Mark Twain's famous fictional account of the life of the 15th century French heroine and patron saint, Joan of Arc, was originally a serial written for and appearing in Harpers Magazine in 1895. It appeared in book form in the following year, representing itself almost as 'faction' and citing its source as the translation into English of a French manuscript written by Joan's page, Sieur Louis de Conte. The actual historical de Conte was Joan's page and in this novel he is employed as narrator by virtue of his presence in the three principal passages of her life, from the divine visions of her youth and becoming the successful commander of King Charles VII's French Army against the English during the Hundred Years War and finally to her trial at Rouen which led to her execution by burning at the stake aged just nineteen years. Originally written under a pseudonym this novel is arguably Twain's most serious and mature work. It necessarily lacks the humour for which he was renowned, but he has created instead a work regarded by many as an American classic of the late nineteenth century. Available in softcover and hardcover with dustjacket.
I cannot bear to dwell at great length upon the shameful history of the summer and winter following the capture. For a while I was not much troubled, for I was expecting every day to hear that Joan had been put to ransom, and that the King—no, not the King, but grateful France—had come eagerly forward to pay it. By the laws of war she could not be denied the privilege of ransom. She was not a rebel; she was a legitimately constituted soldier, head of the armies of France by her King’s appointment, and guilty of no crime known to military law; therefore she could not be detained upon any pretext, if ransom were proffered.<br>
But day after day dragged by and no ransom was offered! It seems incredible, but it is true. Was that reptile Tremouille busy at the King’s ear? All we know is, that the King was silent, and made no offer and no effort in behalf of this poor girl who had done so much for him.<br>
But, unhappily, there was alacrity enough in another quarter. The news of the capture reached Paris the day after it happened, and the glad English and Burgundians deafened the world all the day and all the night with the clamour of their joy-bells and the thankful thunder of their artillery, and the next day the Vicar-General of the Inquisition sent a message to the Duke of Burgundy requiring the delivery of the prisoner into the hands of the Church to be tried as an idolater.<br>
The English had seen their opportunity, and it was the English power that was really acting, not the Church. The Church was being used as a blind, a disguise; and for a forcible reason: the Church was not only able to take the life of Joan of Arc, but to blight her influence and the valour-breeding inspiration of her name, whereas the English power could but kill her body; that would not diminish or destroy the influence of her name; it would magnify it and make it permanent. Joan of Arc was the only power in France that the English did not despise, the only power in France that they considered formidable. If the Church could be brought to take her life, or to proclaim her an idolater, a heretic, a witch, sent from Satan, not from heaven, it was believed that the English supremacy could be at once reinstated.<br>
The Duke of Burgundy listened—but waited. He could not doubt that the French King or the French people would come forward presently and pay a higher price than the English. He kept Joan a close prisoner in a strong fortress, and continued to wait, week after week. He was a French prince, and was at heart ashamed to sell her to the English. Yet with all his waiting no offer came to him from the French side.<br>
One day Joan played a cunning trick on her jailer, and not only slipped out of her prison, but locked him up in it. But as she fled away she was seen by a sentinel, and was caught and brought back.<br>
Then she was sent to Beaurevoir, a stronger castle. This was early in August, and she had been in captivity more than two months now. Here she was shut up in the top of a tower which was sixty feet high. She ate her heart there for another long stretch—about three months and a half. And she was aware, all these weary five months of captivity, that the English, under cover of the Church, were dickering for her as one would dicker for a horse or a slave, and that France was silent, the King silent, all her friends the same. Yes, it was pitiful.<br>
And yet when she heard at last that Compiègne was being closely besieged and likely to be captured, and that the enemy had declared that no inhabitant of it should escape massacre, not even children of seven years of age, she was in a fever at once to fly to our rescue. So she tore her bedclothes to strips and tied them together and descended this frail rope in the night, and it broke, and she fell and was badly bruised, and remained three days insensible, meantime neither eating nor drinking.<br>
And now came relief to us, led by the Count of Vendôme, and Compiègne was saved and the siege raised. This was a disaster to the Duke of Burgundy. He had to save money now. It was a good time for a new bid to be made for Joan of Arc. The English at once sent a French bishop—that forever infamous Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais. He was partly promised the Archbishopric of Rouen, which was vacant, if he should succeed. He claimed the right to preside over Joan’s ecclesiastical trial because the battle-ground where she was taken was within his diocese. By the military usage of the time the ransom of a royal prince was 10,000 livres of gold, which is 61,125 francs—a fixed sum, you see. It must be accepted when offered; it could not be refused.<br>
Cauchon brought the offer of this very sum from the English—a royal prince’s ransom for the poor little peasant-girl of Domremy. It shows in a striking way the English idea of her formidable importance. It was accepted. For that sum Joan of Arc, the Saviour of France, was sold; sold to her enemies; to the enemies of her country; enemies who had lashed and thrashed and thumped and trounced France for a century and made holiday sport of it; enemies who had forgotten, years and years ago, what a Frenchman’s face was like, so used were they to seeing nothing but his back; enemies whom she had whipped, whom she had cowed, whom she had taught to respect French valour, new-born in her nation by the breath of her spirit; enemies who hungered for her life as being the only puissance able to stand between English triumph and French degradation. Sold to a French priest by a French prince, with the French King and the French nation standing thankless by and saying nothing.<br>
And she—what did she say? Nothing. Not a reproach passed her lips. She was too great for that—she was Joan of Arc; and when that is said, all is said.<br>
As a soldier, her record was spotless. She could not be called to account for anything under that head. A subterfuge must be found, and, as we have seen, was found. She must be tried by priests for crimes against religion. If none could be discovered, some must be invented. Let the miscreant Cauchon alone to contrive those.<br>
Rouen was chosen as the scene of the trial. It was in the heart of the English power; its population had been under English dominion so many generations that they were hardly French now, save in language. The place was strongly garrisoned. Joan was taken there near the end of December, 1430, and flung into a dungeon. Yes, and clothed in chains, that free spirit!