I raise this caption because the subject is so peculiarly illustrative of the manners and social conditions of that time—the era of Jeanne d'Arc. Owing to the licentiousness produced by constant warfare, much of it of a most vicious and irregular kind, family ties were loosened and the ordinary sanctions of society were without weight or strict observance. Hence the great increase of illegitimate offspring, bastards, a word which, offensive as it is to our sensibilities, in that age carried no necessarily dishonoring implication. On the contrary, as attached to persons of good blood, it was distinctly honorable, and the heraldic sign thereof, a bar sinister, was proudly raised in the escutcheon.
Thus, Dunois, the brave defender of Orleans with Jeanne d'Arc—who survived her many years and gave generous testimony for her at the RehabilitationDunois, half brother of the Duke of Orleans, prisoner of the English, was titularly known as the Bastard of Orleans. Jeanne so addressed him familiarly.
Another and worthier reason for this general honoring of bastards was derived from the strenuous conditions of the time, the constant fighting which cut
down families, and the urgent need of recruiting the same by whatever means. A man was measured by his physical vigor, his activity, and power; it was no time for weaklings. A famous anecdote of the Duchess of Orleans, mother of the captive Duke, illustrates the point. Looking upon Dunois and admiring his strength and hardihood, she blurted out, "You were stolen from me!" A remark, comments R. L. S., which would have moved Balzac to rub his Episcopal hands.
Naturally enough, as bastardy rose in favor and irregular connections were more and more fostered, a higher value was set upon female virginity. One would deduce from a close study of that period in France (as in England somewhat later) that the available supply could not have been excessively large. The marauding soldiers were doing what lay in their power to diminish it, by means fair or foul, usually the latter. On this account young women of good families were sometimes moved to take shelter in convents, without actually desiring or intending to become nuns. The general sentiment in favor of bastards worked to the same end. Also, it is claimed that the great increase of illegitimate issue in those times was not wholly due to the lay elements of the population. Noblesse oblige! John of Burgundy, Bishop of Cambrai, pontificates at the altar with his thirty-six bastards and sons of bastards! Certain it is at least that a plague of moral dissolution, from which no part of society was exempt, united with other evils and scourges to depress the fair land of France.
Nevertheless, virginity was treasured with a mystical
awe and reverence, partly religious, partly no doubt superstitious in its origin. Certain occult powers and privileges were ascribed to it.( Balzac shared this belief and argued for it with characteristic tenacity. Vide "Cousin Pons.") The belief was common that the Devil—that most industrious actor of the Middle Ages—could not exert his malefic power upon a virgin or make a compact with her!
This little explanation will help us to understand the great stress, which was laid upon the fact of Jeanne's virginity by herself, her friends, and her enemies. She was examined several times in verification of her treasure, first at Chinon by a committee of court ladies, it is said upon the suggestion of Queen Yolande, the king's belle-mere; a wise woman, who no doubt had been set on by the priests. They found in her favor, of course; as for Jeanne, she was always content to permit this test of her claims and character. Still, we blush for that indelicate, prurient Middle Age! After all, there has been some advance, in spite of the idolaters of the past.
I have said that certain mysterious powers were then imputed to virginity, and the brave English thought it might be the source of Jeanne's military ability, her inspired leadership, before which their bowels melted like water and their armies fled the field. Accordingly, they hated her as only the English of that time could hate, cursed and reviled her with a grossness and malignity which, one is grieved to say, have always been peculiar to this noble race. "Prostitute" was the kindest and cleanest word they
had for her, though she showed them grace and quarter whenever possible. One hundred and seventy-odd years after her passing, the immortal Shakespeare gives us that same note of grossness and malignity in dealing with the Maid ("Henry VI," Part 1). An exhibition, which makes the great bard look very mean and small—unworthy, one would say, to lick the shoes of Jeanne d'Arc!
Cauchon the damned had her subjected twice to this painful trial during her confinement in Rouen. What was his object? No doubt, in the event of her lacking the signs of virginity, to denounce her as a creature of the Devil. Nothing came of these odious examinations, which were calculated at least to humiliate her and break her nerve. Then the royal Bedford took the fore, ordering a further test, which in no way injured his victim, while it gave his name to eternal disgrace. For this exalted Englishman had taken care to have a peep-hole made in the wall, in order to gratify his noble curiosity!
Well, the English raged to despoil Jeanne's treasure, but they feared to do it, though she was at their mercy, since the fact becoming known would prejudice the trial against them and perhaps lead to more serious results. This is my own surmise, not due to any other writer, and it takes color from the fact that Jeanne surely was attacked in the last days of the trial. She herself reported an attempted assault by an English lord. The poor girl, though in chains, was able to defeat his beastly intent, whereupon in his rage the noble Briton gave her a cruel beating.
On the last night but one before her execution it is believed that another attempt was made to violate the condemned. Indeed, those dark and fatal hours propose questions, which cannot be answered. A few writers concede the possibility of the worst, seeing the brutal character of the houspailleurs, ruffians who not only guarded Jeanne but shared her dungeon! I do not agree in this view. On the contrary, I believe that Jeanne, warned and protected by her Voices, defeated the last malice of her enemies, dying as she had lived, a virgin without stain.