Phenomenon of Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc is one of the most famous women in history. As a teenager living in northern France during the time of the 100-year war between England in France, she claimed to be chosen by God to lead the French army to battle to save her country from falling to England. Despite her age, lack of education and absence of military training, she successfully led French troops against British forces in several towns, the most important being Orleans. The result of this conflict was considered to be the turning point of the long war. Her success did not guarantee her status as a leader and heroine, however, as she was captured and tried by British sympathizers for witchcraft. She was found guilty and burned at the stake at the young age of nineteen.
Joan of Arc was a peasant girl born in a small village in France called Domremy approximately 150 miles east of Paris during a time her country had been at war with England for nearly 100 years. Joan’s father, Noah (just kidding), was a respected farmer and town leader in the village of roughly 200 people. Joan was the 4th youngest of 5 siblings. She spent her youth as most young girls did at that time, carrying out domestic chores such as spinning and cooking, and laboring in the fields plowing fields or looking after sheep.
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There was nothing unusual about Joan’s childhood as compared to most other illiterate and uneducated French peasants of the day. The wars had gone on so long the countryside was ravaged, and the people lived in constant fear of being attacked by enemy soldiers. If they were not killed by enemy soldiers during the frequent invasions of their homes and villages, they were equally as vulnerable to famine or illness.
As a young girl, Joan was sweet, helpful and obedient. However, by the time she was 13 years old she began to see and hear angels from Heaven who came to her with messages from God. In Medieval Europe, the Church was more powerful than the government, and used its power to control the peasants. All of life’s problems were attributed to God’s intervention. Daily miseries such as bad weather, poor crops, plagues and death were considered punishments handed out by God to sinners. The fear of God was a way of life. It was also believed that God chose sides and He would decide who should rule France.
Joan’s friends remarked on her unusually pious and solitary life. She would have been aware of the teachings of the Church, so it is not unusual that she would speak of God’s will for France to be free of the British. However, the messages she claimed to receive from the voices were so precise, people started to believe she was truly receiving God’s direct word.
At the age of 17, Joan was adamant she was chosen by God to save the Kingdom of France and restore the throne to the rightful heir, the Dauphin Charles. When his father, King Charles VI, died in 1422 the infant son of England’s King Henry was crowned King of France (Ref ). Many people in France did not recognize this foreign child as their leader and believed the true King to be the Dauphin.
Joan first took her message to the captain of Vaucouleurs, the only town in northern France not under British control. She was accompanied by her uncle Durand Lexart, the only member of her family who believed in her mission. Her own father was so upset she wanted to run away to be with soldiers he demanded her brothers drown her in the Meues river. (Ref Mystery of, p25) However, nothing could stop Joan, as she was terrified of the fate she faced if she did not carry out her mission. In Vaucouleurs she convinced Captain Baudricourt that she must see the future King who was many miles away in Chinon. Baudricourt provided a horse for her to make the journey and several men to accompany her. After a difficult journey that lasted over a week, she was finally granted an audience with Charles. He was suspicious of Joan so he decided to put one of his courtiers on the throne and hide in the crowd.(GET ENDNOTE HERE) Yet Joan immediately found him among the people and in private whispered to him she knew he doubted his right to be King (his own mother claimed he was not the son of King Charles VI). It is thought the fact Joan understood this deep and secret fear convinced Charles she was a visionary. Ref Harrison He decided to give her the authority to save his Kingdom. Joan told Charles she was sent by God to fulfill two specific missions: 1. To take the town of Orleans back from the British and 2. to arrange for Charles to be crowned King in Reims (Ref. De Vries)
While Charles believed she was speaking God’s will, he wanted to be absolutely certain so he ordered she be thoroughly examined before he let her join and lead his army. She underwent several physical and mental examinations to verify her claims of being a virgin maiden with messages from God. In the fifteenth century there was no medical procedure to verify a woman’s virginity, however, her examiners did not find evidence she had slept with a man. (PUT END NOTE) She was questioned for days by theological experts and was able to answer all of their questions without becoming intimidated. They concluded she was honest, pure and devoted. (Ref Mystery)
With the full support of Charles, Joan was given an army to lead. She had a 12 foot white banner made with an image of God embroidered in the center to carry into battle. She sent for a sword buried behind an alter in a church she had visited on her way to Chinon. (END NOTE) She claimed the voices told her to use this sword, and told her where it was, but she had not known about its existence when she had been there. She wore a full suit of armor which she never showed any discomfort in, despite its weight and the long hours she wore it while riding into battle. The suit was a light color, and those who saw her mounted on her horse dressed for battle claimed a light shone from her armor, as if it came from Joan herself.
