Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431)

views updated

Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431)

French hero, revered as a national saint, whose achievements can now be seen as a turning point in the Hundred Years' War. Name variations: Jeanne d'Arc; La Pucelle d'Orléans; La Petite Pucelle; The Maid of Orléans or The Maid of Orleans. Born and baptized around 1412 at Domrémy in the duchy of Bar in northern France; burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, at Rouen; daughter of Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle (Romée) d'Arc; never married.

Commanded the French troops who raised the siege of Orléans (April 1429); led Charles VII to his coronation in Rheims cathedral (July 17, 1429); captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, who imprisoned her before condemning her to death by burning as a relapsed heretic; condemnation revoked by the pope (July 1456); beatified (1909); canonized (1920).

The name of Joan of Arc is renowned throughout the world. Her place in history is assured, her piety celebrated, and her life story a continuous inspiration. From age 13, Joan reported hearing her "voices," as she called them. When she was 17, her "voices" ordered her to free France from the stranglehold of the English occupation and to see the dauphin crowned in Rheims Cathedral, where, by tradition, all French kings were consecrated. At that time, however, Rheims was under the command of the English. These seemingly impossible objectives were successfully achieved in 1429 with the raising of the siege of Orléans in April, which was followed three months later by the coronation of Charles VII as the king of France. In 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, who held her chained and abused in prison for months. When finally she was brought to trial, she was questioned at length without mercy. Despite being an uneducated peasant girl, she answered her inquisitors with a confidence and eloquence that belied her youth. When she was found guilty and condemned to burn at the stake as a relapsed heretic, no one, not even the French king, lifted a finger to save her.

The one pure figure which rises out of the greed, the lust, the selfishness, the unbelief of the time.

—Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Her trials and her execution have inspired numerous books, dramas, and poems by authors as diverse as Christine de Pisan and George Bernard Shaw. Artists through the centuries have portrayed her as a warrior saint dressed in armor, carrying the banner of God and the standard of France. The unique character of her mission, her faith, her innocence and determination against impossible odds, together with her betrayal and martyrdom, are just some of the ingredients in the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman. Her victory at Orléans proved to be an important turning point in the fortunes of the French during the Hundred Years' War. Joan of Arc has no resting place since her ashes were thrown into the river Seine to thwart relic seekers. Instead, she lives on in the hearts of every French patriot.

Joan of Arc was born about 1412 in the village of Domrémy, which was situated on the river Meuse between Champagne and Lorraine. Domrémy was in the duchy of Bar and under the jurisdiction of Chaumont in Bassigny. At the time of her birth, all France north of the Loire, and that included Domrémy, had been ravaged by and was in the hands of the English and their allies, the Burgundians. Joan was the youngest child of Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle d'Arc , sheep-farmers who were well thought of as leading members of the local community. She had three brothers, Jacquemin, Pierre, and Jean, and one sister, Catherine. Pierre and Jean would follow her to Chinon and join the French army; Catherine would die young.

Joan's early life was dominated by obedience to her parents and to her religion. She had no formal education and was unable to read or to write. Her mother taught her her faith, prayers and domestic skills such as sewing. Her childhood friends, who would be called to give testimony at the trials of rehabilitation in 1450, would remember her as an exceptionally pious child who spent long hours in the church. Her tasks included leading her father's sheep and the village cattle to pastures for grazing; the hours thus spent supervising them provided her with the time for contemplation of the sorrowful state of France. This otherwise monotonous life was relieved by dancing and singing with other village girls under the "Ladies Tree," sometimes also called the "Fairies Tree."

There is no record of Joan's physical appearance. The only image which survives is a doodle in the margins of the records kept by Clément de Fauquemberghe, clerk to the Parlement of Paris, beside his entry reporting the defeat of the English at Orléans. This depicts a young girl holding a pennon in her right hand with her left hand on the hilt of a sword. Her hair is long and wavy and she is drawn in profile with a stern, small mouth and a Roman nose. It was said that at her trials she answered her inquisitors in a light feminine voice. It is known that medals were struck in her image following her victories but none survive.

The first indications that Joan was more than just a dutiful village girl came in 1425 when, at age 13, she reported hearing voices and seeing visions. There can be little doubt that she was initially frightened, but gradually the voices became familiar to her, her almost constant companions, reminding her of the wretched state of her beloved France and regularly reducing her to tears on its behalf. She later claimed that the voices taught her the self-discipline which guided her through the rest of her life. She was 17 when they became more authoritative, telling her to rise up and rescue France because she alone was to be her country's savior.

