On the morning after Louis’s murder, the Châtelet, a gloomy old fortress fronting the river and serving as police headquarters, was bustling with sergeants, examiners, scribes, and anxious witnesses summoned to give testimony. Guillaume, the provost, had mobilized scores of his officers to bring in witnesses, and teams of examiners to depose them.
Some of the witnesses lived near the crime scene, others lived along the streets where the assassins had been seen escaping, and still others were shopkeepers who may have unknowingly sold goods or supplies to the assassins. As quickly as possible, they all had to be sworn in and deposed and their statements studied and compared for useful clues.
Crime investigation in Paris at this time was not in the least haphazard but very orderly and bureaucratic. The Châtelet overflowed with records and documents of all sorts, and, half a century before Gutenberg, everything had to be laboriously copied out by hand on cured animal hide (parchment) with quill pens.
The Chatelet had six rooms devoted to questioning witnesses. Depositions were normally taken by two-man teams, an examiner who asked the questions, and a scribe who wrote down the testimony. Special characters were used to catch the fleeting human voice, a kind of shorthand consisting of scribal abbreviations used for centuries.
One of the first witnesses to be deposed was Jacquette, the shoemaker’s wife who had watched the murder in horror from her upstairs window while holding her baby. An examiner named Guillaume Marescot asked the questions while an unnamed scribe wrote down Jacquette’s words, his quill scratching on parchment.
Following normal practice, Jacquette was first told to state her name, age, and residence for the record. (She was “about thirty-four,” she said; like many people, she did not know her exact year of birth.) Then she was deposed under oath, swearing on a copy of the Gospels that her testimony would be true and complete.
Jacquette was first asked to describe what she had seen from her window, and she recounted in great detail how Louis’s killers had hacked their victim to death with their swords and axes, then extinguished their torches in the mud of the street and disappeared into the dark.
After this, Marescot asked Jacquette a long series of probing questions about the killers, their clothing, and other details, including their hideout across the street:
“Where did the assassins go?”
“After they ran into the Rue des Blancs Manteaux? I have no idea.”
“Would you know any of them if you saw them again?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What about their clothing? Was it long or short?”
“I couldn’t really see. It was too dark.”
“Any other details that you recall?”
“I was so upset, I didn’t really — Well, the man in the red hood who was in charge, he was definitely the tallest of them.”
“Did you hear any of them say why they were doing this, or who they were?”
“The tall man, what was his nationality?”
“I really couldn’t say, except that he spoke good French.”
“How long did the house they used sit empty?”
“Ever since the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.”
“Who owns it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who was staying there? Did anyone visit the place?”
“No one that I knew of, not since the Feast of Saint John.”
“Well, a few times I saw the neighbors drying laundry on the wall.”
At this point, Jacquette seems to have recalled an incident the previous Sunday when she had gone out with her baby to get a meat pie and found by her door a tall man in a cleric’s robe who had asked her to sell him a pitcher of water. She told the examiner about it.
“Do you know where the man came from?” asked Marescot
“Where did he go afterwards?”
“I have no idea.”
“Would you know him if you saw him again?”
“I don’t think so.”
The preliminary questions about Jacquette’s name, age, residence and so forth were standard procedure. Their purpose seems obvious, but they were also part of legal ritual, meant to establish the authenticity of the witness.
Marescot, like most of the examiners, avoids leading questions. His question about the tall man’s nationality may seem an exception, pointing to the possibility of a foreign plot. But langue (‘tongue’), the word he uses here, can also mean regional dialect, and he may be trying to determine the tall man’s accent, and thus his origin within France. Even the city of Paris was regionalized, with people from different provinces settling with their own kind in certain neighborhoods. A distinct accent might help to track a person to a certain part of the city or even a particular street. Speech might also reveal the tall man’s true social class or vocation, if his clerical garb is actually a disguise. Jacquette’s reply, that he spoke “good French,” suggests an educated man from the court, the university, or even the Church.
Jacquette must have been frightened to be summoned to the grim old fortress to be questioned about a murder — the murder of the king’s brother, no less. Marescot, doubtless aware of her fear, does not seem to play on it, patiently eliciting as much information as possible. As a result of his skilled questioning, Jacquette’s remark about neighbors drying laundry prompts a further recollection — about a mysterious stranger standing near her door and asking to buy water.
Judicial torture was common at this time. A type of rack and an early form of waterboarding were often used on suspects and witnesses. But there’s not a single hint of torture or coerced testimony in the provost’s report on his investigation — another way in which the careful, methodical Guillaume de Tignonville may have been ahead of his time.
This post is based on “Blood Royal,” by Eric Jager, courtesy of Little, Brown and Co.
Next time: A break in the case