Did Joan of Arc denounce her voices?

So I am going to make a shocking claim here, and before I do I want to be clear what I’m saying.

Joan of Arc is a Saint, and deserves to be a Saint. Her trial was a hatchet job, and Joan handled herself with courage and grace during it. She died with courage and was a model to emulate to the end.

I also think – I’ll talk about why later – that the voices really were the voices of the Saints.

But let me make my case:

The ending of the trial has become infamous due to movies and books portraying it frequently. The popular account goes thus:

Joan, due to fear of the fire, is half-tricked, half-frightened into signing a paper where she denounces her voices as false and agrees to wear women’s clothes. She may think she’s been promised release, but she certainly thinks she’s going to be moved to a Church prison, to be guarded by women. But she is betrayed, and moved back to the regular prison with male guards.

The next day they come back to make sure Joan has changed her clothes. She has not – and furthermore, when questioned, she says that the voices talked to her again, told her that she did something wicked in denying them, and she believes the voices came from God.

This is enough to lead to Joan’s execution. She is allowed Eucharist and Confession despite being excommunicated, against the norms of the Church, and goes to her death having kept her faith in the Voices to the end.

A moving and brave ending. But there are two problems with it.

  1. What is Cauchon’s plan? So the common story is that Cauchon needed Joan to abjure in writing, and then he needed her to recant the next day, so he got the abjuration on paper to discredit Joan AND had a good reason to burn her.

    But if you think about this it makes no sense. Why would Cauchon WANT Joan to recant? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the signed abjuration?
  2. Why is Joan allowed to receive Confession and the Eucharist? Mark Twain theorizes in his “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” that Joan is permitted this because Cauchon felt some fear for his soul, but this is unconvincing at best. It doesn’t fit with the character of Cauchon or his actions thus far; he’s been quite unashamed of himself.

Is there an answer to this? Actually there is, and we’ve known it all along. The answer is this: After Joan is found, having not changed her clothes, the day after her signed abjuration, Joan claims she believes the voices have deceived her. Cauchon had intended for Joan to say this all along, and it was a main component of his plan.

So Cauchon’s plan is actually this:

  1. Trick/scare Joan into signing the abjuration
  2. Betray Joan, leading her to get fed up with her treatment, refuse to change clothes, and go back to listening to her Voices
  3. After it is too late, and Joan refuses to change her clothes and refuses to denounce the voices, convince Joan that the voices MUST have been deceiving her, and get her to admit it

This is exactly what happens. Because Joan denounces the voivrd – but too late for it to matter as to her final fate – Joan is permitted to receive Confession and the Eucharist. And Cauchon wins totally: Joan has not only given him the signed letter, but she goes to her death with her last word on the voices being her finally admitting that they were deceiving her.

A bold claim, I know. Do we have any evidence for this?

Not only do we have evidence for this, it’s really quite easy to find. Here you go:

Jacques Le Camus, priest, canon of Reims, aged about 53 years, witness produced, sworn and examined on this day, said and deposed under oath that in the morning of Wednesday, the Eve of Corpus Christi last, he accompanied us the said bishop to the room where Jeanne was detained in the castle of Rouen, and heard this Jeanne publicly confess in a voice audible to all those present that she Jeanne had seen the apparitions come to her and had heard their voices, promising that she should be delivered; and since she recognized that they had deceived her she believed they were -not good voices or good things. A little while later she confessed her sins to brother Martin of the order of Preaching brothers, and after receiving the sacrament of confession and penance, when the said brother was about to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist to her, and held the consecrated host in his hands, he asked her, “Do you believe this is the body of Christ?” And the said Jeanne answered, “Yes, and He alone can deliver me. I ask for it to be administered to me.” Then the same brother said to her, “Do you still believe in these voices?” She answered, “I believe in God alone, and will no longer put faith in these voices, because they have deceived me.”

Also:

Master Nicolas Loiseleur [Malcolm note: One of the blackest villains in the trial, Loiseleur pretended to be a Priest from her hometown, so Joan would confess to him; however, this was a trap, and the Confession was set up in such a way that others would be able to overhear it and use that testimony in the trial. Real salt of the earth sort of guy] said also that often, before master Pierre, the two Preaching brothers, ourselves, and many others, he heard Jeanne say that she really had received revelations and apparitions of spirits; that she had been deceived in these revelations, which she well recognized and perceived because although they had promised her deliverance from prison, she saw only the contrary; upon whether these spirits were good or evil she referred to the clergy, but she put and would put no more faith in them.

