Who was Joan of Arc?

Joan of Arc

On the morning of May 30, 1431, a 19-year-old girl was taken by cart to the marketplace of Rouen and tied to a tall pillar. She asked two of the clergy, Martin Ladvenu and Isambart de la Pierre, to hold a crucifix before her. Then she repeatedly called out “in a loud voice the holy name of Jesus, and implored and invoked without ceasing the aid of the saints of Paradise”.

Her name was Jeanne d’Arc, but she would come to be known as Joan of Arc.

Jeanne was born in 1412, in Domremy, north-east France. She was the daughter of poor tenant farmers who owned about 50 acres of land – Jacques d’ Arc and his wife Isabelle (also known as Romée) – and in her early years assisted her parents on the farm and became a skilled seamstress.

Artistic representations often depict Jeanne as being fair with auburn hair and dark eyes, and of a diminutive stature. She is often shown dressed in the armour for which she became famous and instantly recognisable.

At the time of her birth, France had been torn apart by bitter conflict with England, which would come to be known as the ‘Hundred Years’ War’. In 1420, King Henry V became the ruler of both France and England, after a peace treaty disinherited the French crown prince, Charles of Valois. In 1422, Henry V was succeeded by his son Henry VI, and with the assistance of Philip the Good (Duke of Burgundy) England occupied much of northern France, forcing many in Jeanne’s village to flee under threat of invasion.

Jeanne would later testify that she experienced her first vision at 13 in her “father’s garden” around the summer of 1424. She began having visions of the Archangel Michael, St Catherine (of Alexandria), St. Margaret (of Antioch), and occasionally others, such as the Archangel Gabriel. Jeanne said these visions instructed her to support Charles VII, and to lift the siege of Orleans on behalf of its captive Duke and bring the Dauphin to Rheims for his coronation.

In May 1428, the garrison commander Charles Robert de Baudricourt granted Jeanne a horse and an escort of several soldiers for the 11-day journey to Charles’ court in Chinon. By now, she had cropped her hair and begun dressing in men’s clothes. The 17-year-old impressed Charles with her piety and sincerity. She won him over, giving her armour, a horse and allowing her to accompany the army to the site of the English siege at Orleans. Between May 4 and May 7, 1429, the French took the English fortifications in a series of battles. Jeanne showed immense courage and although she was wounded, she returned to the front line of battle to encourage a final assault. The English were fully ousted by mid-June.

On the surface, it appeared that Charles had accepted Jeanne’s divine mission, but in secret it was another story. He initially rejected her encouragement that he be promptly crowned at Reims, but Jeanne was by his side and took a visible place in the ceremonies when he was crowned Charles VII on July 18, 1429. The new King ordered Jeanne to Compiegne in the spring of 1430, to confront the Burgundian assault and during the battle, she was thrown from her horse and left outside the gates of the town. Jeanne was taken prisoner by the Burgundians and used as a bargaining prize with the English. She was eventually exchanged for 10,000 lives.

Despite appearances, King Charles VII had never fully accepted Jeanne’s divine mission and now he began to distance himself, making no attempt to free her. Jeanne was handed over to the church officials who saw her as a heretic and charged her with 70 counts. Between February 21 and March 24, 1432, Jeanne was interrogated a dozen times. She outwitted her inquisitors and showed herself to have an unbreakable spirit, and they were unable to prove she was a heretic or a witch. So they shifted their focus to the way she dressed, claiming that her cross-dressing violated a Biblical injunction.

On the morning of May 30, 1431, 19-year-old Jeanne was taken by cart to the marketplace of Rouen and burned at the stake before an estimated 10,000 people. Her ashes were taken and scattered in the Seine River. In 1452, King Charles VII ordered an investigation authorised by Pope Callixtus III to examine the trial. Jeanne was pronounced innocent of all charges and declared a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte designated Jeanne a national symbol of France. She was beatified in 1909, canonised in 1920, and recognised as the patron saint of France.

Scholars in the modern age have proposed psychiatric explanations for Jeanne’s visions, such as schizophrenia and a handful of neurological conditions that can cause hallucinations, such as temporal lobe epilepsy. Others have argued that she suffered from Ménière’s disease, tinnitus and anorexia nervosa. But no contemporary source material survives to suggest that Jeanne was ill and trial testimony often marvels at her intellect. “Often they (the judges) turned from one question to another, changing about, but, notwithstanding this, she answered prudently, and evinced a wonderful memory.”

In the end, actions speak louder than words. Nobody can deny Jeanne’s deep faith and her sincere belief that she was on a divine mission from God. Although she was still just a teenager at the time of her death, she will forever be remembered as the courageous French peasant girl with an unbreakable spirit who became a patron saint and a global icon.

Joanni, Joanni wears a golden cross

And she looks so beautiful in her armour

Joanni, Joanni blows a kiss to God

And she never wears a ring on her finger

Joanni, Joanni, Joanni, Joanni blows a kiss to God

And she just looks beautiful in her armour

Beautiful in her armour

(Kate Bush – Joanni)

Words: Alex Karas
Image: Katherine Butler

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