Joan of Arc: military leader, national heroine and Saint
Thanks to Elena Maria Vidal for her beautiful post on the Maiden of Orléans. Indeed today we celebrate her holiday.
Like every other French child, I learned about Jeanne d’Arc in elementary school. Of all the characters I encountered in the course of my history lessons, she was the one who left the strongest impression on my young mind.
Years later, at the beginning of my career as an attorney, I read the transcripts of her trials. Time has passed, but my admiration for Jeanne (or Jehanne, as her name was spelled then) has remained the same. To me, she is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful figures in history.
Who would ever believe this story if it were not true? An illiterate peasant girl of 16 is entrusted with an army, proceeds to win decisive victories, turns the tide of a war that had been raging for a hundred years, is captured in battle, is tried as a heretic and is burned at the stake at the age of 19?
Jehanne was born in 1412 into a peasant family from Lorraine, in eastern France. The country, at the time of the Hundred Years’ War, was divided between the victorious King of England, who also claimed the crown of France, and the legitimate heir, who did not even go by the name of King, and was content with the title of Dauphin.
At the age of 13, Jehanne has a series of visions where Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret and the Archangel Michael appear to her. The three Saints prompt her throw the English invaders out of the country and crown the Dauphin. A tall order for a teenager of the lowest social status.
But Jehanne is a woman of faith. She simply leaves home and sets out to accomplish her mission. She tries to enlist in the armies of the Dauphin and is of course rejected. But she is not discouraged, and the amazing thing is that people, far from mocking her, listen to her. Thanks to her piety and extraordinary charisma, she develops a following among the poor and the nobility alike. Some courtiers even convince the Dauphin to receive her. He is understandably suspicious of this unknown girl and has one of his friends sit in the place of honor during the audience, while he himself remains standing. Jehanne, of course, is not fooled and walks directly to him to address him.
He is so impressed by her that he soon entrusts her with an army. Then another amazing happens: Jehanne , in spite of her 16 years and total lack of military training, turns out to be an outstanding leader. Let us listen to one of her comrades, who testified at her second trial:
In all she did, except in affairs of war, she was a very
simple young girl; but for things of war, such as bearing the lance, assembling an
army, ordering military operations, directing artillery, she was most skilled.
Everyone marveled that she could act with as much wisdom and foresight as a
captain who had fought for twenty or thirty years. It was above all in the
use of artillery that she was so wonderful.
She forces the English to lift the siege of Orléans (hence the affectionate name of Maiden of Orléans.) And she goes on to win victory and victory. The French troops go from demoralization to elation. Jehanne frees the road to Reims, where French Kings are traditionally crowned.
In France the coronation of the King had a meaning that is difficult to imagine today, and had no equivalent in other countries even at the time. It was not simply an official occasion for pomp and pageantry. It was a religious ceremony, whereby the newly crowned King became akin to a priest. It had a tremendous symbolic and political impact. For a masterful scholarly analysis of the issue, read Marc Bloch’s Les Rois Thaumaturges (The Healer Kings) translated into English under the – atrocious – title The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England.
So Jehanne attends the coronation of the Dauphin, who, thanks to her, becomes King Charles VII. Other military operations follow, during which the aura of Jehanne develops. Many already consider her as a Saint.
After her exploits, she is invited to take some rest in a chateau, but she decides to join the partisans of the French King to Compiègne, then besieged by the Bourguignons, allied to the English. During a sortie, she falls from her horse and cannot get back to her feet. Her armor weighed well over 40 pounds. The Bourguignons seize her, only to sell her to their English allies.
She attempts unsuccessfully to escape, but is taken to Rouen, in Normandy, still controlled by the English. Her trial for heresy is conducted by Bishop Cauchon. He too takes his directions from the English rulers. Jehanne is jailed under dreadful conditions. When berated by Cauchon for still wearing male clothing, she replies that it allows her to better fight her guards whenever they attempt to rape her. In the face of her judges’ questions on disputed points of theology, she answers with courage, clarity and intelligence. And let us not forget that she still cannot read and write. She only learned to sign her first name. Yes, it is her signature below.
The outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion. She is found guilty of blasphemy and heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. When taken to the place of execution, she loses her courage at the sight of the pyre. This may be the most moving part of the story: Jehanne is after all human, she is 19, and she recoils from a horrible death.
She accepts a bargain whereby she will be jailed in a Church prison for life if she confesses to lying about her visions. Instead she is still kept in an English jail. She understands that she had been tricked and recants. Cauchon and the other judges reinstate her death sentence. Her jailers then rape her and beat her so hard that she is disfigured, which may explain why she is burned with a veil over her face.
She faces her execution without any further hesitation. She cries three times “Jesus” before her body is consumed by the flames. Unusual precautions are taken for it to be thoroughly cremated, and her ashes are thrown into the Seine River to prevent them from being kept as the relics of a Saint.
Over 20 years later, the Hundred Years War is over and Rouen has been retaken by the French. At the request of Jehanne’s mother, King Charles VII and the Pope order a new trial, which rehabilitates her memory and makes her officially a martyr.
If you want to know more about Jehanne, read the transcripts of both of her trials. The first one was a clumsy, fraudulent and failed attempt at discrediting her, the second one is the record of her contemporaries’ testimony on her life. An extremely moving read.