By Asia Leonardi for the Carl Kruse Blog
“It was deep into his fiery heart (ooh)
He took the dust of Joan of Arc
And then she clearly understood
If if he was fire (ooh)
Oh, she then she must be wood
I saw the glory in her eye (in her eye)
Myself (I long) I long for love and light (and light)
(But must) but must it come so cruel (so cruel)
And oh so bright? (And oh so bright?)”
— Leonard Cohen, Joan of Arc
For centuries after her death, the figure of Joan of Arc inspired great literary minds, from Shakespeare to Rimbaud, from Schiller to contemporary Leonard Cohen. We know so much about her, we know her deeds, her words, her childhood: historians say that she is the best known and
documented woman of her time. And let’s be frank: women in the Middle Ages, we presume, didn’t count much.
Our deep knowledge of Joan’s life derives from two voluminous manuscripts, recordings of the two imposing processes that found her protagonist. The first, the most famous, was a political process, a process of condemnation moved by the British, so complex and intricate to last about five months, and involved a total of 131 people, including expert theologians, jurists, scholars. The second trial, twenty years after her death, is held by the will of the King of France, Charles VII, which takes the name of “process of nullification”: that is, to cancel the previous trial, and leads to testify all the people who have known her, including her childhood friends from her village,
Domrémy. We even have a testimony of a knight, who knew her in battle, who says “when I fastened her armor, I spied on her young breasts”.
We know her as Jeanne d’Arc, but in her day, no one called her that. She called herself
Jeanne la Pucelle (“the Maiden”, a nickname that emphasized her character as a young
virgin). D’Arc was her father’s surname, however, during the first trial, Joan declared that
in her village it was tradition for the girls to take the mother’s surname and only for sons
to take the father’s: she, legally, would be called Jeanne Romée.
Joan was born in January 1412, in Lorraine, from a family of farmers, however quite wealthy and well recognized in their area, so much so that her father will often be mayor of the village of Domrémy. Her being illiterate will contribute to the charm that inspires, the figure of a little girl who comes from nowhere, and who could be anyone. Her brothers will stay by her side for the duration of her short life, accompany her to the king, and one of them, Pierre, will even be captured with her, only to be released under a large sum of money. After her death, knights will be appointed by the
King of France, making Joan’s family a noble family.
When Joan was born, France was already beaten and broken by the Hundred Years’ War against the British. The north of France is camped by the Burgundians, who stand for the English. The Hundred Years’ War broke out because of a complicated dynastic question, and on the throne of France, in 1400, there is no legal person: Southern France, including the village of Joan, turns its head towards the heir apparent, the so-called Dauphin, future Charles VII.
Joan of Arc in the protocol of the parliament of Paris (1429). Drawing by Clément de Fauquembergue. French National Archives
The testimonies of her village draw the figure of little Joan as an extremely devout child: she was always at Mass, and she often confessed, to the point that her peers teased her, calling her, with mockery, “goody-two-shoes”.
It was at the age of 13 that Joan had the great revelation, a disastrous light that would lead her to death: in summer, sitting in her father’s garden, she heard a voice that came from the right, from the side of the Church, immersed in a mantle of light. Over time she distinguished three different voices: that of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and Saint Margaret of Antioch. She said at the trial: “At the time of my thirteen years I felt a Voice sent to me by God to guide my actions. [… ] You know, I wasn’t fasting and I hadn’t fasted the night before.” The voices of Heaven announce her mission: to save France, to bring to the throne her rightful king, by divine will.
At the age of 15, Joan ran away from home and went to the nearest garrison, spoke to
the captain, and announced her mission. The captain, undone and believing her crazy, takes her home. In the context of war-torn France, the only women who approached the soldiers were prostitutes, and when Joan ran away from home, the father and brothers became convinced that this was the reason why Joan wanted to go to war. At the trial, she recounts that her mother told her that she had overheard conversations between the boys in the family who, afraid of having their family’s name smeared in disgrace, thought to drown the girl in the lake.
Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1504 manuscript.
Before Joan runs away from home a second time, two years pass by: those are two years of waiting, for the girl, two years in which no one manages to keep at bay her irreverent character, to the point that she will tell: “Time seemed endless as if I were a pregnant woman”. It is curious to observe that Joan had never experienced pregnancy, yet in the collective feminine imagination, at the time, the woman’s stages (menstruation, procreation, etc.) were already inherent in the mind of a girl.
The second time she goes to the garrison, Joan is 17 years old, and the captain decides to trust her, perhaps because it is not the first time that someone reports being the bearer of a divine message. She intends to talk to the Dauphin, and she cannot introduce herself to him in a consultation dressed as a woman: for this reason, she wears men’s clothes, gets her hair cut into a bowl; The captain of the garrison buys her a horse nd gives her a sword. To the question of the trial: “Would you agree to wear a woman’s dress?” she promptly answers: “Give me one and I can go! Otherwise no. I’ll settle for what I bring since God likes me to bring it!” And again: “[… ] they offered me a woman’s dress or cloth to make me one and asked me to wear it; but I told him that I had not
received permission from Our Lord and that the time had not yet come.”
