Joan of Arc had a string of minor successes culminating in a marvelous victory at Patay, where the French allegedly lost three men to 3,000 for the English. This seemingly miraculous event, as well as the liberation of Orleans, was widely set down to the Maid’s divinity. However, her later trial and execution were was only the beginning…
It is hard not to be impressed by the cogency of the evidence which Jules Quicherat presents for the view that the trial of Joan of Arc was indeed “un beau proces,” conducted by a great lawyer and sound in canon law, regardless of the Rehabilitation’s strictures. This view in no way passes a verdict on the trial from the point of view of ideal justice, as conceived in a later age; a legal system of course, reflects the reigning ideals of its own age. Perhaps the truth is that people’s concepts of justice were changing in the fifteenth century, and the Rehabilitation is really a condemnation of the old inquisitional order in the light of a new and more humane ideals of justice which were coming into being. There is no doubt of the ability, learning, and sincerity of the Rehabilitation judges, as there is, to our mind, little doubt of the ability and sincerity of the original trial judges whom the Rehabilitation so much maligned.
The human mind is easily self-deceived. It seems reasonably clear to us that in response to royal and popular pressure, the Rehabilitation judges convinced themselves that Cauchon and his associates were grievously at fault alike in character and in method. In other words, Pierre Cauchon and the other judges were the scapegoats for the institution which they served, and have remained so ever since. We can trace a parallel “will to believe” in human devils and personal scapegoats even in our own time, such as in war crimes trials, for instance from Nuremberg to Kissinger to the daily demonization in presidential politics.
The condemnation of Joan’s original judges in part took the form, however, of finding legal flaws in Joan’s trial under the old rules, even where those legal flaws did not exist. In that way, a direct challenge to the old order was avoided and a necessary tribute was paid to the innate conservatism of humankind. All history shows that people accept new things more readily when they present themselves in traditional guise. All the great revolutions, Protestant, English,French, American, even Russian, go back to some lost excellence.