The visions were of St. Michael, St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Catherine of Alexandria . Much has been made by historians, hagiographers, and psychologists regarding the choice of these particular saints, more especially since doubt now surrounds the existence of the two female saints. (In 1969, their cults were suppressed by the Vatican.) The three were, however,

well-known to Joan and her contemporaries, and in the 15th century their cults flourished. There were statues of them in the parish church of Domrémy. St. Catherine, martyred on a spiked wheel, was particularly popular, and as the patron saint of Maxey, a village adjoining Domrémy, her story was depicted there in paintings and acted out in plays. St. Michael was the emblem of French resistance and patron saint of the Barrois, where Domrémy was situated. All three were depicted carrying arms. St. Michael carried an avenging sword and Sts. Margaret and Catherine bore the swords of their enemies, who beheaded them. All were eminently suitable for the purposes of Joan's mission.

In May 1428, her kin, Durand Laxart, who believed that she had indeed been given a holy mission, took her to the nearest Dauphinist stronghold at Vaucouleurs which was under the command of Captain Robert de Baudricourt. The captain was singularly unimpressed by Joan and her message, and Durand and Joan were forced to retreat to Domrémy which was once again under attack from the Burgundians. In January 1429, Joan returned, and this time Baudricourt gave her permission to visit the dauphin at Chinon. For the dual purposes of safety and comfort during the forthcoming journey, which would mean crossing enemy territory, Joan donned for the first time, or at least the first recorded time, the male attire which was to prove such an anathema to church officialdom. She was escorted by six men, who included Jean de Metz and Betrand de Poulegny. After traveling for 11 days, they reached the castle of Chinon on February 24, 1429, where Joan was kept waiting a further two days before being admitted to the presence of the dauphin.

Charles of Lorraine (the future Charles VII) was the son of Charles VI (1368–1422), king of France (r. 1380–1422), and Isabeau of Bavaria (1371–1435). As the dauphin, he was not highly regarded, being variously described as "an inglorious leader," "le bien servi," and, perhaps more kindly, "enigmatic." Although he had succeeded his father Charles VI in 1422, he had been disinherited by the Treaty of Troyes agreed upon two years earlier on May 21, 1420, by Charles VI, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and Henry V, king of England. By the terms of the treaty, Charles VI was to hold the throne of France during his lifetime, after which it would revert to Henry V of England and his heirs. Henry had become the regent of France immediately and had married Catherine of Valois , daughter of Charles VI and sister of the dauphin. However, Henry had died on August 31, 1422, followed some seven weeks later by the death of Charles VI. Henry's infant son, Henry VI, was, therefore, now the king of England and France, which were under the control the king's uncles acting as regents; England was ruled by Humphrey, duke of Gloucester and France by John, duke of Bedford. Now, the French countryside was being destroyed by the war waging between the two countries. The French cause seemed to be lost, French morale was at a low ebb, and the country was effectively leaderless.

Arriving at Chinon, Joan went straight to the dauphin, recognizing him immediately although he had sought to deceive her by hiding among his courtiers. "I am come with a mission from God to give aid to you and to the kingdom, and the King of Heaven orders you, through me, to be anointed and crowned at Rheims." His initial doubts as to the authenticity of her mission and her sincerity were apparently dispelled by words she whispered in his ear. She steadfastly refused to repeat these words at her trial since her inquisitors were enemies of Charles. This was a wise decision since it is generally surmised that the words related to the true circumstances of his birth. Strenuous efforts had been made during his youth, encouraged by his mother Isabeau, to illegitimize him.

Charles was a man beset with superstitious fears and lived in a court filled with magicians and satanists, so it would not have been difficult for him to believe that Joan was a sorceress with powers that could drive the English out of France. In fact with the dauphin's cause virtually lost, the French desperately needed help and were more than ready to believe that Joan could do as she said. The English, not unnaturally, disbelieved her but, at the same time, greatly feared her. Joan was claiming divine support at a time when successive English victories had proved to them that God was on the side of the English and approved their actions.

Exhaustive examination by theologians in the presence of Jean, duke of Alençon, and again later at Poitiers, failed to expose Joan as a charlatan; they could find no evidence of heresy or insanity. Charles, advised to make use of her, immediately put the duke of Alençon in charge. On March 22, 1429, Joan dictated letters of defiance to the English, exhorting them to "deliver up to the Maid sent by God, the King of Heaven, the keys of all the towns which you have taken and violated in France." The letter continued, "I have been sent by the King of Heaven to throw you out of all France. Take yourselves off to your own land, for God's sake, or else await tidings from the Maid whom you will soon see."

