Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling: Joan of Arc

Approx Reading Time-11A pious peasant girl who became counsel to the King, before dying at age 19; check out what else there is to know about Joan of Arc in this morning’s Know Who You’re Googling.

 


It’s over 600 years since she was born, and she lived for just 19 years, but more has been written about Joan of Arc than many another historical figure. This French peasant girl – whose divine visions led her to win the Battle of Orléans, succeed in having the Dauphin crowned King, and who was burned at the stake – certainly packed a lot into a short life.

Born around 1412 in Domrémy, Joan came from a farming family. She was used to hard work, had plenty of common sense and was known for her almost fanatical piety. She was such a deeply devout Christian that ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill devout Christians thought she was a little excessive in her devotions.

When she was about 12 or 13, she began seeing visions. She claimed three saints regularly visited her: Michael, Catherine and Margaret, often after the church bell had chimed, and that each time they came they were surrounded by light. Originally they exhorted her to be good, but as time went on the visions became more specific, more political.

These days we’d send Joan off for a psych assessment and hope that the therapist had a prescription pad at the ready. Some experts have suggested she suffered from schizophrenia or some other neurological disorder that caused hallucinations that she interpreted as saints speaking to her.

Others think she was traumatised by seeing the burning of Domrémy, which put the idea of revenge against the perpetrators into her subconscious. Others still believe that maybe she invented the whole idea of the voices so she could get a look-in with the Dauphin, that she was an attention-seeker. On top of all this, she was a pubescent girl with all those crazy hormones doing their thing.


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It’s hard to be definitive, because times were very different. Back in the fifteenth century, people believed that it wasn’t altogether out of the question for chosen ones to be privileged with divine visitations. Because she was such a pious little thing, local people began to treat her with respect.

When one of the voices told her it was her destiny to help the Dauphin take his rightful place as King Charles VII and to assist in delivering France from the scourge of England, she took it very seriously.

Joan was born right in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), a fractious period of great unrest between France and England, and England’s ally in France, Burgundy. The French throne seemed to be constantly up for grabs and was about to be claimed by Henry VI of England.

Joan took herself off to see the Dauphin, and naturally at first, no-one took the slightest bit of notice. But she was a stubborn girl – she’d cut her hair very short, had taken to wearing men’s clothing and she believed in herself and her visions very strongly – so she persevered. It was her demeanour – religious, modest, insistent – that gave her the street cred to secure a meeting with Charles in 1429.

Charles wasn’t completely won over by her arguments, but he took them seriously enough to equip her with a horse and some soldiers and she accompanied troops to Orléans then held by the English. She had a head for strategy, or maybe it was luck or perhaps that divine intervention, but holding her banner aloft, she spurred the soldiers on and the 1429 Battle of Orléans resulted in a French victory. Joan, the great morale booster, was ever after known as the Maid of Orléans.

She urged Charles to get himself crowned as soon as possible. For quite a while, English forces had held the town of Reims, where French coronations usually took place, but once France regained it, Charles finally became King. Joan was by his side at the coronation ceremony.

These days we’d send Joan off for a psych assessment and hope that the therapist had a prescription pad at the ready. Some experts have suggested she suffered from schizophrenia or some other neurological disorder that caused hallucinations that she interpreted as saints speaking to her.

In 1430, Joan was sent into battle again, this time at Compiègne, but her luck was down and she was captured by Burgundian forces. By then, she had gained a certain renown. The French people revered her and her enemies knew that an immediate execution would be bad political move. They weren’t about to create a martyr. It was a far better tactic to blacken her name.

Joan was imprisoned and made several escape attempts before being turned over to the church for inquisition. Oh, that word, “inquisition”, so pregnant with meaning. She was charged with heresy, witchcraft and for wearing men’s clothing. The church was particularly angry with her for her “male” characteristics, like leading men into battle and advising Kings. The presumption of this girl outraged them.

Joan’s trial is the stuff of legend. She was questioned over a period of months and steadfastly refused to say anything that would endanger the King. She stood by her faith and maintained her devotions, and her behaviour was always rational. She answered interrogators calmly in spite of being threatened with torture and probably rape. I’m not a religious person but you have to admire these people who stick to their beliefs in the face of death.

Based on her having heard voices and her male attire, Joan was ultimately declared a heretic and sentenced to burning at the stake. On May 30, 1431 in a town square in Rouen, tied to a pillar, a crucifix in her hands, Joan was burned alive. A gruesome way to die. To add insult to injury, her remains were exposed so that everyone could see she was really dead; and then the English burned her body twice more so that her ashes couldn’t be taken as a holy relic. These people really feared this girl – even in death.

Twenty years later her name was cleared. Fast forward to 1920 and Joan was canonised. She’s now France’s patron saint. Whatever the reason for the voices she heard, Joan of Arc gave the French a sense of national pride. She’s a woman who made a difference.

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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