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?

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?"