Joan’s military career was very short: from April 21 1429 to May 23 1430 when she was captured. In that period she led the army to take back at least eight towns from the British (REF De Vries ), a success rate any seasoned general would be proud of. Her most important victory was at Orleans. If Orleans became a British stronghold, the rest of France was expected to fall. The city had been under siege by the British who were waiting for the inhabitants to surrender or die of starvation. The British had beaten back several attempts by the French army to end the siege. Each time the French lost, the army became more demoralized and dejected. But news of Joan’s visit to the courts at Chinon had spread rapidly. The majority of French people believed Joan could retake Orleans, and many military leaders and their men decided to join her. One of those was Jean the Bastard, the current commander responsible for defending Orleans. (The name Bastard was not considered derogatory, as it just meant he was the son of a high ranking royal man, but his mother was a mistress). The Dauphin provided the mission with more soldiers and supplies than any army had seen for years. Under Joan’s direction the army managed to enter the city, despite many obstacles set up by the British. Witnesses claim she performed miracles along the way to make the passage easier, such as raising the water level in the river at Checy and changing the direction of the wind to allow her ships to cross into the city. As some historians note, however, her success gaining entry to Orleans could also be attributed to more earthly tactics. In one instance while she moved the army towards the Burgundian gate, a diversionary fight was arranged to keep the British troops guarding this entry point. (END NOTE)
Joan wanted to attack the British as soon as they entered the city, but Jean the Bastard did not agree, as he felt the army needed rest and he needed time to plan the campaign. Through sheer will and persistence she managed to get the majority of the army and the inhabitants of the town behind her and over the next few days the French forces kept up their attacks until two major British strongholds fell: the boulevards of Augustins and Tourelles. Joan had been aware there were British troops headed to Orleans to provide support from the British. This is likely why she was adamant the French fight without rest until the siege was lifted. Again, this could be seen as a strategic approach, but Joan insisted the voices told her to keep fighting without rest.
After the success at Orleans Joan was able to fulfill her most important mission which was to accompany the Dauphin to Reims and witness his coronation as King Charles VII. The King now had all he needed from Joan, but she believed God wanted her to keep fighting until all the British were chased out of France. Without the King’s support she led her loyal army into Paris, but during this battle she was injured in the thigh and her mission failed. At this point her popularity began to decline, but she was determined to keep up her attempts to liberate northern France from the British. During her last mission in the town of Compiegne, with her depleted army, she was captured by the Burgundians, the French faction on the British side, when she tried to lift the siege.
The Trial and Execution
The only official records remaining about Joan of Arc’s life are the transcripts of her trial and condemnation. After her capture, Joan was kept in prison for months while the Church decided what to do with her. The King of France could have demanded her release, but he did nothing. It is thought he was concerned she was becoming far too popular and influential, and he no longer needed her. He was also surrounded by evil advisors who wanted her out of the way.
The Church decided to put her on trial, to prove her faith in God or otherwise. The Burgundian Bishop Pierre Cauchon led the trial, which went on for days, as Joan at first refused to reveal the details of the visions and voices he heard. She was charged with many crimes including falsely claiming to hear God’s voice, wearing men’s clothing, witchcraft and heresy. Throughout the whole ordeal Joan refused to divulge the exact words God spoke to her, which only made matters worse as this convinced her accusers she had made up the voices. Cauchon wanted proof God was not the source of her voices, so he continued to press her. Eventually she revealed she had seen St. Michael, St, Margaret and St. Catherine who came to her surrounded by bright lights, speaking messages from God. According to religious experts at the time, this was the proof they needed. Joan would not have known the Church had recently decided voices from Heaven were never accompanied by visions, but visions of angels were sent by the Devil (Ref Video).
Without the French King to defend her, Joan was found guilty of heresy and handed over to the British to be put to death in Rouen by burning at the stake. Until the very last minute, the Bishop tried to get Joan to confess to the charges made against her, but she maintained she was truly a messenger of God. Joan knew if she told him what he wanted to hear, she would be given the relief of death by strangulation before she would experience the smell and pain of her own burning flesh. She still refused.
Less than twenty years after Joan’s death, the Church heard Joan’s case again, and she was found not guilty. Joan of Arc has been the subject of debate for over 500 years. Was she truly a messenger of God, or where the voices in her mind? There is no doubt she was a talented soldier driven to complete her mission, but her abilities and fearlessness are considered by most to be miraculous as she was just a simple, young and uneducated peasant girl. In 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.