He said that he exhorted her to destroy the error she had sown among the people, to confess publicly that she had deceived herself and the people by putting faith in such revelations and exhorting the people to believe in them; he exhorted her humbly to ask pardon for this. Jeanne answered that she would willingly do so, but she did not imagine that she would remember when the proper time came, that is when she was in judgment before the people; and she asked her confessor to remind her of it and of other things tending to her salvation.

More here, I encourage you to read this: Joan of Arc – Maid of Heaven – The Trial of Joan of Arc Chapter 34

So what do we make of the words of Manchon? Manchon, the only honest notary at Joan’s trial, has this to say in his testimony at the nullification trial of Joan:

What she had said in the abjuration she said she had not understood, and that what she had done was from fear of the fire, seeing the executioner ready with his cart.

[Asked, why they had administered the Sacrament to one declared excommunicate and heretic, and if she had been absolved by the forms of the Church, Manchon answered:] There had been much discussion among the Judges and their Counselors, whether they should offer her the Holy Sacrament, and whether she should be absolved at the place of execution; but I did not see any absolution granted to her. I was so disturbed that for a month I remained terrified.

She never revoked her revelations, but maintained them up to the end.

Joan of Arc – Maid of Heaven – Trial of Nullification (Rehabilitation) Rouen Testimony

Do you notice something?

Manchon never even mentions the examination by the Priests that occurred after Joan was found wearing men’s clothes!

My conclusion: Either Manchon did not know about it, or he intentionally left that detail out. Either way, as the link above proves, it is extremely well-attested that Joan did in fact lose faith in her voices at the end, and told this to multiple people. Manchon leaves this out, and this actually leads to a weird inconsistency in his testimony – we don’t know why Joan is allowed the Sacraments. But this is a detail easily explained if Joan did, in fact, recant her faith in the voices.

Moreover, I want to note a couple of other things:

  1. Joan had slowly been losing faith in the voices for awhile. Not long before her abjuration, she is still claiming the voices comes from God, but hedges her bets: She says that the responsibility for what she did due to them is hers, and not Charles. She will risk her own life on the voices, but not her King’s reputation. As this wonderful biography of Joan of Arc by Francis C. Lowell puts it:

    Once more her voices prevailed. “I will answer you,” she said. “Let my deeds and words be sent to Rome to our holy father the pope, to whom, and to God, first of all, I trust myself. As for the words and deeds I have done, I have done them by the command of God.” Doubt had entered her mind, however, and it found characteristic expression. “I hold no one responsible for my acts,” she went on, “neither my king nor any one else, and, if there is any fault, it is mine and not another’s.” She was still willing to stake her own salvation on the truth of her voices, but not the reputation of her king.

  2. Joan absolutely believed she would be rescued, and that the voices promised her she would be rescued. She was absolutely and definitely expecting a literal rescue, and not a symbolic rescue via martyrdom. That this did not happen bothered her deeply.

With this in mind, is it a shock that she finally believes the voices were deceiving her.

There is another point to address. Did Joan regain her faith in the Voices while in the fire? The Lowell biography seems to think so. It says this:

She had not lost her faith in her voices, or else it came back to her in the fire, for those standing near by heard her speak the name of St. Michael, who had appeared to her in her first vision in Domremy.

Indeed it is true – Joan calls on the Saints who appear in her visions at the very end, according to a couple of different sources.

But let me ask a different question: What does this have to do with her trust in the voices?

Joan was still very definitely Catholic. In fact, her Catholicism is probably what lead her to denounce the voices: Priests and Bishops are telling her to submit to them and she is refusing!

Joan would still obviously believe in the intercession of the Saints. Calling on Saint Michael and believing St. Michael is appearing and speaking to her are two extremely different things. Despite what this biography says, one does not imply the other.

There is really no other conclusion to draw here: Joan of Arc’s last words concerning her voices are to denounce them as deceptive, and claim she would put not more faith in them. More than that – we have no evidence that at any point between her saying that and her death that she ever changed her mind again.

The Lowell biography also reports this, by the way, despite its desperate attempt to save face for Joan at the end:

In her distress Maurice thought that another appeal might move her, and he pointed out that her voices must be those of lying spirits, since, in promising her deliverance, they had deceived her. This horrible thought had been present to her mind for days; she could not be sure that Maurice was wrong, and he persuaded her to say that she had been deceived. Probably she meant to admit only that she had misunderstood her voices, but the churchmen took her to mean that the voices had betrayed her. 

My own note: It really, really doesn’t read to me like Joan was admitting she only “misunderstood” the voices.

