Catherine M. Mooney

title.none: Sullivan, The Interrogation of Joan of Arc (Catherine M. Mooney)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.002 04.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Catherine M. Mooney, University of the Witwatersrand,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. Medieval Cultures Vol. 20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 203. 16.95. ISBN: 0-816-63268-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.02

Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. Medieval Cultures Vol. 20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 203. 16.95. ISBN: 0-816-63268-5.

Reviewed by:

Catherine M. Mooney
University of the Witwatersrand

Karen Sullivan's engaging study of the minutes for Joan of Arc's trial argues that Joan's frequent clashes with her interrogators can be explained by understanding the very disparate natures of their respective cultures .

Before turning to her arguments, a few comments are in order regarding Sullivan's use of primary sources. Although her study focuses primarily on the pro-English Burgundians' interrogation of Joan at Rouen in 1431, she incorporates evidence from other contemporary documents when these are relevant to her arguments, including liberal references to the so-called trial of rehabilitation that annulled Joan's condemnation (alas, after her execution). While most medieval and modern readers of the minutes, regardless of their support for Joan, agree that the text substantially represents what Joan had to say, Sullivan is well aware of the role the clerics played in shaping the minutes of Joan's interrogations. They controlled all the exchanges: they set the times and conditions for the interrogations, decided the lines of questioning to pursue, and then determined which questions, replies and other commentary to include and omit in their transcript. Sullivan is a literary scholar who approaches the transcripts from a rhetorical perspective, exploring them for what they say as texts. This means that in making her argument she can give equal credence to a passage appended to the transcript only after it had been officially notarized as she does to passages in the official transcript itself. I make this point not to criticize Sullivan's approach, but merely to clarify that her work is, above all, a literary analysis. It does not pretend to present a history of the interrogation or evaluate sources in the same ways most historians would. A historian myself, I nevertheless found her analysis accessible, well-informed in terms of primary documentation, thought-provoking, and frequently convincing.

At the heart of Sullivan's highly organized argument is the contrast she draws between the clerical culture of Joan's interrogators, whose training predisposed them to believe that truth could be ascertained through questioning, and Joan's own culture. The clerics were scholastics, inquisitors, and confessors, and in all three roles had been trained to use inquiry to uncover the truth. It is this culture that Sullivan sees colliding with Joan's own, which Sullivan does not attempt to define positively, contending that there is too little evidence in the transcripts to do so. Joan's resistance to the clerics' interrogation, however, provides abundant evidence that, however her culture might be defined, it was not that of the clerics (xxiii). Thus, a major argument of Sullivan's book is that the clerics and Joan conceived of truth differently. It is their differing modes of perception that explain their frequent clashes.

Sullivan organizes the seven chapters of her book into three sections, each foregrounding a specific aspect of the clerics' training. In chapters 1-3, she highlights their training as scholastics, evident in the course of their interrogation of Joan's childhood festivities at the fairy tree, the voices she heard, and her motivation for leaving her village of Domremy to lead the Armagnac forces in battle. In chapters 4-5, Sullivan discusses the clerics' training as inquisitors, apparent in their interrogation of Joan about the sign she allegedly used to persuade the dauphin Charles that she was divinely sent to lead the Armagnacs to victory and save France. In chapters 6-7, Sullivan focuses on the clerics' training as confessors through an analysis of their interrogation of Joan about her imprisonment and attempted escape, and their exchanges with her during the final week of her life. Despite the somewhat chronological ordering of these topics, Sullivan is not attempting to write a chronological history of the trial or suggesting that the clerics' roles as scholastics, inquisitors, and confessors were discrete. Rather, she analyzes differing modes of inquiry that are prominent with respect to different types of exchanges between the clerics and Joan.

