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HISTORIANS AND DOCUMENTS

 

THE treatment which the two records, that of the trial and that of the rehabilitation, have received from historians is in many cases surprising. The conclusions which it reaches have been brilliantly summarized by Mr. Bernard Shaw, in the preface of his highly effective but quite unhistorical play, which has done much to popularize the view he adopts.

Joan, he tells us, was both heretic and saint, in fact, one of the first Protestant martyrs." "Her notion of the Catholic Church was one in which the Pope was Pope Joan." She had a fair trial, and the decision was strictly according to law. Bishop Cauchon, though Mr. Shaw admits having flattered him in order to present "the inner-most ascertainable truth of the situation," was guilty neither of bad faith nor of exceptional severity. The Church, however, for which Mr. Shaw has very real respect, was, he tells us, capable of the "magnificently Catholic gesture" of canonizing a Protestant saint, as "a person of heroic virtue whose private judgment is privileged." This is what, centuries after a rehabilitation, which the play describes as full of perjury and corruption, the Church proceeded to do. So far Mr. Shaw.

If the Irish playwright were solely responsible for this thesis, it would be a matter of minor interest, for no well-informed person is likely to regard the play as a contribution to historical science, However, though Shaw, with his keen sense of dramatic effect, has deliberately simplified and exaggerated the "conflict" with which he deals, he did not have to invent the essentials. Similar interpretations of the voluminous evidence concerning Joan are found in the works of influential historians, whom Mr. Shaw shows every sign of having read.

Thus Michelet, though recognizing the illegality of Cauchon's refusal to allow Joan's appeal to the Pope an appeal totally ignored by Mr. Shaw considers that the vital question involved a struggle between "the visible Church and authority on the one hand, and, on the other, inspiration testifying to the invisible Church." Joan's Church, he tells us, "was visible only in her heart" "There God shone; how dim He was elsewhere!"

The same idea concerning Joan is expressed by Henri Martin. "It is the struggle," he writes, "of organized tradition, the external rule, constituted infallibility, against individual spontaneity, immediate inspiration, the interior voice."

Especially influential has been the short study of Joan's trial and condemnation made by Jules Quicherat in his Apercus nouveaux sur l'histoire de Jeanne d'Arc, published in 1850.

During the preceding decade this brilliant young paleographer had given to the learned world the first complete, or almost complete, edition of the documents relevant to Joan's trial and rehabilitation, a work which has been of inestimable value to all subsequent historians of the Maid. When, however, the paleographer became a critic in his Aperçus nouveaux, his interpretation of the data he knew so well was in some respects highly debatable, He concluded that the trial was irreproachably legal in form, and that the documents recording it were completely trustworthy; he relied to a surprising extent on the word of Cauchon, though he described the bishop as "a passionate, guileful, and corrupt man"; and he cast doubt on the testimony given at the rehabilitation by stating that "the depositions of the witnesses which form the principal part appear to have been subjected to numerous excisions."

It is useful to consider the relationship of these statements to each other. They are agreed with, wholly or in part, by many historians hostile or at least alien to the Church. It is, I believe, from the mentality of such historians rather than from objective study of the evidence, that their conclusions spring. For to historians of this stamp it is, as it were, axiomatic, that the Church must be the eternal enemy of any individual's claim to private inspiration, that she must attempt to crush it, and that the recognition of such inspiration is a peculiar prerogative of Protestantism and free thought. If this be true, it follows that Bishop Cauchon's tribunal was, from the Church's point of view, after all, right, and that Joan was really a heretic. Her trial, however horrible in its outcome, was therefore again from the Church's supposed view point just, and the verdict deserved. Consequently the rehabilitation process, which culminated with the quashing and annulling of the earlier verdict, was a striking example of self-contradiction by the Church. Thereby, to quote Quicherat, who is here less discriminating than Mr. Shaw, "the infallible Church reduced to nothingness a whole case directed and judged by the Church." More-over, if the first verdict was "just," there was no need of resorting to illegal procedure in order to arrive at it, nor of distorting any facts in the official account of the trial The rehabilitation process, which accuses Cauchon of doing both, thus becomes guilty, as Shaw says, of "calumny of the dead," and is presumably unreliable in other ways. In any case, it was, so to speak, a thoroughly un-Catholic process, and must have been inspired by purely y political motives.

Such is the relationship between the theses supported by the historians in question. Starting from the assumption that the first trial was a true and characteristic expression of medieval Catholicism, they tend to defend its legality, and, in a way that seems at first sight paradoxical, to whitewash one of the most unlovely bishops of all time. As a consequence they view with suspicion the process of rehabilitation, incline to question the testimony given there, and regard themselves as freed from the onerous and uncongenial task of carefully studying the accompanying memoirs, and especially the Recollectio of Brehal. I do not for a moment suggest that Quicherat or any other historian has deliberately set out to distort the evidence. But I believe that, under the more or less unconscious influence of a certain attitude toward the medieval Church, the evidence has often been dealt with in a very arbitrary way. An inspection of this evidence, conducted without the initial assumption of Joan's heresy, will, as I hope to show, reach very different conclusions.