31 May 2009


Most people have never read Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, probably because it has been universally panned as Twain's worst book, even though Twain, himself, considered it his best work.

However, there are a few passages that are memorable, maybe even brilliant, such as one in Chapter 16, Volume 2 at the Gutenberg Project.

(We could easily substitute "Dick Cheney" for "Bishop Cauchon" in these passages.)

16 Joan Stands Defiant Before the Rack

(Twain writing as the Sieur du Conte:)

...We entered the circular room on the ground floor, and I saw what turned me sick—the instruments of torture and the executioners standing ready! Here you have the black heart of [Bishop] Cauchon at the blackest, here you have the proof that in his nature there was no such thing as pity...

The guards were in their places, the rack was there, and by it stood the executioner and his aids in their crimson hose and doublets, meet color for their bloody trade..

After a little, Joan arrived and was brought in. She saw the rack, she saw the attendants... as for fear, she showed not a vestige of it...

Cauchon made a solemn speech. In it he said that in the course of her several trials Joan had refused to answer some of the questions and had answered others with lies, but that now he was going to have the truth out of her, and the whole of it...

He was sure he had found a way at last to break this child's stubborn spirit and make her beg and cry...He talked high, and his splotchy face lighted itself up with all the shifting tints and signs of evil pleasure and promised triumph.. And finally he burst out in a great passion and said:

"There is the rack, and there are its ministers! You will reveal all now or be put to the torture.


Then she made that great answer which will live forever; made it without fuss or bravado, and yet how fine and noble was the sound of it:

"I will tell you nothing more than I have told you; no, not even if you tear the limbs from my body. And even if in my pain I did say something otherwise, I would always say afterward that it was the torture that spoke and not I."

...You should have seen Cauchon. Defeated again, and he had not dreamed of such a thing. I heard it said the next day, around the town, that he had a full confession all written out, in his pocket and all ready for Joan to sign. I do not know that that was true, but it probably was, for her mark signed at the bottom of a confession would be...evidence...

Consider the depth, the wisdom of that answer, coming from an ignorant girl. Why, there were not six men in the world who had ever reflected that words forced out of a person by horrible tortures were not necessarily words of verity and truth, yet this unlettered peasant-girl put her finger upon that flaw with an unerring instinct. I had always supposed that torture brought out the truth—everybody supposed it; and when Joan came out with those simple common-sense words they seemed to flood the place with light. It was like a lightning-flash at midnight which suddenly reveals a fair valley sprinkled over with silver streams and gleaming villages and farmsteads where was only an impenetrable world of darkness before. Manchon stole a sidewise look at me, and his face was full of surprise; and there was the like to be seen in other faces there. Consider—they were old, and deeply cultured, yet here was a village maid able to teach them something which they had not known before. I heard one of them mutter:

"Verily it is a wonderful creature. She has laid her hand upon an accepted truth that is as old as the world, and it has crumbled to dust and rubbish under her touch. Now whence got she that marvelous insight?"

The judges laid their heads together and began to talk now. It was plain, from chance words which one caught now and then, that Cauchon and Loyseleur were insisting upon the application of the torture, and that most of the others were urgently objecting.

Finally Cauchon broke out with a good deal of asperity in his voice and ordered Joan back to her dungeon...

The Bishop's anger was very high now. He could not reconcile himself to the idea of giving up the torture. It was the pleasantest idea he had invented yet, and he would not cast it by. So he called in some of his satellites on the twelfth, and urged the torture again. But it was a failure.

With some, Joan's speech had wrought an effect; others feared she might die under torture; others did not believe that any amount of suffering could make her put her mark to a lying confession. There were fourteen men present, including the Bishop. Eleven of them voted dead against the torture, and stood their ground in spite of Cauchon's abuse...

Edited for brevity --the full text can be found HERE.

Look for these previous posts:


Snowbrush said...

I hadn't even heard of this, and I wondered if Twain's portrayal was accurate as I didn't even know Joan was tortured. I thought her "guilt" was evident, so torture was not needed. Even so, she was young and female, so torturing her might have been considered essential.

C Woods said...

Snowbrush ---I believe that Twain used historical source materials to create his book. The problem is that there are so many myths about Joan and reports that transcripts of her trial were altered ---so who knows what really happened? Add to that religious fervor. Many believe the proof of the authenticity of Joan’s visions was that everything the "saints" told her came true.

At this web site:
It says that early in May of 1431 Joan was threatened with torture. Twain indicates that Cauchon wanted to torture her twice, but was voted down both times. Of course, that didn't stop her execution at the end of May.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how historically accurate Twain was attempting to be. Twain, a religious skeptic, had three daughters. That may have influenced him to write about a heroine, who, although claiming to see visions of saints, in a way defied the bishops who tried her.

Many Twain scholars speculate on why Twain liked this book when it is thought, by most, to be his worst. In my opinion, it was because this book had a serious subject. Twain longed to be accepted as a true literary writer, instead of a funny man. During his life, he was actually considered to be a travel writer more than a novelist for Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator.

Unfortunately, most of the text of his Joan of Arc book is rather boring. I read it a long time ago and don't care to plow through it again.

Snowbrush said...

Thanks for the learned opinion about the factuality of the book and for the plausible guess about why Twain liked it so.

Zxern said...

It's as accurate as can be. He researched the topic for 12 years and used other historians work as well as the actual transcripts from both trials.

The alterations to the original transcripts were answers that were left out, as a fake confession that was inserted days after she was executed.

This is confirmed by testimony from the witnesses during the rehabilitation trial.

C Woods said...

Thanks, Zxern, for your info on Joan of Arc and Twain's research for his book. And thanks for stopping by.

I haven't been posting lately ---got involved in several other projects that are eating all of my time.

Yet, I'm still a Twain aficionado and read about.
him frequently. I became interested in Twain after reading much of his social commentary while a college student in the 1960s. Since 1997, I've been attending Twain Conferences (which happen every 4 years) in Elmira, NY ---attended my 6th one in August 2013. Besides being amongst a bunch of serious Twain scholars who have great fun together and renewing my interest in Twain once more, they are the best-run conferences I've ever attended. A bonus : the food service is fabulous.

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