Cauchon saw her agony, and, dissatisfied with the efforts of Maurice, himself attempted to bring her to submission. “Listen, Joan,” he began; “you always told us that your voices promised you that you should be delivered; you see how they have deserted you. Now tell us the truth.” Again Joan was forced to admit that she had been deceived. Cauchon triumphantly declared that she must understand that voices like hers could not be those of good spirits, nor could they come from God; if they had come from Him, they could neither deceive her nor lie. To this Joan made no answer, and they could get nothing more out of her, except rather vague professions of devotion to the church and of willingness to submit to it.

So I will note here that again I think Lowell is trying to avoid the obvious conclusion, which is that Joan is reluctant to say outright that the voices are evil spirits but she certainly no longer trusts them.

The evidence seems clear to me. So why is this version of the story never the one we see in movies and books?

I think the answer is obvious. It ruins the symmetry of the story!

Think about it. Do you really want to hear the version of the story where Joan admits she’s being deceived and doesn’t trust the Voices anymore? Where Cauchon wins utterly until the 20 years later reversal?

Of course not. Far more inspiring if Joan goes to her death proclaiming the rightness of her cause. But that simply is not what happened. The extraordinarily well-documented historical record does not support it.

So were the Voices the Saints? I’m going to answer…probably, yeah.

The reason is pretty simple. On every prediction the voices were not only accurate, but extraordinarily accurate, to the point of specifics, up to this point. Joan predicts specific injuries, Joan predicts her own capture, Joan promises a sign to prove herself and then lifts the siege of Orleans, Joan promises the king crowned and the king is crowned. She claims a disaster will befall the English in 7 years, and in 6 years and eight months Paris falls to the French. She says the English will be driven out of France, and it happens during the reign of Charles VII, albeit 20 years later. It’s extraordinary.

So why was Joan not rescued if the Voices promised it? I think the answer is simple enough. Joan simply misunderstood. The Voices did also tell her to prepare for her martyrdom. Quite probably they were speaking obliquely to spare Joan her fear of the fire for as long as possible, while also gently trying to prepare her for the inevitable end. It’s the most elegant solution to the dilemma.

Last point: Why am I laboring this point? Because there are several facts here:

  1. The trial was still a hatchet job
  2. Joan was still innocent
  3. Joan was still an incredibly devout Catholic
  4. Joan still strove to do the will of God in all she did
  5. Joan is still a Saint, and a deserved one

So why focus on this one point about the Voices?

Well…because this isn’t the West, Sir. When the legend doesn’t fit the facts, we don’t print the legend. The version of the trial we actually get is certainly not as dramatically satisfying as the Hollywood version, but it is the truth.

If anyone thinks I’m interpreting things incorrectly, please say so. I’d love to be wrong.

The highly recommended Lowell biography: Joan of Arc – Maid of Heaven – Joan of Arc By Francis C. Lowell

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5 Responses to Did Joan of Arc denounce her voices?

  1. Chad says:

    No, I think you have it right.

    • So I’m not happy about drawing this conclusion, and I wish it wasn’t true.

      But I don’t really see a way around it. Best guess is that Lavdenu saw where the wind was blowing in the nullification trial and so…neglected to mention the parts that made him look less than heroic (using extreme emotional distress caused by fear of fire and being convicted of a crime you did not commit to break someone’s faith in the rightousness of their cause). Manchon may not have known about Joan’s second loss of faith in the Voices, but it’s also possible he too simply didn’t want to draw attention to it.

  2. Chad says:

    Keep in mind that her confession or time in prayer could have led her to the understanding of being saved through martyrdom as the voices telling the truth, and renouncing the previous statement. It’s hard as the facts we have presented are second hand (not Joan), possibly protected by confession, subject to human frailties, and then years after the fact

    • Yes, the best evidence against this thesis does come from Lavdenu. It is absolutely plausible that he heard Joan say something on her final day alive that made him believe Joan had regained her faith in the Voices (which, after all, she only very grudgingly lost in a moment of extreme and cruel emotional distress anyway – a fact it is critical to emphasize).

      There is some evidence of this; Joan does say that she worries that Rouen will suffer because of her death, which implies she still believes firmly that history will vindicate her.

      That said, the reason I find this the less likely outcome is that at the nullification trial Lavdenu and Manchon leave out a major part of the story; if there is nothing to hide, what are they gaining by not mentioning it?

      But I freely admit that at this point we can only speculate about people’s motives anyway.

    • Note, though, that the “traditional” accounts of the trial do make a strange plot hole. Writers have long had to try and explain why, in the traditional account, Joan was permitted Eucharist and Confession.

      But in fact this makes perfect sense if we remember that Joan recanted her faith in the Voices; in fact Cauchon would want to make sure it was well known to all that Joan was receiving the Sacraments, because it meant she admitted she was wrong.

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