Voice in a Medieval Arson Trial

I absolutely love the story of Agnes. There’s something about her deposition, her trial voice, that comes alive for me every time I read it. It’s like I can hear her voice in my head: a little petulant, very bossy, and overwhelmingly tiresome.

I have a feeling she’d identify with the Demi Lovato song “Sorry Not Sorry.”

Was Agnes actually petulant, bossy, and tireseome? Who knows! That’s the thing about these medieval cases, whether for arson or any other crime. What we have is, at best, a true-to-sense relaying of what the accused said. But then, medieval scribes aren’t known for their accuracy in transcribing the accused’s voice at trial.

The Châtelet of Paris, especially after about 1380, had become notorious as the royal prison and embodiment of judicial power in the Paris region. When a prisoner was called up to speak before the tribunal, they were questioned typically without a lawyer present (something that was more common in the Parlement of Paris). In Agnes’s case, we know that she was examined at least twice, “without force or constraint.”

That’s code for “not under torture.”

Does that mean she wasn’t tortured? Good question!

The short answer is no, it doesn’t.

Here’s how it often worked. A confession gained “without force or constraint” meant that it had been at least 24 hours since the last torture session (and there were only supposed to be three of these, max). The confession made is therefore not during torture. If it’s confirmed (that is, a court official reads back to the accused their confession, asks if it’s been correctly recorded, and receives an affirmative), then the confession is established as true.

Now, none of this is to say that Agnes was tortured. It’s hard to read through the medieval terms of art to see what actually happened. However, these particular records from which I took Agnes case tend to be unabashed about using torture. They’ll even go so far as to tell you what kind of torture.

The same goes for being sure that what’s recorded is what Agnes said. Agnes would have spoken a dialect of French. Coming from Brittany north of Rennes, she may have grown up speaking Dolois, the regional patios (a mix of French and Breton). Once near Paris, she likely spoke the Middle French dialect of that zone.

Undoubtedly her French, even if the same dialect as that spoken at court, would have had a different vocabulary and register than what the educated judges and scribes spoke. That in itself presents a challenge in trusting that what we have of Agnes’s words is true to her voice. Thankfully, the criminal registers by the 14th century were no longer being preserved in Latin (which was the case only a hundred years earlier, and meant that a scribe was translating from the vernacular, creating yet another layer of distance between the modern reader and the medieval speaker).

So, we don’t have to contend with Latin, but how about the way she describes the events? Can we be sure any of it is in her voice?

On the one hand, the story feels like it’s leaving something out, doesn’t it? Her neighbour won’t say hi and basically says he never wants to speak to her again, and her response is to burn down his house.

I mean really, WTF?!

Fire’s dangerous! And it’s your neighbour! Your house is going to be next if the thatch roof catches!

So surely there must be more context that we’re not getting, right?

Maybe. On the other hand, perhaps she was just that unhinged. People are weird. Ever hear of Florida Man?

To the question of whether this is a medieval thing, that the idea that not saying hello to a neighbour is some unforgivable insult, I can’t find any indication that that’s true. Rude, sure. But not “I’m going to burn your house down and maybe our whole village and everyone will think I’m totally justified” level rude.

And we do have some indications that these are her words, at least in broad strokes. The scribe includes Agnes saying that she’d been “tempted by the Devil.” In my AITA rendering, I translated that has “I must have had a devil on my shoulder.” The idea is largely the same, just more idiomatic in my translation.

Over the course of the later Middle Ages, in French materials at least, there’s an increase in attempts to blame a crime on the devil’s temptation. If you’re interested, I’ve written an article on this. What it boils down to here is that Agnes is trying to claim that her decision to burn down Miserelle’s house was a temporary one. More than that, it was aberrant. She’s not really like that, you see, it was just the Devil who, for one moment in the heat of her anger, succeeded in getting her to act so sinfully and criminally.

As we saw, that tactic of blaming the Devil didn’t work. But, the fact that the attempt was there suggests that Agnes did have at least some of her perspective or interpretation of events recorded.

Not that it did her any good.

There’s more to say about this case, but I’ll stop here for now. Agnes has put me in a musical state of mind, so let’s end with Billy Talent’s “Devil on My Shoulder.” Fitting, neketa?