should make us believe that she accepted death as the deliverance promised; that she no longer understood salvation in a Judaistic and material sense, as she had done till then; that she saw clear at last, and that coming out of the shadows, she obtained that which she still lacked of light and holiness.

Ten thousand men wept. A secretary of the King of England said aloud, on returning from the execution, “We are lost: we have burned a saint!” This word escaped from an enemy is none the less grave. It will remain. The future will not contradict it. Yes, according to Religion, according to Patriotism, Jeanne d’Arc was a saint.

What legend more beautiful than this incontestable history! But we should take care not to make a legend of it: every feature, even the most human, should be piously preserved; the touching and terrible reality of it should be respected. Let the spirit of romance touch it if it dare: poetry never will do it. And what could it add? The idea which all during the Middle Ages it had followed from legend to legend—this idea was found at last to be a person; this dream was tangible. The helping Virgin of battles, upon whom the soldiers called, whom they awaited from on high—she was here below. In whom! This is the marvel. In that which was despised, in that which was of the humblest,—in a child, in a simple girl of the fields, of the poor people of France. For there was a people, there was a France. This last figure of their Past was also the first of the time that was beginning. In her appeared at the same time the Virgin and already the country.

Such is the poetry of this great fact; such is the philosophy, the high truth of it. But the historical reality is not the less certain; it was only too positively and too cruelly established. This living enigma, this mysterious creature whom all judged to be supernatural, this angel or demon who according to some would fly away some morning, was found to be a young woman, a young girl: she had no wings, but, attached like us to a mortal body, she was to suffer, die; and what a hideous death! But it is just in this reality, which seems degrading, in this sad trial of nature, that the ideal is found again and shines out. The contemporaries themselves recognized in it Christ among the Pharisees. Yet we should see in it still another thing: the passion of the Virgin, the martyrdom of purity.

There have been many martyrs; history cites innumerable ones, more or less pure, more or less glorious. Pride has had its own, and hatred, and the spirit of dispute. No century has lacked fighting martyrs, who no doubt died with good grace when they could not kill. These fanatics have nothing to see here. The holy maid is not of them; she had a different sign,—goodness, charity, sweetness of soul. She had the gentleness of the ancient martyrs, but with a difference. The early Christians only remained sweet and pure by fleeing from action, by sparing themselves the struggle and trial of the world. This one remained sweet in the bitterest struggle of good amid the bad; peaceful even in war,—that triumph of the Devil,—she carried into it the spirit of God. She took arms when she knew “the pity there was in the kingdom of France.” She could not see French blood flow. This tenderness of heart she had for all men; she wept after victories, and nursed the wounded English. Purity, sweetness, heroic goodness—that these supreme beauties of soul should be met in a girl of France may astonish strangers, who only like to judge our nation by the lightness of its manners. Let us say to them (and without self-partiality, since to-day all this is so far from us) that beneath this lightness of manner, amid her follies and her vices, old France was none the less the people of love and of grace.

The savior of France was to be a woman. France was a woman herself. She had the nobility of one; but also the amiable sweetness, the facile and charming pity, the excellence at least of impulse. Even when she delighted in vain elegances and exterior refinements, she still remained at the bottom nearer to nature. The Frenchman, even when vicious, kept more than any one else his good sense and good heart. May new France not forget the word of old France: “Only great hearts know how much glory there is in being good.” To be and remain such, amid the injustices of men and the severities of Providence, is not only the gift of a fortunate nature, but it is strength and heroism. To keep sweetness and benevolence amid so many bitter disputes, to traverse experience without permitting it to touch this interior treasure,—this is divine. Those who persist and go thus to the end are the true elect. And even if they have sometimes stumbled in the difficult pathways of the world, amid their falls, their weakness, and their childishnesses they will remain none the less children of God.