Your RDA of Irony

On This Day in 1431…

Joan of Arc became the most famous French fry. With the exception of Antonin Scalia, we no longer regard witchcraft as a capital crime or even a tangible offense. In the 15th century, however, witchcraft seemed a plausible explanation for Joan’s triumph over the English at the siege of Orleans in 1429. Dressed in men’s clothing and leading an army, she certainly was an outlandish figure–why not a diabolical one. (At the time, no one in the British military thought of blaming the liberal media–which would have consisted of some dozen scribes at Oxford.) When Joan was captured by French collaborators and then sold to the English, she was put on trial for witchcraft.

But witchcraft was the Church’s jurisdiction. It had the responsibility for trying Joan of Arc. Ironically, by the standards of her time, Joan was not the victim of injustice. On the contrary, her trial was impeccably fair. She was not even tortured. (After all, she was never accused of being Jewish.) If you don’t believe me and your Latin is very good, feel free to read her trial transcripts. Yes, the Church took notes. Did you think that the phonetic similarity of “cleric” and “clerical” was just a coincidence? As the obligatory literates of the Middle Ages, the clerics had to keep baptismal records, read and file Papal bulls, and–in the case of heretics–fill out burning permits.

The Church was not even eager to incinerate the girl. In fact, it intended to save her life from the English whom she had humiliated. Any educated, impartial person would see that the young woman was just a lunatic; and that in itself was not a crime. On the other hand, she was very strange and the specific nature of her insanity required some form of incarceration. Joan claimed to talk to saints. That was not a theological impossibility, but the Church preferred to moderate the conversation. (G.B. Shaw postulated that Joan was a premature Protestant.) Furthermore, Britain constituted a powerful parishioner, and the Church needed to offer the English some revenge. Why not put Joan in prison for the rest of her life; there, she would no longer be a public disturbance and she could talk to the saints as much as she wanted.

Her legal counselors explained to Joan her predicament. If she insisted on her innocence, she would be executed. However, if she confessed to witchcraft, her life would be spared. The counselors unfortunately failed to explain that her spared life would be spent in prison. So Joan confessed to witchcraft but was surprised by a life sentence. Then Joan recanted her confession, and the Church recanted any interest in saving her life. She was turned over to the English and their limited culinary skills.

In fairness, the English really did believe that Joan was a witch. Some 150 years later, an awkward, heavy-handed but not completely talentless young playwright would depict Joan conjuring demons in the execrable play “Henry VI, part I.” With ten years’ practice, the playwright would make his Scottish witches much more memorable.

And the Church did apologize in 1920 by making Joan a saint.

  1. Peggles says:

    From an old tee shirt: Joan of Arc is alive and medium well.

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    Jean d’Arc, Jean d’Arc
    How does your following grow?
    “With credulous fools
    And Rome’s silly tools
    And my extremities toasted and aglow.”

    I’ll be here all week. Try the Grilled Zeal(ot).

  3. Jason says:

    I have always been of the opinion that the phonetic similarity of “Papal Bull” and “bulls**t” was no coincidence.

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