Craig Taylor, “Memory, Emotion and Truth: The Posthumous Trial of Joan of Arc”

The York Medieval Lecture 2019, Tuesday, 29th February, 6pm in the Bowland Auditorium

This week we held our Spring Term York Medieval Lecture, which was delivered by Dr Craig Taylor.

Craig Taylor is a Reader in Medieval History at the University of York and was director of the Centre for Medieval Studies from 2010-11 and 2014-17. A renowned expert on late medieval France and England, Craig’s research focuses upon three main areas: late medieval political literature, chivalry and the life of Joan of Arc. Where his first publications concentrated upon the French Salic Law, Craig has published a pivotal study on chivalric culture, Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France during the Hundred Years War, (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and more recently a translation of The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II le Meingre with Jane Taylor (Boydell and Brewer, 2016). Craig has taught extensively on the topics of chivalry, the Hundred Years War and Joan of Arc, and it is for his final year Special Subject module on the latter that he has published an invaluable sourcebook, Joan of Arc: La Pucelle (Manchester University Press, 2006).

Craig’s lecture this term, addressed to a full house, introduced the theme of his upcoming research which seeks to problematize understandings of the witness statements employed in 1456 to nullify the heresy trial which had culminated in Joan of Arc’s execution twenty-five years earlier, on 30 May 1431. The 124 witnesses who contributed evidence to this nullification trial ranged from peasants living in Joan’s home village of Domrémy to some of those nobles who had fought alongside her (most notably Jean II, duke of Alençon), and included clerics and theologians from the University of Paris who had even participated in her condemnation trial. As Craig highlighted, scholars and biographers of Joan of Arc have frequently taken these statements at face-value in their interpretations of her childhood or military capabilities, without inquiring into the circumstances of their recording.

Through a careful analysis of three testimonies provided by individuals of varying social backgrounds, Craig demonstrated the limits of the evidence they provided at a time when the mythical elements of Joan of Arc’s life were becoming entrenched in the French psyche. Craig cautions that these statements not only indicate the emergence of national narratives, but the responses were conditioned by the difficulties inherent in remembering events which had taken place decades ago. Moreover, the replies can appear formulaic, controlled by the narrow focus of the 1456 procedure and conditioned by contemporary political circumstances. In fact, Craig revealed that we learn little about controversial issues such as Joan’s mystical experiences, the voices that she heard, her reasons for wearing male clothing or the nature of her mission.

In this novel approach to the nullification trial testimony, Craig indicates the other questions that his re-examination of the witness testimonies may shed light upon. What do they tell us of popular religion as experienced by the peasants of Domrémy? How did emotion characterise the statements, and how does this relate to Joan’s own experience on trial? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do they reveal about the importance of reputation and rumour in fifteenth-century French culture?

Blog written by Luke Giraudet (CMS PhD).

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