During April, her transformation into a military leader was effected. Joan was provided with a household and dressed in armor of polished steel, which was unadorned and without any engraved ornamentation; her standard was painted, her personal banner made, and a sword found for her in the church of Ste-Catherine-de-Fierbois. With between 7,000 and 8,000 men under her command, including her brothers, Joan and the army set off for Orléans, which had been under siege by the English forces since October 12, 1428. A series of strongholds had been established by the English around the town. It was the end of April 1429 when the relief force led by Joan arrived. Since this was a holy war, priests marched at its head chanting psalms, and every soldier made confession and attended Mass. Within days, Joan's troops had overrun the main English earthworks. On May 8, 1429, the English commander John Talbot led the English retreat, and the siege, which had lasted seven months, was at an end. It was a momentous victory. In just eight days, Joan of Arc, despite having been wounded during the attack, had saved the town. The duke of Alençon is reported to have said after the victory that "she was most expert in war both with the lance and in massing an army, and arraying battle, and in the management of artillery. For all men marvelled how far-sighted and prudent she was in war, as if she had been a captain of thirty years standing." The French wanted to press home their advantage by pursuing the retreating English, but since it was a Sunday Joan forbade it. Now that the first part of her mission was complete, Joan was anxious to return to the dauphin and escort him to Rheims.

However, a compromise decision to clear the English from their strongholds along the river Loire was reached. On June 18, 1429, the French and English came face to face at Patay. The French won the day. Victorious, Joan was at the height of her fame, and the Dauphinists believed that the English and Burgundians were powerless against her. By reviving French morale, Joan had revitalized the French army and checked the English advance. How she did it remains beyond the power of historical analysis to determine. But English rule in France was far from being over. French soldiers regarded her as a savior; the English saw her as a witch. Before her advent, God had clearly been with the English in their just war and now, suddenly, He had deserted them. The English began to question just how just this war was. In such a superstitious age, they saw Joan as one who consorted with devils. She was, they wrote, "a disorderly and disgraced woman wearing the dress of a man." And they were not alone in regarding her with suspicion, for the French court also viewed her influence over Charles VII with hostility.

Again, instead of pressing on, the French army turned back to rejoin the dauphin and reassembled at Gien. On June 25, 1429, invitations to the coronation were sent out, and, on July 16, Joan and the dauphin arrived in Rheims. The consecration of Charles VII took place the following day, July 17, 1429. Joan stood near, holding her banner and, after the ceremony, was the first to kneel before the newly crowned king and call him by his new title. "Gentle king, now is fulfilled the good pleasure of God." Her duty done and her mission successfully completed, she requested permission to return to her home and family. It was refused. When she was asked to name her reward, she asked for Domrémy to be exempt from taxes.

More campaigns followed and in September of the same year Joan was again wounded, this time in an unsuccessful attack on Paris. Her followers were too frightened to be seen rescuing her, so she was left lying in the open until nightfall. The spell of her invincibility had been broken. Charles VII dismissed the army and retired to Gien. Alençon and the other captains went home. The French had no more use for their erstwhile champion. Joan continued to campaign, however, with varying degrees of success and, at times, very little mercy. Then, on May 23, 1430, during a skirmish at Compiègne, she was plucked from her horse and taken prisoner by the Burgundians. She had been betrayed by her own supporters, the "hidden enemy." Since her mission had been completed, her fate was no longer of interest to the French. No help came to her from the king, his nobles or his army.

John of Luxemburg, lieutenant to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, sent Joan to his castle at Beaulieu in Vermandois. After she attempted to escape—it was, she said, her duty to do so—he moved her to the castle of Beaurevoir, and then, after a second unsuccessful attempt to regain her freedom, to Arras, a town belonging to the duke of Burgundy. When the University of Paris learned of her capture, it requested the duke, in the interests of the English cause, to hand Joan over to them for judgment either to the chief inquisitor or to the bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, in whose diocese she had been captured. The university also wrote in the same vein to John of Luxemburg. On July 14, the bishop of Beauvais presented himself before the duke of Burgundy asking that, on his own behalf and in the name of the English king, Joan be handed over to himself in return for a payment of 10,000 gold francs. The duke passed the request on to John of Luxemburg, who, after hesitating for nearly six months, handed Joan over to the bishop on January 3, 1431. Her trial was to take place in Rouen. Meanwhile she was imprisoned in a tower of the castle of Bouvreuil, occupied by Richard de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, commander at Rouen. The duke of Bedford, as regent of France, planned to discredit her and counteract her influence by proving that she was a sorceress, the penalty for which was burning at the stake. Beauvais insisted she be tried before his ecclesiastical court, that is one concerned with faith and morals. Her judges were to be Beauvais and Jean le Maistre, the vice-inquisitor of France. At no stage during her imprisonment nor during her subsequent trials did Charles VII do anything to save or protect her. He had valuable hostages with which he could have bargained for her release, but he could not cope with the fact that he possibly owed his crown to a sorceress.

