- Education and Science
I Am God's Messenger: Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII
From Peasent to Hero to Saint
I Am God’s Messenger: Joan of Arc
There was nothing special about Joan of Arc, then known as Jeanne d’Arc. Not at first; Joan belonged to a poor farming family in Domremy, a village in Southern France in 1429. She was pretty typical as peasant girls went, illiterate, religious, working as a shepherdess for her father. Nothing special.
But then the visions began.
Jeanne d'Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage
Every day at noon, Joan would take a moment to pray, as all good French children should. When she was twelve years old, Joan knelt to pray, and looked up in a panic to see a glowing figure descending upon her. At first Joan was terrified, but a gentle male voice spoke to her, urging her to be calm, and the figure manifested itself as Saint Michael, the archangel and slayer of Lucifer. He spoke very kindly to her and continued to visit her every day when she prayed. In short time St. Michael was soon joined by St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Joan couldn’t understand why they were visiting her—they wouldn’t say—but for the next four years they visited her daily, conversing with her on a whole matter of things.
Even though Joan was delighted to be speaking to saints, she never told anyone of her visions—likely because witch burnings were so rampant in Europe at the time (and steadily getting worse), Joan might have been afraid that she’d be called out as a witch. She was content to keep their meetings a secret until one day when she was sixteen and the saints said she was ready to know why they came to her.
The saints told her that she was God’s chosen warrior, and it was her duty to expel the invading English from France and restore the French king to the throne.
Joan was horrified and told them that there had to have been a mistake—she wasn’t a knight! She was a shepherdess from a poor village! She didn’t know the first thing about war. How could she possibly lead an army against the forces of England?
The saints persisted, telling her that all she needed to do was seek out Captain Robert Baudricourt in town and tell him that she had been sent by God to free France. Deciding to trust these messengers from God, Joan went into town, found Baudricourt at his home and told him exactly what the saints told her. Baudricourt was furious; France and England were embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War, and now that it looked like France could lose, he didn’t have time to listen to a crazy girl. He chased Joan off, but she returned six months later, more determined than ever. Baudricourt threatened to have an exorcism done on her, but he was stunned when the townsfolk rallied around Joan, pleading with him to listen. Relenting, Baudricourt listened as Joan predicted the outcome of an ongoing battle … and was shocked when she was proven right.
Convinced now, Baudricourt provided Joan with men’s clothes, a horse, and a retinue of soldiers to protect her as she rode to the city of Chinon where Prince Charles, called the Dauphin, had retreated after the English had captured Paris; he had not been able to be crowned king, and there was already rumors swirling that he was not the legitimate heir to the throne. Joan cut her hair, donned the clothes and rode eleven days until she reached the city. Upon gaining admittance, Joan strode up to Charles and said, “I am God’s messenger, sent to tell you that you are the true heir to France, and the king’s son.”
Charles was surprised but happy to hear this—then surprised again when Joan asked for an army for her to lead in order to free the captured city of Orleans. The prince’s advisors recoiled, disgusted at Joan’s boldness and appearance, and encouraged Charles to send the young maid to their panel of theologians to test her validity. Joan was sent to Poitiers where she was questioned by a group of religious scholars, and the stunned men sent her back to Chinon, saying that she really was conversing with saints. The advisors were beside themselves in fury, but Charles decided to grant Joan’s request; the English were about to win anyway. What did he have to lose by sending a girl?
To his advisors’ outrage, Charles provided Joan with an army, a new horse, a battle standard (flag), a suit of armor and a visorless helmet, so the soldiers could see her face. He offered her a sword but Joan politely declined; according to the saints, there was a sword waiting for her, hidden in the church of Saint Catherine. Baudricourt quickly sent one of his men to search in the area Joan described, and the amazed soldier returned with an old, rusting sword, the blade engraved with five crosses.
Armed, armored, and now titled as chef de guerre, or war leader, Joan led her army to Orleans. Approaching the city gates with her standard bearer and bodyguards, Joan shouted up at the bewildered English, “I have been sent by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you, body for body, out of all of France. If you do not believe this news sent to you by God and the Maid, we will strike you, wherever we find you, and make such a great attack that France has not seen in a thousand years.”
Hearing that, the English sent back no reply—aside from possibly hysterical laughter and an order for Joan to go back to minding her cows. Joan said nothing more, merely turning her group away and returning to her army … which she then unleashed on the walls of the city that night. Joan was in the thick of it, directing waves of attack and shouting orders to her soldiers as they swarmed over the walls, taking the horrified English by surprise. In the midst of attack Joan was shot in the shoulder with a crossbow and dragged off the field by her officers. She was brought to a tent for treatment, but when she heard how her men faltered without her presence, Joan had the arrow removed quickly and rushed back to the battlefield.
