Guest post by Maren
Joan of Arc
I’m a natural skeptic, and a folklorist. Those are the only explanations I can offer as to why for most of my life I assumed that the stories we all know of Joan of Arc must be mythical and/or improvable. An illiterate teenaged shepherdess was suddenly inspired to chop off her hair, travel through occupied territory, convince the Dauphin to let her lead his army, and end a five-month siege where veteran commanders had failed? In 1429? Riiiiiight. It sounds, I dare say, rather like some Fantasy novels with which we are all familiar.* I supposed that in reality, Joan was probably a figurehead at best, and her story was embellished after her death. The first inkling that I was entirely wrong came when I read an excerpt from her heresy trial record for a college French class. She more than held her own throughout the weeks of questioning, deftly avoiding self-implication despite prosecutorial tricks and in the absence of adequate legal counsel. In fact, the only charge on which she was actually convicted (and for which she was executed) turned out to be cross-dressing, since there were plenty of witnesses for that one.
Joan’s original motivations remain largely mysterious to academia. She maintained until her death that she was guided by the voices of three saints** who first spoke to her in her hometown of Domrémy: Michael (patron saint of France), Margaret, and Catherine (both of whom were gruesomely martyred like Joan would be). The voices convinced her that she was the last hope to save France from English occupation, as the rightful French heir (the Dauphin, Charles VII) was holed up in Chinon and on the brink of surrender. In the first of a series of astounding persuasions, she pestered a local official until he agreed to get her an audience with the Dauphin and to send an escort with her to Chinon.
In between Domrémy and Chinon, however, was the territory of the English-allied Burgundians. It was at this point that she cut her hair and put on men’s clothes in order to lessen the chance that she would be sexually assaulted if captured. The journey was apparently uneventful; along the way, she rested in the neutral town of Auxerre, where I came across her statue in the Cathedral Saint-Etienne:
The base says: “Joan of Arc, on her way to Chinon, stopped in Auxerre on Sunday, February 27, 1529 [sic]***, and came to pray in this cathedral.”
In Chinon, she was able to secure her audience with Charles without too much difficulty, but convincing him to send her into battle took a bit longer. This is all that’s left of the hall where they first met. (I have my own picture of it but as it’s not terribly impressive in itself I seem to have neglected to scan it.) One story that probably is mostly myth is the famous recognition scene, which would have taken place here. Eyewitness accounts confirm that Joan did recognize the Dauphin instantly, even though he was not particularly finely dressed or otherwise distinguished from his courtiers; in later years, however, that simple fact morphed into a tale of Charles deliberately testing her by disguising himself.
In any case, Joan hung around Chinon until Charles was sufficiently convinced that she really might be just what France needed. Just to be certain that she wasn’t a witch or a heretic, he sent her to Poitiers where she was thoroughly questioned and examined by university theologians. Having passed that test as well, she was sent on to Tours to have her armor and standard made.
The armorer and Joan’s temporary residence were both located in what was then Tours’ main commercial street, called simply Grande Rue. Several centuries later, the town was Haussmannized—a broad north-south boulevard was cut straight through the warren of little haphazard streets, such that perpendicular Grande Rue lost much of its importance. At some point it was renamed Rue Colbert, and many of its half-timbered houses escaped “modernization” long enough to become fashionable again. Today it is a lively pedestrian street filled on the ground floor with antique shops and small family-owned restaurants serving almost every cuisine imaginable, and on the upper floors with apartments…including the dorm-room-sized one where I lived in 2003-04. YES. I lived on the same street as Joan of Arc. The location of the armorer is well-marked with an old sign extolling the armed maid, but exactly which building she stayed in has been lost to history. It totally could have been mine.†
Newly equipped in Tours, Joan proceeded directly to nearby Orléans with the intention of lifting the English siege that had held there for five months. She succeeded in less than a week, despite the decidedly unhelpful local duke who excluded her from a war council and tried to thwart her aggressive strategy. Every May 8 thereafter, Orléans has commemorated her victory with a parade, which in more recent years has expanded into a days-long festival. There’s also a Joan museum in the house where she stayed, and multiple monuments to her around town. I was there shortly after Christmas, which explains the flocked trees and the garlands:
After Orléans, Joan was suddenly given more credence by her fellow soldiers and the Dauphin, who made her co-commander of the entire army. They set about winning back occupied towns along the Loire so that Charles could get to Reims, where French kings were crowned; the coronation finally took place there on July 17. With the new king in place, Joan and the army now set their sights on occupied Paris, but their luck ran out as they remained locked in a stalemate for several months.
On May 23, 1430, over a year after joining the army, Joan was captured by the Burgundians during a battle for the town of Compiègne. Her family could not afford to ransom her, and Charles offered no help. Eventually the Duke of Burgundy sold her to his English allies, who proceeded with the heresy trial I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Even though Church law called for the defendant to be given a legal advisor, Joan was on her own during the months of questioning in Rouen. Despite numerous additional failures to observe their own laws, the judge and interrogators were unable to trick her into implicating herself. Finally they convicted her on the cross-dressing charge and forced her to sign an abjuration she couldn’t read under threat of immediate execution.
Joan never gave up hope that she would somehow escape or be rescued. In fact, she did attempt to escape several times, once even jumping from a 70-foot tower. As we know, however, she never succeeded and help never came. On May 30, 1431, at 19 years of age, she was burned at the stake in Rouen.†† That morning she took Communion and asked for a cross to be held before her so she could see it as she died. Several Englishmen who were present at her execution later admitted to sharing the fear of damnation felt by King Henry VI’s secretary Jean Tressard, who said, “We are all lost, for we have burnt a good and holy person.”
Joan’s charred body was exposed to the crowd so no one could say she’d escaped; then she was burned to ashes so there would be no relics. Her remains were thrown into the Seine. About 20 years after her death, once the war finally ended, the Catholic Church gave her a retrial where she was declared innocent and a martyr. She was popularly regarded as a saint almost as soon as she died, but her official canonization didn’t come until 1920. In France, she is also a beloved national heroine and has been co-opted by politicians of all stripes††† since the Revolution of 1789.
The book that I consulted for this post is Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud, originally published in 1962. It is very thorough and includes letters that Joan dictated, much of the trial transcript, and eyewitness accounts of her execution. There are many more recent biographies listed here as well. The Wikipedia article itself is pretty accurate and well-sourced as of 11/21/09.
*Obviously this post is the “Girls Who Do Things” bit that I promised last time.
**I am not religious, but I find the saints explanation at least as plausible as any of the theories about her voices that have been advanced from a secular standpoint. Schizophrenia? She was lucid and calm throughout the trial, while the voices continued. Malnourishment-induced hallucinations? She may have been as hungry as any other peasant back in Domrémy, but she was usually well-fed while she was leading the army, and the voices continued. I also firmly believe she did not have it in her to lie.
***Someone was off by a century! If you look closely, I think they did try to correct it. Everyone pause here to give thanks that your typos are not literally set in stone.
†Yes, it was that old. I had one partially exposed beam, of which I was very proud.
††I’ve been on that spot too, about ten years ago with my high school French classmates. Unfortunately that was before I cared much about Joan, so what made the greatest impression on me at the time were the masses of hydrangeas you can see in the background here. Right next to the execution site is a daringly modern church named for her.
†††Unfortunately, the most recent of these is the far-right anti-immigrant Front National, which holds her up as “proof” of Gallic superiority.
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.