From January 1431 onwards, Joan was never left alone, never had a moment of privacy. There were always two English soldiers at the door of her cell, with three more inside, where she was chained to a wooden block. From February 21 until March 24, she was interrogated more than 12 times by canon lawyers either in the castle chapel or in her prison. Each time, she was requested to swear to tell the truth, but she always made it clear that she would not divulge everything, since they were the enemies of her king and country.

The trial proper, later known as the Trial of Condemnation, began at the end of March 1341, and it took two days for Joan to answer to the 70 charges which had been drawn up against her, and which were based on the contention that her attitude and behavior showed blasphemous presumption. In particular, she had rejected the authority of the church in claiming a personal revelation by God, prophesying, signing her letters in the names of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin , and in asserting that she was assured of salvation. To these were added the wearing of men's clothing and her insistence that her saints spoke to her in French. As the trial continued, the number of charges was reduced to just 12, which were sent for consideration to many eminent theologians in Paris as well as in Rouen. Joan was not allowed her own counsel or any to witness on her behalf. When she fell ill in prison, she was attended by two doctors, since it did not suit the purposes of the earl of Warwick that she should die with the trial unresolved. Her behavior, her faith and trust in God may have impressed them, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Joan had to be found guilty. The English right to the French throne was at stake. She proved to be more than a match for her inquisitors, responding to their questioning with an eloquence and confidence unexpected in one so young. However, by misrepresentation, trickery, and downright bullying, the lawyers finally trapped her and obtained the verdict they wanted. Joan was now the responsibility of the secular authorities.

The details of the trial are well known; a record was written in Latin at the time. The glosses added by the scribe, such as "proud reply" and "grand manner," give it a more personal touch. But the trial reports and summaries read more like attempts to justify the ultimate decision rather than the usual court record. Clearly, her prosecutors felt themselves to be in the wrong. Much later, in 1865, the official record was translated into French and, more recently, in 1902 into English.

There was nothing more that could be done. On May 24, she was taken to the cemetery at St. Ouen where the sentence was read out abandoning her to the secular authorities, that is to their

judgment which would be her execution. Faced with this reality, for the first time Joan faltered and with some hesitation signed the form of abjuration, admitting to the charges as laid against her with the following words, "pourvu que cela plaise a Notre Seigneur" (on condition that it was pleasing to Our Lord). Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was returned to her former prison where she was ordered to dress as a woman. But less than three days later, she was once again wearing men's attire and was declaring that her saints had accused her of "treason" in making the abjuration.

This was seen as a relapse and a violation of the conditions of the abjuration, and so on May 29 she was once again handed over to the secular powers. Her fate was sealed. The following day, May 30, 1431, Cauchon unexpectedly gave permission for her to make her confession and take communion. Both sacraments had previously been denied to her because of the heinous nature of her crimes. Such a privilege was unprecedented for a relapsed heretic. She was then taken to the Place du Viuex-Marché in Rouen accompanied by two Dominicans and escorted by 800 men armed with axes and swords. After a lengthy sermon, sentence was pronounced; Joan was seized by the executioner and marched to the waiting stake. As the fire burned, she was comforted by one of the young Dominicans, Martin Lavenu, who held a crucifix high enough for her to see it and shouted words of salvation over the roar of the flames. An English archer handed her a cross made from twigs. Joan died quickly with the word "Jhesu" on her lips. She was 19 years old.

The execution was a very public affair, and there are therefore many eyewitness accounts. None present was unaffected by the event. All were convinced that they had witnessed the death of a faithful Christian. Many of the clergy felt they were damned for burning a holy woman. An English soldier is reported to have said: "We are lost, we have burned a saint." Her burned body was revealed to all, and her ashes were thrown into the river Seine. There was to be no doubt that she had died, and there were to be no relics.

Joan's death, ordered by a French court acting under English instructions, was almost immediately regarded by all classes in France as a martyrdom. French determination to rid their country of the English crystallized at that moment. After Orléans, the English fortunes had continued to wane as French power grew. In 1435, four years after Joan's execution, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, broke with his English allies, and, by the treaty of Arras, joined the party of Charles VII; from about 1438, Charles began at last to act like a true king.

