|Image of Joan of Arc, circa 1450-1500 CE.|
Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris.
An unknown artist's work; the only portrait of her
that she is known to have sat for has not survived.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
A cultural icon and significant figure in western culture, Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, is one of the patron saints of France, along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis IX, and St. Teresa of Lisieux. She is also known as Saint Joan or the Maid of Orléans. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.
Born a peasant in eastern France, she led the French army to victory in several important battles during the Hundred Years’ War, begun in 1337 as a dispute over succession to the French throne. France at the time was in dismal straits, nowhere near its strength and position of the prior century. The Black Death had hit France hard, its economy suffered from trade loss, and England controlled large parts of the country.
|Statue of Jeanne D'Arc in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris|
King Charles VI was ruling at the time of her birth and he was ineffective, often suffering bouts of insanity. His brother and his cousin, the Dukes of Orléans and of Burgundy respectively, quarreled over the guardianship of the royal children and the regency of France. The Duke of Burgundy ordered the assassination of the Duke of Orléans. In the midst of all the in-fighting Henry V of England invaded France and eventually the English controlled much of northern France, including Paris. The future King of France, Charles VII, took the title of "Dauphin" or heir to the throne, at age fourteen.
|France during the Hundred Years' War, 1435.|
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Enter the peasant girl. Illiterate and poor, Joan of Arc had visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, who she believed were sent from God. They told her that she had a divine mission to save her country from the English. She began this by cutting her hair, dressing as a man, and donning arms.
She convinced the captain of the Dauphin’s forces and then the Dauphin himself of her divine calling. She was made captain and given troops after passing an examination by theologians. In May 1429, Jeanne d’Arc led her troops to an astounding victory at the battle of Orléans. She continued to lead her troops causing formidable fear among the English. Her use of frontal assaults and artillery changed French tactics permanently. The Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII in a coronation in 1429, at Reims Cathedral, with Joan of Arc at his side.
|At the coronation of Charles VII at the Cathedral of Reims.|
Oil on canvas by Jean August Dominique Ingres, 1854.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(Note the attempt to feminize her with the skirt and long hair.)
The next year she was captured and sold to the English, who in turn gave her to the ecclesiastical court at Rouen to be tried for witchcraft and heresy. Her insistence on dressing as a man, which the court deemed was a crime against God, seemed to have sealed her fate in the pro-English court. After being interrogated for fourteen months, she was convicted and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Charles VII made no attempt to rescue the nineteen-year-old woman.
|Death at the Stake - right-hand part of a triptych|
Oil by Hermann Stilke, 1843
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
A second trial was held in 1456, at the end of the war. Authorized by Pope Callixtus III, it is also known as the "nullification" trial. This appellate process was attended by clergy all across Europe. Testimony was heard from 115 witnesses. She was pronounced innocent of the charges against her. There is an unusual wealth of information from primary sources on her trials, including letters, three of which have her signature ("Jehanne") on dictated letters. This is quite an anomaly in the field of history.
|Signature of "Jehanne" (Joan of Arc), courtesy of Wikipedia|
From Napoleon on French politicians have invoked her, regardless of their political bent. She was not a feminist; she fought because of her religious convictions. She is a beloved political figure because of her humble origins, support of the monarchy, and her nationalism. As a non-controversial heroine, she was the perfect icon to define France's identity.
Other countries have adopted her image. Most recently she has been called on to represent the Tea Party in their astroturfing - political, advertising and public relation campaigns that are formally planned by an organized group but made to look as though they are grassroots endeavors.
Many famous writers and composers have created works about her, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and even Mark Twain. She continues to be the subject of film, theater, music, television, and even video games - the modern sign of arrival as a major entity.
After almost six centuries of carrying various banners, she remains the tireless advocate of bravery and the feminine call to action. Called on by both religious and secular causes, she wages on in battle, proving that illiterate peasant girls can kick butt.