Joan of Arc, nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans”, is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War, and was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. She was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, a peasant family, at Domrémy in north-east France
Maid of Orleans
1412 – 1431
Joan (Jeanne) of Arc was born to a peasant family in the village of Domremy, on the border between Champaigne and Lorraine in 1431. Her father had a dream of her travelling with an army, and thought her a camp follower, and told her brothers to drown her should it come to pass. Joan was a girl-soldier who “heard voices” which told her to preserve her virginity, to take up arms and crown the dauphin King of France. Joan became a soldier in 1428, indeed crowned the King of France in 1429, was captured by the English in 1430, handed over to French Clerics in 1431, put on trial and burnt at the stake as a heretic. She was only 19. Her trial and conviction were later reviewed and she was absolved of heresy.
France was still engaged in the Hundred Years War with England. The Great Schism, in which the church had 3 Popes, was in full swing. The Church had also vaulted into action to maintain control of superstition and popular cults that had pagan origins. Charismatic preachers and wanderers drew adoring crowds while clergy lived in scandalous luxury amid a peasantry in destitution from the Hundred Years War.
The Hundred Years War was not a big cataclysm like the World Wars of the 20th Century. France had been decimated by Plague, Famine and the detritus of war, the marauding of armies not engaged in war. These marauders were called ‘fleecers’; they would fleece a town, make merry in the square at night, and burn it the next morning. Such a horror came to Domremy in 1425, when Joan was only 13; she saw Burgundians and some English plunder and loot her little village, drive the cattle away and burn the Church, looting it for gold, beforehand. The Hundred Years War was a series of potted skirmishes which left such detritus of unpaid, undisciplined, rootless soldiers making their means through the French Countryside before their next paid engagement.
The Church was in no better condition. At the time of Joan’s birth in 1412, the Church had three claimants to the papacy; one in Rome, one in Avignon, and the other in Spain. The Avignon Pope had moved there because internal wars in Italy made it impossible to run the Church’s affairs properly from Rome. But Avignon was in France, and France was involved in a war with England. Later, the Council of Constance was to dismiss all claimants and elect Pope Martin IV in 1417. Since that election, authority had been remarkably shored up by the Church, which was determined to hold on to this authority it had been successfully wielding for a dozen years. Jan Hus in Bohemia was appalled by the greed of the clergy and the hierarchy, and their distance from the people whom they were meant to serve. Hus had an enormous following and popularity which contributed to the Church’s decision to burn him as a heretic in 1416. Joan was a girl of 3 when this happened.
The newly shored up Church understood the sources and limits of its power. The Church was much more aware of its need to ally itself with the strong rather than the weak. With France in a state of Chaos, Italy in a state of internecine internal quarrelling, the Choice to connect itself to England and its allies rather than France was a clear one for the Roman Church. This was to have tragic consequences for Joan.
Practical and Pragmatic
Joan lived in times of female prophets and mystics, and persons pretending, called pseudo-mystics. A mantle of prophecy had descended upon her (her voices made many prophecies through her), she was the recipient of many visions which she described as “great light” accompanied by “great pleasure” and the appearances of saints, and crowns encrusted with jewels. Joan was utterly pragmatic in her faith and had transcended folklore and superstition. She despatched fake mystics and charismatic frauds with simplicity, directness and disregard. Joan was driven by her religious visions. She was taught her prayers by her Mother, and was not learned of the Bible. Joan made no biblical allusions in her visions, nor the popular devotions to Mary, and she spoke of Christ as “her Lord”. She was “loyal to God”. Here was a girl with a powerful spiritual guidance, the likes not seen in Western Christendom before. Her voices gave instructions that were impossible to common sense, and appalling to one who might think she was listening to “fairies in the garden”. The voices were telling her to leave home, become a soldier, risk her life, lead men in battle, and crown a king. And all this, not for personal gain, but not to do so would seem to her a betrayal of everything sacred and precious. Joan was a simple and devout girl, obedient to her inner experience. She was not motivated by some religious goal, did not want to spread the Gospel, nor convert the heathen, nor recover the Holy Land, nor enter a cave in a desert or a convent. Joan of Arc is a new spiritual phenomena on the stage of history. All she wanted to do was crown a king.