In chapter 1, "The Fairy Tree," Sullivan considers the clerics' interrogation of Joan regarding her celebrations as a child at the site of an ancient tree long associated with fairy ladies. Drawing on semantic terminology, Sullivan contrasts the clerics' style of "hypotactic" thinking with Joan's "paratactic" style. While the scholastically-trained clerics strived to establish logical connections among loosely linked items and to reconcile contradictions, Joan was untroubled by unexplained juxtapositions. For example, she freely admitted participating in the village custom of visiting the Fairies' Tree with other girls, draping it with garlands, and singing. Joan was aware of the stories village elders recounted about fairies residing near the tree, but apparently did not connect her festivities with them. The clerics, however, insisted upon this connection. They also pressed Joan to identify the fairies as "evil spirits," but for Joan and her fellow villagers the fairies were neither angels nor devils, but rather supernatural beings of another kind that in no way undercut their Christian belief. "Because Joan's thinking was paratactic, she accepted the coexistence of multiple elements without attempting to define their interrelations" (13). For the clerics, on the other hand, there could be no acceptable coexistence or reconciliation between residual pagan beliefs and Christian orthodoxy. Through the clerics' questions, Joan's beliefs and actions are transformed from those of an uneducated, innocent village girl, to the willful error of someone fully cognizant that her festivities celebrated evil spirits condemned by Christian orthodoxy.

In her second chapter, "The Voices from God," Sullivan takes up the topic of the voices Joan heard. Sullivan argues suggestively that the exchanges between Joan and the clerics show a collaborative process in which both parties construct the "truth of her voices" (32). Initially, Joan spoke vaguely about the voices she heard. Sullivan notes that "no witness who knew Joan prior to the trial and no chronicler who wrote without probable access to information from [the] trial" ever spoke of Joan having heard the voices of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael (25). In the course of the clerics' relentless interrogation of Joan, demanding that she identify, name, and precisely describe the voices, Joan began to develop their identities, at first reluctantly and frequently contradicting herself, and then eagerly, supplying more details than the clerics' even demanded. Sullivan's interpretation is an enticing alternative to the theories-- still defensible-- that Joan was vague about the voices at the beginning of her trial because she was struggling to keep secret what she had been told not to reveal, or because she feared giving grist to the mill of the clerics.

Sullivan suggests the clerics tested Joan by applying Jean Gerson's well-known rules for the discernment of spirits. Joan failed each test: she was insufficiently skeptical of the voices, did not analyze them, and relied on her own subjective convictions rather than objective data to justify her belief in them. Sullivan's suggestion that the clerics' use of Gerson's rules undermined Joan's position is ironic given the fact that Gerson (d. 1429) is known to have written in defense of Joan. Sullivan briefly discusses this, but to my mind could have enhanced her argument by providing a fuller discussion of his defense, rather than attributing his support primarily to his pro-Armagnac politics. Gerson was, after all, one of the most respected theological minds of his time and would be expected to consider well whether or not Joan could pass the tests he himself had laid down. Dyan Elliott's recent "Seeing Double: Jean Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc," American Historical Review 107.1 (2002) nicely complements Sullivan's study in this regard.

Sullivan's third chapter, "The Departure for France," contrasts the clerics' and Joan's understandings of her departure from her village of Domremy for France (against her parents' wishes), her exercise of spiritual power over the Armagnacs, her military leadership over men, and her cross-dressing. Where they see Joan willfully and diabolically disobeying authorities and disrupting the social order in each of these moves, Joan understands herself to be a simple maid, compelled by God to carry out his will. Sullivan points out that most authors on Joan have continued this either/or approach, stressing either Joan's agency or her mediation of God's agency. In a stimulating analysis of Joan's attempted prison escape, however, Sullivan argues for a position that allows for both of these interpretations. She shows that Joan interpreted the opportunity to act, or the favorable outcome of one of her acts, for example, as implicit confirmations of God's will.