We are at a crucial moment in the Hundred Years’ War: the British are besieging Orleans, and if the city falls, there will be no more hope for France, nor for its rightful king. The Dauphin receives Joan in private, and she proclaims: “I bring you news from our God. The Lord will make you your kingdom, you will be crowned in Rheims and drive out our enemies. In this I am the messenger of God: give me the possibility and I will organize the siege of the city of Orléans”. The Dauphin does not know whether to believe her words, he thinks: if she reveals herself to be a fraud, the whole world will laugh at the French army. To ascertain that she is indeed a prophetess, the Dauphin gathers a commission of theologians and jurists who unceasingly question her, the
women of the court attest that she is a virgin.
Joan does not eat anything and does not have menstruation, which makes her a figure
full of symbolism. She is illiterate, yet has great confidence, given by the word of God,
and feels superior to the male intellectuals who seek divine answers in their books.
When asked why God sent a peasant girl to save France, she replied “in the books of the
Lord there are more things than in yours”.
And again, when the judges ask her about the voices she heard, “How can they talk if
they have neither arms nor legs?”
“I put myself back to God. The voice is beautiful, sweet, and simple; speaks the language
“Doesn’t Santa Margherita speak English?”
“Why should she speak English if she doesn’t stand for the British”.
In the end, the commission attests that Joan tells the truth: God wants to save France
through her body. Propaganda begins, pamphlets come out that call her “the savior of
France”, there are those who seek in the ancient prophecies if someone had already
spoken of a little girl from nowhere but sent by God to save the French kingdom and its
The Dauphin gives her a coat of arms: two gold lilies on a blue background, a French
symbol, in the center a sword holding a crown. The message is clear. Joan never wore it,
unlike her brothers.
Before entering Orleans, Joan wrote her first letter to the King of the English:
“King of England, be aware of your actions to the King of Heaven who has bestowed
upon you your royal blood. Return the keys to all those beloved cities you snatched from
the Maid. She has been sent by the Lord to reclaim royal blood and is ready for peace if
you give her satisfaction by doing justice and returning what you have taken.
King of England, if you do not act in this manner, I will put myself in charge of the army
and, wherever in the territory of France you find your men, I will force them to leave the
country, even against their own will. If they do not obey this order, then the maiden will
command that they be killed. She is sent by the Lord of Heaven to drive you out of France
and solemnly promises that if you do not leave France, she, at the command of the
troops, will raise a clamor such as has never been heard in this country for a thousand
years. And trust that the King of Heaven has given her such power that you are unable to
harm her or her brave army.”
The witnesses of the time say they saw Joan always with a sword, at most with an ax, but
she declares convinced that she never used it and never killed anyone. She will be wounded four times, but Joan fights, lead armies, wins, and upsets. She enters Orleans with the Dauphin, accompanies him to Reims for his coronation. It’s July 17, 1429. Joan throws herself at the feet of the new king, renamed Charles VII King of France, and exclaims: “O gracious King, now the will of God is fulfilled, who wanted me to lead you to Reims to receive the Consecration, proving that you are the true king, and to whom the Kingdom of France must belong!”
In the spring of 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians. She will be a prisoner of
the Duke of Luxembourg until the end of the year when she is sold to the British.
The King of England, once had Joan, on January 31 publishes a manifesto, where he
declares that Joan is a cheater, a murderer, and the fact that she dresses as a man makes
explicit her intemperance to any type of law. “Strongly suspected of numerous crimes
smelling of heresy,” she is handed over to the church for trial.
Joan is interrogated for a month, to prosecute her for heresy and involve the Inquisition.
The key to unlocking the trial will be the accusation of not respecting the laws of the
Church, which tells men to dress like men and women to dress as women. It is necessary to consider that a process held by the Inquisition is based on the dogma that the Church always holds reason and truth: the purpose of such a process, therefore, is to make the accused repent and to force him to abjure. For this reason, Joan will have no lawyer at her side. However, the British intended to frame her: it was a political process, after all, and Joan, as a symbol of France’s victory, had to be eliminated.
For this reason, the questions asked to Joan by the judges are trick questions, and even
today it is amazing how the girl has defended herself skillfully, without falling into traps
and keeping her head high with dignity and pride. When asked if she was in a state of
grace, Joan replied, “It is difficult to answer this question. If I’m in a state of grace, I hope
God keeps me there. If I’m not, I hope God puts me in”.
At the end of the trial, Joan is accused of being a witch, who invokes and speaks to evil
spirits, is disrespectful of the Church, inciter of war, and is strongly suspected of heresy.
Joan should admit that she lied about her alleged mission, that she is a cheater, and
must sign the abjuration. She refuses, and then she is classified as unrepentant guilty,
and sentenced to the stake.
The next day Joan is taken to the Old Market Square in Rouen, where the stake is ready
to be lit. Perhaps frightened by her death, or perhaps because, according to some
testimony, they had promised that if she repented they would free her, Joan decides to
sign. She is dressed as a woman and sentenced to prison for life.
No one knows how, and no one knows who gave her the clothes, and yet, two days later, Joan is again dressed as a man. It’s May 26, 1431. On May 29, the court met and sentenced her to death, for relapse into sin. Before burning at the stake, she is baptized with holy water. Joan dies, suffocated by the flames. The fire is extinguished to control the body. They undress her, as proof of her femininity. Then, the fire is rekindled, and her body becomes ashes, blown away by the wind. The next day, her executioner confesses to the bishop: “I know that I have damned myself for having lit that fire”.
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Other articles by Asia include Lou von Salome and Interpretation of Illness around the World,
Carl Kruse can also be found on his tech blog at https://carlkruse.at.