In her description of her first encounter with her voices, she said,
“I heard the voice on my right, in the direction of the Church [i.e., the little Church of St. Rémy near her house], and rarely do I hear it without a light. This light comes from the same side as the voice … It seemed to me a worthy voice, and I believed it was sent to me by God; after I had heard this voice the third time, I knew that it was the voice of an angel.” 2 “It taught me to be good, to go regularly to church. It told me that I should come into France [i.e., territory loyal to the Dauphin] … This voice told me, two or three times a week, that I must go away and that I must come to France; and my father knew nothing of my leaving. The voice told me that I should go to France and I could no longer stay where I was. It told me that I should raise the siege laid to the city of Orléans.”
At the age of 17 she left home on the pretext of attending her cousin in childbirth. She went, with her godfather, to the keep of the local bailiwick, Lord Baudricourt. He was amused by her and had it in mind to keep her around for the amusement of his men. The longer Joan was around Baudicourt’s men, the more became loyal to her! She was summonsed to attend the Duke of Lorraine and effect a cure for him. Instead, she told him to mend his ways, send his mistress away, and take back his wife. Astonishingly, the duke responded with a grateful humility. He gave her four francs and a black horse, his son the duke of Anjou, and men to follow her. She told the Duke of Lorraine she would pray for his recovery.
Baudricourt could halt her no more. Soon thereafter Joan set out to see the king, in Chinon. The troop made a 350 mile ride in 11 days. A trick was played on her at court; the king hid dressed as a commoner, and a duke, probably the famous Bluebeard, sat on the throne to test her. Joan avoided him and went to the crowd to find the King. She knelt at his feet of the King, saying “very noble lord dauphin, I am sent by God to bring succour to you and your kingdom.”
“One day the Maid asked the king for a present … She asked for the kingdom of France itself. The king, astonished, gave it to her after some hesitation, and the young girl accepted. She even asked that the act be solemnly drawn up and read by the king’s four secretaries. The girl said, showing him to those who were by, ‘Here you see the poorest knight in his kingdom.’ … And a little later, in the presence of the same notaries, acting as mistress of the kingdom of France, she put [this issue] into the hands of all-powerful God. Then, at the end of some moments more, acting in the name of God, she invested King Charles with the kingdom of France; and she wished a solemn act to be drawn up in writing of all this.”
An Examination to verify:
The king was reluctant to act on the words of a peasant girl. He sent her to Orleans to be examined by a panel of clergy before provisioning her with arms and an army. Friar Seguin Seguin, Dominican, Dean of the University of Poitiers, reports of her examination:
“They told us that we had orders from the King to question Jehanne, and to refer our verdict to the Royal Council; and they sent us to the house of Master Jean Rabateau, in the town of Poitiers, where Jehanne was staying, to examine her. After we arrived in that place we put several questions to her, and among other questions, Master Jean Lombard asked her why she had come, and that the King greatly wished to know what had inspired her to come before him. And she answered in impressive form that when she was watching the animals a certain voice had manifested itself to her, and said that God had great compassion for the people of France, and that it was necessary for her to come to France. Having heard this, she had begun to weep… Master Guillaume Aymeri asked her: ‘You have said that the voice told you that God wishes to liberate the people of France from the calamity which it is in. If He wishes to deliver it, there’s no need to have soldiers.’ Then Jehanne responded: ‘In God’s name, the soldiers will fight and God will grant victory.’ [“En nom De, les gens d’armes batailleront et Dieu donnera victoire”] Of which answer Master Guillaume was satisfied.
The examination continued:
“I asked her what dialect her voice spoke; she replied that it was a better dialect than the one I speak [and here the scribe has noted that the witness speaks the Limousin dialect]. And additionally I asked her if she believed in God, and she said yes, better than I. And then I said to Jehanne that God would not wish for us to believe in her, if nothing else appeared to make it seem that she was credible; and that we would not advise the King, based solely on her simple assertion, to give her soldiers and place them in danger, if she had nothing else to say. She replied, ‘In God’s name, I did not come to Poitiers to produce signs; but send me to Orléans; I will show you the signs for which I was sent,’ and [she said] that we should give her men [i.e., soldiers], in whatever number as should seem right to us, and she would go to Orléans.”
After passing this examination, Joan was given armour, a standard, a Master of House, an army of 4000 men, over 400 head of cattle. She gave instructions for her sword to be dug up from behind an altar in a church she nominated. Soon, Joan and her army set out to rout the British from Orleans. A trick was played on her, and Joan saw through the trick immediately. Miracles accompanied her on this first sortie and she led many successful attacks and the British departed. She refused to fight on Holy Days and gave orders for men to desist. Joan was told by her voices she would be wounded.
