2014.11.26: Sasha Pfau, Prison Breaks in Late Medieval France

Speaker: Aleksandra “Sasha” Pfau, Associate Professor of History, Hendrix College, Conway, AR, USA

Title: Prison Breaks in Late Medieval France

Date, time, location: Wednesday 26th November 2014, 17.30, MB3201

Abstract: During the first public examination of Joan of Arc in her 1431 trial, Joan complained to Bishop Pierre Cauchon about being held in chains. When her jailors said that the chains were necessary because “she had tried to escape from other prisons on many occasions,” Joan replied, “It is true that elsewhere I wished to escape and would still do so, as is lawful for all people who are incarcerated or imprisoned.”[1] The idea that escape from prison is lawful was not shared by Joan’s captors, but it does reflect a larger cultural attitude towards imprisonment that was held not only by prisoners of war like Joan of Arc, but also by ordinary criminals awaiting trial for their crimes.

My research examines some letters of remission composed on behalf of people who orchestrated or assisted in a prison break in late medieval France. Remission letters, written to the King of France to request pardon for having committed a crime, are couched in the language of mercy, and through the speech act encoded in these letters, the King exercised his power over the lives of his erring subjects, allowing them to escape the death penalty despite their admission of guilt. Yet this particular crime seems to violate the very system of justice in which remission had a role. Imprisonment was generally used as a means of holding the accused for trial, and these narratives about prison breaks demonstrate a lack of respect for the justice system, an attitude that is concisely summarized in Joan of Arc’s assertion that it is “lawful” to escape from prison. These narratives about prison breaks raise interesting questions about how medieval people understood prisons, which appear to be fluid spaces, where some prisoners could leave briefly, others had corrupt guards, and still others had windows with ladder access.

[1] Craig Taylor, ed. and trans., Joan of Arc: La Pucelle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 139.

Images of the seminar: