Agnes Poulain, a Medieval Arson Trial

When I first read the medieval arson trial of Agnes, wife of Jean Poulain, it immediately felt like a medieval Am I the Asshole (AITA) post. I think you’ll see why in a moment.

This arson trial is from Paris, preserved in the medieval Registre Criminel du Châtelet (vol. II, pg. 61-64). It’s dated 28 January 1390-91.

Agnes earned her living, meager as it was, by carding and spinning. She’d been born in Dol, in Brittany. Around the age of 20 she moved to Chasteaufort (now Châteaufort). About seven years later, now married, she moved to Gif (now Gif-sur-Yvette), where our story takes place.

Map of northern France, showing Dol-en-Bretagne, Chateaufort, and Gif-sur-Yvette

Let’s try to imagine what happens as if she were writing an AITA post. Mind, I’ve never written one of these before, but then neither has Agnes, so all hiccups in the genre imitation I ascribe to her. Everything that follows, unless otherwise noted with an *, is from the trial record.

AITA for burning down my neighbour’s house?

So last Thursday I’m sitting outside my door, just doing my thing before I completely lose the light. Because it’s evening, right? Anyways, as I’m carding, my neighbour Jean Miserelle comes by. And he doesn’t say anything to me. Not a word! I thought maybe he was mad at me, so I walked up to him and said:

“Miserelle, why didn’t you say hi to me? What’d I do? Are you mad at me? I want to know what’s going on. Usually you chat with me and my husband, you have drinks and eat with us. On cold days you even come over and warm up in front of our fire. I thought we had a good time together.”

Here’s what Miserelle said back:

“Fine, I’ll talk to you, but only to answer your questions. But here’s the thing, if I’m mad at you, or if I don’t want to answer your questions, what are you going to do about it? I’m not going to talk to you anymore, ever. I won’t even say hello, if I don’t want to. And why should I tell you if I’m mad at you or don’t like you? Leave me alone. Let me do my thing, and you go do yours. Leave me alone.”

*Can you believe that? How rude! Well, as you can imagine,* I was pissed when he said all that. I replied:

“Well if you’re going to be mad at me, it’s going to be for a reason!”

At that, I left him and went back home. I must have had a devil on my shoulder, because when I got inside I went straight to the hearth. I pulled out a large, burning coal and wrapped it up in a linen sheet, best I could—*it was hot!* Then I slipped back outside with my bundle. Jean Miserelle’s house is right next to mine, so I easily, *and without anyone seeing,* stuck the linen-wrapped coal under the thatch of his roof, wedging it between two wooden tiles.

Medieval thatched-roof house, dating back at least 500 years.
The Hovel. Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, UK

Then, like he asked, I went and did my thing.

It didn’t take long for the fire to start. When I saw the flames, I called for for help. Lots of people came running to put the fire out.

*TL;DR My neighbour refused to say hello so I burned down his house. AITA?*

Answer: yes!

Certainly Agnes’s neighbours thought so. Jean Miserelle’s house burnt down to the foundation, despite her cries of “Fire! Fire!”

Image of the Murder of Innocents, showing a man stabbing a woman with a child.
Book of Hours. France, ca. 1480. MS M.6 fol. 51v. I suspect this is how Jean was feeling toward Agnes after his house burnt down!

Everyone immediately suspected Agnes was the one who’d done it and they arrested her. First taken to Chasteaufort as a prisoner, she was then transferred to the Châtelet in Paris and put on trial for arson.

After Agnes had given her version of events (and I have a hard time hearing contrition in her deposition), the tribunal deliberated. They called her back in a second time to confirm that the events she’d confessed to were true. When she said they were, the tribunal was left in unanimous agreement. Agnes’ arson was treasonous and she could not be released. She would get what she deserved: burning at the stake.

Agnes’s sentence was carried out on Tuesday, 7 March 1390. She had no property, the court scribe reports.

I’m working on a comic for this one. Somehow, moths seemed like the appropriate animal choice. Here’s a taste. I’ll post an update once the comic’s done and up.

Moth version of Agnes, thinking "Why didn't he say hello? Is he mad at me?"