This book belongs on the desk of every reader interested in the "real" Joan of Arc. From the map at the very beginning through the 32-page introduction, the meticulous translation of the trial materials, and extensive notes, Hobbins has provided invaluable insights, not just on Joan, but on the other figures in this episode and on the period which gives these events their context.
Joan's story is familiar: a young Frenchwoman, claiming to hear voices, persuades the king, Charles VII, to allow her to lead the French forces in their struggle to lift the English siege of Orléans. By accomplishing this, and securing other victories, Joan made possible the Charles's coronation at the cathedral of Reims on July 17, 1429.
These successes, however, were followed by the failure to take Paris and Joan was captured, falling into the hands of a French nobleman whose loyalties lay with the English king. Joan was transferred to English custody for trial at Rouen; she was both a prisoner of war and a person accused of heresy. Pierre Cauchon, the local bishop, therefore, had jurisdiction over her trial.
The details of these events, the shape of the legal system and inquisitorial procedures, and the complex relationship between France and England at the time, make for an extremely complex situation, but Hobbins manages to lay it out systematically and clearly. His sketch of Cauchon's life and career, for example, is instructive. Both a prince of the church and a person with legal and temporal power—no separation of church and state here—Cauchon the bishop was also an English minister, participating in the Great Councils of both Henry V and Henry VI of England. Cauchon was among the most powerful men of his world.
Hobbins considers the trial transcripts the best way to get to know Joan herself: her life, her mental outlook, the social structure of her world. He cautions, though, that this is not a modern trial transcript; rather, it is more a summary of the proceedings, a "hybrid text," with both documentary and literary traits.
So how reliable is a text generated by Joan's opponents? Despite the skeptics who would dismiss the trial record, Hobbins feels there is strong evidence to support it. He notes that we have the original manuscripts of the Latin text, which was composed immediately after the trial, and that a comparison of the Latin text and the French version, the "French minute," shows overwhelming agreement. All in all, Hobbins considers the trial text the richest source available for Joan's life in her own voice. And, to those who accuse Cauchon of spearheading a biased account, Hobbins declares that the bishop was actually obsessed with proper procedure.
Hobbins also tackles the question of who was responsible for Joan's death. Again, many point the finger at Cauchon. Hobbins reminds us that the trial was Joan's only chance for survival, the only thing standing between Joan and the English, who were anxious to execute her. After all, Joan's voices seemed to show that God was on the side of the French, so, if she were vindicated and her voices proved authentic, the English claim to rule in France would be invalidated. So, much about the trial was political. Other charges—her clothing, fighting, refusal to submit to the church—were used in an attempt to discredit her claims theologically. As Hobbins warns, "To lose sight of either the political motivation or the theological demonstration is to invite confusion and misunderstanding.
Hobbins considers Joan's change of clothing "one of the most vexed issues" of the trial. After her May 24 abjuration, she resumed wearing men's clothing. Joan herself said that this was more fitting as she was among men, but also because her judges had not allowed her to go to mass as they had promised, nor had they released her from her chains. Joan also admitted hearing her voices again. Claiming she had abjured out of fear, Joan said she was willing to resume women's clothing but would never again deny her voices. According to Hobbins, "the change in clothing was not accidental: it reflected a personal choice and an expression of Joan's will." Her belief in her private revelation sealed her fate as a relapsed heretic.
Hobbins concludes that the procedure was not flawed and the judges were not dishonest. Joan's claim about hearing voices telling her to attack the English made saving her virtually impossible. This was, in fact, something about which Cauchon warned her throughout the trial.
Who was Joan? Hobbins reminds us that she can only be understood in the context of the 15th century. "Joan was not a contradiction to her world but its product, and she is comprehensible only within the terms of reference of that culture." Hobbins has proven himself a worthy guide to that culture.