Chapter 5—Joan of Arc
I am indebted to Donald Spoto; Joan: the Mysterious Life of the Heretic who became a Saint; Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2007 for the information in this article. I also used the Wikipedia article on Joan.
“Do you Israelites think you are more important to me than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord. “I brought you out of Egypt, but have I not done as much for other nations, too? I brought the Philistines from Crete and led the Arameans out of Kir. Amos 9:7
Mordecai sent back this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that you will escape there in the palace when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will all die. What’s more, who can say but that you have been elevated to the palace for just such a time as this? Esther 4:13-14
Joan of Arc is undoubtedly the most famous Christian martyr of all time. Her story has inspired more than 700 major works of art, from paintings to drama, operas to movies. Some of the most famous writers and artists of all time have immortalized her: Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Cecil B. DeMille, Victor Fleming, and Roberto Rossellini, to name a few. She is not only famous, however, she is also controversial. Many have thought that she was mentally imbalanced, or demon-possessed, or a witch, or sexually perverted. If I told you about a teenage girl who could neither read nor write but who claimed to hear the voices of God and some of the saints telling her to dress like a soldier to lead troops into combat to save her country and its king, wouldn’t you think she was crazy? If, moreover, you found out that she was able to do some amazing and apparently supernatural things, wouldn’t you suspect that she was in league with the powers of darkness? This is exactly what the military and ecclesiastical leadership under English control in France thought.
Joan was born in a small village of France during the latter half of the Hundred Years War, a long-drawn out series of back-and-forth struggles between France and England from 1337 to 1453 in which the English monarchs sought to also become the undisputed monarchs of France. In the early 1400’s the tide of these struggles turned towards England and by 1429 the English had taken Paris and were preparing a seige on Orleans. They anticipated the success of the seige with the consequent bankruptcy and total collapse of the French Monarchy whose heir apparent, Charles VII, could not even be legitimately crowned because the traditional location for a coronation, Rheims, was also in English hands. The war, and the Black Plague during the war, had reduced the population of France by two-thirds, and the situation was so desperate that it is no exaggeration to say that only a miracle could save the country. Joan of Arc was that miracle.
Joan seems to have been a very normal if exceptionally well-behaved young girl. She was born in 1412, the third of five children. They were a devout, if not well-educated, Catholic family. Joan’s mother taught her daughter the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria and not much else in the way of religious instruction. Since Joan, like the vast majority of women of her day, could not read, whatever other knowledge of the Bible she had was remembered from the sermons that she heard during Mass. On a summer day of her fourteenth year the faith suddenly became real to her however, when Joan heard a voice that she thought was from God. The voice told her to reverence God, to pray, to be faithful in church, and to trust in God for everything. She kept this experience to herself, even after the experience repeated itself.
She continued to hear voices, sometimes of God, sometimes of angels, and for a period of three years the voices insisted that she should pay a visit to the King of France. She approached the commander of the local military garrison, who, of course, tried to ignore her . . . until she approached him with a specific prophecy of defeat in a battle that happened three days later at a location where she had never been.
The legend is that when she was taken to the royal court, traveling in disguise as a common (male) soldier, the king put on the clothes of a common nobleman and blended into the crowd. Joan was able to correctly identify him, though she had never seen him or a picture of him before. Then, the story goes, she impressed him with the stories of her visions and the conviction of her purpose.
The truth is that the French were so desperate they were willing to try anything. Charles’s father, “Charles the Mad”, had been a failure as a monarch, and between bad governance, the strong enemy leadership of Henry V of England, and just plain bad luck, the French had lost Paris, Rheims, most of northern France and some of southern France to the English and their allies of the Kingdom of Burgundy. This teenage girl came asking to be put at the (spiritual if not military) head of the army, to change the generations-long battle between aristocrats to a religious war for independence that would inspire the people of France for centuries.
Charles did not simply take the statements of the young girl on faith—he sent a commission of clergy to investigate the girl’s background and references. Because of this investigation, to be followed by the investigation surrounding her heresy trial barely two years later, to be finally followed by the investigation that reversed the findings of the heresy trial twenty years after that, we know a great deal more about the life of this illiterate country girl than about any other woman in the Middle Ages. The commission that Charles sent did not judge the validity of the visions but said that the girl’s life had been of such a moral quality that there should be the presumption of truth about her.
Initially, the French commander tried to exclude her from military councils, but, since after her arrival the army began winning, she was ultimately present in most councils and military actions. Scholars do not agree whether Joan actually participated in many of the military decisions during the two years she was with the army. She herself claimed that she never killed anyone, and she was never the official military commander. She did, however, give advice to the commanders, advice that encouraged them to go on the offensive and take risks that paid off. The commanders themselves testified that they believed that the advice was inspired by God. Joan was wounded in battle and conducted herself so bravely that she was considered a heroine by the men. On the 16th of July, Joan and the victorious army of France marched into the historic cathedral city of Rheims, the place where French kings has always had their coronation, a ceremony that legitimated Charles’ reign the very next morning.
For the English, Joan was not a heroine but a witch. In May of 1430 their Burgundian allies captured Joan in an ambush. She nearly succeeded in escaping from them before the English were able to have her transferred to their custody. The English then enlisted their own clergy and the clergy of the Burgundians to hold a heresy trial, one that was politically motivated and was irregular according to canon law. Several other clergy were threatened to cooperate. Even with this stacked deck, the “court” had difficulty finding evidence to convict. Joan was careful and wise with her testimony. For example, the court asked Joan if she considered herself to be in God’s grace. This was a trick question for if she said she was, then she would be judging her own salvation, which only God can do. But if she said that she wasn’t, then she would be admitting that she wasn’t a true Christian and that her religious experiences were false. What she actually answered was . . . 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me,” a brilliant theological response from an illiterate teenager!
The charge that finally stuck was heresy in the act of cross-dressing or gender-bending. Joan had dressed as a soldier and had cut her hair. In prison she continued to dress in man’s clothes—that is all that her captors allowed her to wear, but she did not protest too much because the man’s hose and clothing of the time offered a woman greater protection from molestation. It was that modesty that her enemies used to condemn her. She was burned at the stake in May of 1431. The English displayed her charred body to prove that she had died, and then burned the remains twice more to keep people from gathering relics (religious souvenirs).
Henry V of England died and was followed by the weak Henry VI. In 1435 the Burgundians switched sides, and the rule of the English in France began to unravel. In the 1450’s the church reopened an investigation into the heresy trial. A church appellate court declared her innocent in 1456. In 1920, 508 years after her birth Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan (made her a saint), one of the few people to die as a heretic who has achieved sainthood.
So what do we make of Joan, those of us who are non-Roman Catholic Christians in the 21st century? I confess that I am made uncomfortable by the bizarre nature of the visions and the fact that she was not a woman of peace. Still, if one accepts the idea that God cares for nations as well as for individuals, it is hard not to believe that she was God’s (perhaps imperfect) instrument for the salvation of France. It is as though in Joan and in her martyrdom even more than in her victories God laid claim to France—a claim that the country cannot shake, no matter how secular it becomes nor how many disasters it faces.
May God use patriotic Christians to lay such a claim to every nation on earth!