Almost 20 years later, in 1450, Charles ordered an inquiry into the trial and a process of rehabilitation of Joan of Arc was begun. Witnesses were called to give evidence. They included her childhood companions, captains she had fought alongside, women she had lived with, and priests who had heard her confessions and administered the sacraments to her. These testimonies are an important source to any who search for clues to Joan's true character. In 1456, Pope Calixtus III revoked and annulled the condemnation of the court at Rouen and declared Joan of Arc innocent. In 1903, a proposal was made for her canonization. And on May 16, 1920, she was canonized by Pope Benedict XV. In 1922, Joan was declared patron of France. Her feast is celebrated on May 30, and a national festival in her honor is held annually on the second Sunday in May.

There is an overwhelming amount of documentation available for assessing the life of Joan of Arc, including her own letters, the aforementioned witness statements, formal records by contemporary writers and commentators, as well as those who have written with the benefit of hindsight. With this amount of documentation, the difficulties of analyzing and interpreting are equally immense. The trial in particular has been of enduring interest. There are excellent translations of the trial including those by Pierre Champion (Paris, 1921), which is a reedited work by Jules Quicherat (1861), and by Robert Brasillach (Paris, Gallimard, 1939). There is an English translation by W.P. Barrett entitled The Trial of Jeanne d'Arc (1931).

Joan's life and, in particular, her trial, heroism, and martyrdom have been an inspiration for playwrights, poets, and artists. The following works are a small sample: Christine de Pisan's poem, Ditié Jeanne d'Arc (1429), Schiller's tragedy, La Pucelle d'Orléans (1801), Charles Régny's dramatic trilogy, Jeanne d'Arc (1891), G.B. Shaw's St. Joan (1923), and Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette (1953). In 1928, a film entitled La Passion de Joan d'Arc, starring Renée Falconetti , was made. There are numerous depictions of Joan in paint and in stone but none are contemporary and all reflect the fashions of the age in which they were conceived. After more than 500 years, the tragic, yet triumphant, life of Joan of Arc continues to arouse emotions in the hearts and minds of women and men, and the factual details of her life remain as controversial as they were in the 15th century.

Joan's life story is one of the best established in history, but interpretation of it is a matter for personal conscience. Joan claimed that all she had done she had done at the Lord's command. A believer can accept this, an unbeliever cannot. It is perhaps simpler to admire her as did the people of 15th-century France, rather than try to explain her. "One does not explain greatness," said Robert Bresson, "one tries to attune oneself to it." Assessments of her character are as varied as those who try to define it; some are confident that she was a saint, others are equally certain that she was merely hysterical. There can, however, be no disputing the facts that she succeeded in reviving French fortunes in the Hundred Years' War and that she never, except for a few days at the end, wavered from her appointed path or that her strong personality has defied centuries of alternately sentimentalizing and deprecating her. As Régine Pernoud writes, "Joan is above all the saint of reconciliation, the one whom, whatever our personal convictions, we admire and love because each of us can find in [herself] a reason to love her."


Buchan, A. Joan of Arc and the Recovery of France, 1984.

Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. Five Famous French Women, 1905.

Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses. NY: 1969.

Seward, D. The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337–1453, 1978.

Thomson, S.H. Europe in Renaissance and Reformation, 1963.

Warner, M. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 1981.

Wilkinson, B. The Later Middle Ages in England 1216–1485, 1969.

suggested reading:

Hopkins, G. Joan of Arc. Translated by L. Fabre, 1954.

Marcantel, Pamela. An Army of Angels (fiction). St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Scott, W.S. Trial of Joan of Arc. Orléans ms. (1968 reprint).

Wood, C.T. Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints and Government in the Middle Ages, 1988.

related media:

Joan at the Stake (Italian-French film), an adaptation of Claudel and Honegger's opera, starring Ingrid Bergman and Tullio Carminati, Produzione Cinematografiche-Franco-London, 1954.

Joan of Arc (145 min. film), based on the play Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson, starring Ingrid Bergman , Jose Ferrer, and Selena Royle as Isabelle d'Arc, directed by Victor Fleming, produced by Walter Wanger, RKO, 1948.

La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), French silent, starring Renée Falconetti, directed by Carl Dreyer, 1927 (condenses the trial, torture, and execution of the French saint into an intense 24-hour period; based on actual trial records).

The Lark, a play by Jean Anouilh originally titled L'Alouette, starring Julie Harris , opened at the Longacre Theater, New York, November 1955.

St. Joan (110 min. film), based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, starring Jean Seberg , Richard Widmark, and John Gielgud, directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by Graham Greene, United Artists, 1957.

Margaret E. Lynch , M.A., Lancaster, England, U.K.

About this article

Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431)

Updated About content Print Article