Sullivan shifts in chapters 4 and 5 to an examination of the clerics' inquisitorial-judicial style of interrogation. Her discussion in chapter 4, "The Sign for the King," contrasts the Burgundian clerics' demands for a "certain sign" that objectively proved Joan's divine authorization with Joan's and the Armagnacs' acceptance of a sign that was subjectively- mediated. Sullivan's interpretation, too involved to spell out in a review, depends upon a passage inserted into the transcript after the trial's conclusion and the transcript's final notarization that reports that Joan told the clerics that she was the angel who appeared before Charles and that the crown he was given was her promise to him that he would be crowned king (74). Scholars who approach the text from a literary perspective, considering the transcript as a text rather than a representation of historical events-- Sullivan's own approach-- will not find this troubling, but as a historian, evaluating documents for their relative reliability as representations of a no longer fully recoverable reality (and believing that some documents are more reliable than others), I found this section less illuminating for my understanding of Joan and her contemporaries. Regardless of one's perspective in this regard, I think that the information about the passage's tenuous historical relationship with the rest of the text would have more appropriately appeared in the chapter's text instead of in an endnote.

In chapter 5, "The Inquiry at Rouen," Sullivan details techniques used by interrogators to gain confessions, such as asking difficult questions to elicit incorrect answers, changing topics, interrupting the accused, and exhausting them with lengthy interrogations. Sullivan introduces compelling medieval and (perhaps more than necessary) twentieth-century evidence about forms of interrogation to contest the claims of Joan's medieval and modern supporters that the Burgundian inquisitors used unusually hostile and unfair methods in questioning Joan. Sullivan agrees, however, with both witnesses at the trial for rehabilitation and some modern commentators that the unlearned Joan showed significant savvy in negotiating her responses to the learned clerical inquisitors.

In chapters 6 and 7, Sullivan turns her attention to the clerics in their role as pastors, concerned with the cura animarum. They saw themselves as confessors and, given their interest in Joan's salvation, expected her, as penitent, to reply fully to their inquiries. Joan refused, however, to accept them as her pastors. In chapter 6, "The Confession of Conscience," Sullivan discusses how Joan consciously withheld many of the details of her revelations. Further, Joan's attempted escape from the tower of Beaurevoir indicates that it was St. Catherine, more than any priest, who assumed the role of Joan's spiritual director. "Refusing to respect the authority of the clerics as ecclesiastically appointed pastors or to accept their instruction and counsel, Joan asserted, in contrast, the legitimacy of her authority as a divinely appointed emissary and her power to teach and advise them instead. ...She did not depict these Burgundian clerics as intermediaries between God and herself but, on the contrary, presented herself as intermediary between God and them" (128).

Sullivan's final chapter, "The Prison Cell," focuses on the last week of Joan of Arc's life. In a disturbing turn of events, Joan's courage and self-confidence falter. The first instance of Joan's weakening resolve occurs when she is led before the platform where she would be burned and recants her earlier views. Tracking new turns within the exchanges between Joan and the clerics, Sullivan asserts that Joan at last began to accept the clerics' scholastic authority as her intellectual superiors, their judicial authority as inquisitors, and their pastoral authority as her confessors. Although Joan withdrew her recantation, her final interview with the clerics the day before her death, as reported in the posthumous documents of the trial, provides another illustration of her new willingness to begin to relate to the clerics as her spiritual directors. Although she staunchly defends the reality of her voices, she admits that they had deceived her when they had promised she would be delivered from prison. She concedes that she is unable to discern good from evil spirits, and further agrees to ask pardon from the crowd for having deceived them in turn.

The rather somber conclusion of Sullivan's book undermines the more resistant and resilient Joan of Sullivan's earlier chapters. Where Sullivan, the literary analyst, focuses especially on the very different Joan presented in the closing passages of the transcript, I might suggest that the historical Joan's final exchanges, including her brief recantation, are hardly surprising and hardly evidence of a significant reversal. From a literary perspective, of course, one could once again underscore the clerical control of this story's ending. Or, adverting to Joan's historical circumstances, one could situate her final exchanges within the turmoil and confusion of a simple girl, who has struggled through the stress of warfare, capture, hostile and relentless interrogation, and now faces the imminent horror of being burned alive. We can, at least, imagine this to be the case even though the documentary evidence does not prove it. Karen Sullivan's lucid exploration of the possible cultural divides that could account for and explain Joan's clashes with her interrogators suggests many more ways that we can read between the lines of the transcripts, to understand the texts, and to imagine the reality they allege to represent.