On May 8, the final English fort fell to Joan and Orleans was completely free. No English prisoners were taken, but Joan, now renowned as the Maid of Orleans, was seen walking across the battlefield, soothing dying French and English soldiers alike. Her charity paired with her bravery convinced her soldiers that she was truly blessed by God and in June they pushed on, securing the route to Reims where Charles would be crowned king.
Jeanne d'Arc au siège d'Orléans Jules Eugène Lenepveu
Joan’s victories en route to Reims were so numerous that soon many English turned tail and fled when they saw her army approaching. Sir John Fastolfe fled and was stripped of his rank for cowardice. Knowing that, another nobleman refused to be terrified by a woman and stood his ground … only to be slaughtered beside one hundred other noblemen and two thousand English soldiers. Outraged, the English Duke Bedford sent a scathing letter to Charles, saying that Charles won because he had the help of, “superstitious and damnable persons such as a woman of a disorderly and infamous life and dissolute manners, dressed in the clothes of a man!”
At last Reims was freed and secured, and on July 14 with Joan at his side Charles the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France. While his advisors stewed—how could a girl do in a few weeks what no French man had been able to do in decades?!—King Charles happily asked Joan what she would like as a reward for her heroics. Surprising everyone again, Joan asked only that the taxes in her hometown and a neighboring village be lifted, to which Charles immediately agreed.
For eighteen months Joan led her army. She still received criticisms despite her success; there were handfuls of soldiers that refused to follow a woman, which sent Joan into a rage (she was an agent of God—this had nothing to do with gender), and when someone asked her why didn’t she do “womanly duties” (e.g. spinning, weaving, etc.), she responded, “There are plenty of other women to perform them.” When asked why she wore men’s clothes Joan said, “(F)or a virgin, male and female clothes are equally suitable.” Some didn’t believe that she was as brave as many claimed, and Joan answered, “I fear nothing but treachery.”
And that fear was probably warranted. Joan was met with misfortune at Paris: her page was killed, her standard fell to the ground, she was wounded with a crossbow bolt in the thigh, her sacred sword shattered and she failed to capture the city. This bad luck followed her to Compienge where she was dragged down out of her saddle by English soldiers and captured, then given to church officials in exchange for 100,000 francs. There, Archbishop Regnault told her that she deserved to be captured for not acting like a woman should.
Taken to the city of Rouen, Joan did everything she could to escape, including leaping from a seventy foot tower into a castle moat, only to be knocked unconscious on impact. She infuriated her captors to no end, and they moved her from castle to castle, looking for one that she couldn’t escape from. They were further outraged during her trial, where Joan responded to every question with, “I am relying on our Lord,” or “I hold to what I have already said.” They threatened her with torture, and she didn’t flinch. Knowing that she had learned to sign her name but still didn't know how to read, the judges tried to trick Joan into signing a document renouncing her allegiance to King Charles and agreeing to wear women's dresses, but she realized what they had done and recanted her forged declaration.
Initially, the judges sentenced Joan to life in prison, but when they realized that she refused to wear women’s clothes, they took this as a crime against nature and sent her to a secular court under the command of Duke Bedford. There, they convicted her of witchcraft and sentenced her to burn at the stake … not because she humiliated them, not because they thought she was dangerous, they ordered her to die because she wore men’s clothes.
During this entire time the people of France begged King Charles to pay Joan’s ransom—the entire country had more than enough to free her. King Charles himself was in treaty negotiations with the English Duke of Burgundy and could have bargained for her release but didn’t. Meanwhile, some of Charles’s advisors were said to be beside themselves with happiness that Joan was about to die.
On May 30, 1431, Joan was led to the stake. Her last request was for a Dominican monk to hold up a cross and shout words of salvation to her. The fire was lit, and before Joan succumbed to the smoke, she cried out, “Jesus!” and died. She was nineteen.
Twenty years later, the English were finally driven out of France and Joan’s family immediately demanded that there be a retrial to clear Joan’s name. King Charles agreed and ordered an investigation, resulting in the original English conviction being overturned. On May 16, 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church, and her feast day is celebrated on May 30.
Joan of Arc works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 1997
Cool Women, Dawn Chipman et al 1998
Lives of Extraordinary Women, Kathleen Krull & Kathryn Hewitt 2000
Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Vicki Leon 2007
Women Warriors, Teena Apeles 2004
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011
Hell Hath No Fury, Rosalind Miles & Robin Cross 2008