Thereafter Joan led a series of quick battles and won the city of Rhiems. The King was crowned. Her mission was over. Joan rode with court for some time and longed to be free with an army to take Paris back for the King. She was captured at Soissons and taken prisoner. Her voices warned her of her capture, and against her near suicidal 70 foot jump from a tower where she was held captive. Joan was then sold to the English for Ten Thousand Pounds as no one would ransom her. She was delivered to French clerics, found to be a heretic, and excommunicated.
Joan recanted the admission of her guilt, called the abjuration. Thereafter she was examined again [under intense pressure]. One Dominican Friar was present and reported her converse:
Wednesday, Eve of the Feast of Corpus Christi, I went with you, the Bishop, into the room of the Castle of Rouen where Jeanne was detained, and there I heard Jeanne say and confess, publicly and in a voice loud enough to be heard by all those present, that she had had apparitions and had also heard Voices; that these apparitions and Voices had promised her that she should be delivered from prison; but now she saw in truth that they had deceived her, and, for having thus deceived her, she believed they could not be good Voices nor good things.
A little while after, she confessed her sins to Brother Martin, of the Order of Saint Dominic. After the Sacrament of Confession and Penitence, when the same Brother was about to administer the Sacrament of the Eucharist to her, and already held in his hands the Consecrated Host, “Do you believe,” he asked her, “that this is the Body of Christ?” “Yes,” she replied, “and I believe that He alone can deliver me; I ask that It may be administered to me.” After the Communion, the same Brother said to her: ” Do you still believe in your Voices?” “I believe in God only,” she answered, “and will no more put faith in my Voices, for having deceived me on this point.”
Joan was then handed back to the English to carry out the sentence. There had been no civil trial. Joan was burnt at the stake.
In 1450, however, after the occupation of Normandy and the submission of the town of Rouen, the idea appeared to have occurred to the French King, Charles VII that to suffer the stigma of heresy and witchcraft to rest on the name of the Maid of Orleans, who had “led him to his anointing,” was to throw a doubt upon his own orthodoxy, and to justify the taunt of his enemies that he had been the mere tool of “a lyme of the Fiend.” On February 13th, 1450, therefore, he issued a Declaration empowering one of his Counsellors, Guillaume Bouillé, to inquire into the conduct of the Trial undertaken against Jeanne by “our ancient enemies the English,” who, “against reason, had cruelly put her to death,” The King prevailed indirectly against the Pope for a rehabilitation. Finally, in 1456 there were hearings and the sentence of infamy and heresy revoked on the 6th of June, 1456.
The Papal investigators found:
“After having, with great matureness, weighed, examined, all and each one of the aforesaid things, as well as certain Articles beginning with these words “A certain Woman, &c.,” (the Twelve Articles.) which the Judges in the first Process did pretend to have extracted from the confessions of the said Deceased, and which have been submitted by us to a great number of staid persons for their opinion; Articles which our Promoter, as well as the Plaintiffs aforesaid, attacked as iniquitous, false, prepared without reference to the confessions of Jeanne, and in a lying manner”.
The sentence of the trial was declared null and void of effect,and Joan and her family were fully rehabilitated of all stain of heresy or infamy.
Joan of Arc is the national heroine of France, and the imago of all women who would boldly follow faith in Almighty God, whatever name and form. Joan was sacrificed because she did something you and I do every day; she listened to the inner voice, the voice of conscience, and the voice of the divine within. That Joan publicly followed her voices and set in train events that were to end a war and unify France and free a nation paralysed and decimated by war is the duality aspect. Certainly that was her mission.
In this day and age, we are blessed. One could be tried as a heretic for having “voices”, one could be tried for a heretic for praying silently and with eyes closed [indeed the Inquisitors walked up and down the aisles of churches examining the faces of those present looking for just such signs] and one could be tried and burnt if one did not say prayers in the local language. The first person burnt at the stake in the United States was burnt because she said her prayers in Latin and not English. Joan holds her spirituality high, for she acted on her voices and she faithfully acknowledged these voices to come from Almighty God. She was later to impute name and form to the voices, perhaps at the relentless questioning of her judges, who were bewildered and all at sea with a young girl, with powerful faith, describing revelation from the formless God. It was unheard of in Joan’s day and age.
————- Related events in our own era ————–
1903, February – Formal proposal for canonisation
1904, January – Pope Pius X awards her the title of “Venerable”
1909, April 11 – Beatification
1920, May 16 – Canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict XV
Joan at the coronation of Charles VII, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1854, a famous painting often reproduced in works on Joan of Arc. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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