Joan of Arc
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“”She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.
|—Mark Twain. Pretty high praise!|
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc in French) was a significant figure in French and western European history, a peasant girl who, at a young age, became both a military leader and a supposed prophet in Christianity, who was later executed, and then made a Catholic Saint roughly 500 years later. Her pivotal role in the Hundred Years' War has made her a significant historical figure, and her personal story has been impactful on culture within France and outside of it. She remains one of the most compelling female figures in Christianity, as well as secular history.
Due to her young age, her visions she claimed gave her prophecies, and her improbable knowledge of military strategy and religious laws of the time, some Christians (and even non-Christians) hold her up as an example of a truly supernatural prophetess. Others have pointed out that her visions can be explained by mental illness, such as epilepsy. Despite her cultural and historical impact, there is not a wealth of surviving evidence for what she was like privately, or even what she looked like (with no extant authentic portraits). As such, there are still many questions as to how she was able to accomplish what she did, which makes it fertile ground for bullshit pushers.
Despite this, Joan has somehow avoided being implicated as a member of the Illuminati or Order of Ancient Aliens, so maybe there is something miraculous about her. There are a variety of antiquated alternate theories about her of the slightly more mundane variety, however.
Most information about Joan comes from historical chronicles as well as trial documents. Joan was a peasant girl who was likely born in 1412 in the small town of Domrémy in northeastern France, and like most peasants of that time, was uneducated and illiterate. Her family was better off than most, actually owning the land that they tilled, but were still far from nobility. Joan grew up during the latter stage of the long and complicated Hundred Years' War, with Domrémy being loyal to the French crown despite being surrounded by hostile English and Burgundian forces. France had recently lost much of its territory and its armies were demoralized. Joan claimed she started seeing visions from various Catholic saints including the archangel Michael. These figures were apparently quite concerned about the political situation in France and England, because they told her to drive out the English and restore the French crown.
Leading an army
Around 1428, at the age of 16, Joan petitioned local leaders to take her to the King. Naturally, no one took her seriously, until she correctly predicted the outcome of a battle before scouts came to break the news. Convinced, the local garrison commander led her through hostile territory to get her to Royal court. It was during this time that she reportedly dressed as a male soldier to avoid suspicion. After impressing the King, Joan gained a religious following and a place in the army, although it was largely symbolic at first. She announced that she would deliver the besieged city of Orléans, and set off for the city.
Nine days after Joan arrived in Orléans in 1429, the siege there was lifted, and the French gained their first major military victory in 14 years. Afterward, Joan's role in the military expanded, giving strategic advice to top generals. While Joan was in this role, the French went on to win victory after victory in a short period of time, reversing many of the losses suffered by the French during the war. As Joan predicted, the King would be crowned in Reims after they took that city. A truce was signed with English and Burgundian forces in an attempt to stop the French from taking Paris, but it did not last long.
It should be noted that Joan was still a young girl, and was traumatised by what she saw on the battlefield. There are accounts of her breaking down and crying at the sight of dead men on the battlefield. The fact she kept going at all is miraculous in and of itself. She could also be ruthless on occasion, sometimes ordering prisoners executed. Then again, the English did it as well.
Capture, trial, and execution
When the war resumed, Joan resumed her role as a military leader, but was ambushed, captured, and eventually taken to the English city of Rouen and charged with heresy. The English really wanted to kill her, and broke pretty much every Catholic religious trial protocol. During questioning, Joan gave answers that astounded many of those in attendance, as she gave perfect answers to religious "trap" questions with seemingly no coaching or legal representation. Despite her navigating the church legal system like an expert, they still convicted her, based partially on her wearing men's clothing in the prison. In 1431, she was famously executed by being burned at the stake, a rather foolish move for Christians to make, considering the impact of another guy who was brutally executed for similar reasons.
Joan's execution became a rallying point for the French army, who would go on to capture almost all of what we now call France by 1453, largely expelling the English from mainland Europe. The Pope in Rome moved surprisingly fast in overturning her conviction, nullifying all charges placed against her in 1456. In an example of the Catholic Church not moving so fast, Joan of Arc would not be canonized as a saint until 1920, 489 years after she was executed. Better late than never? (Better, certainly, than canonizing Mother Teresa.)
If one is to take her story at face value, one would also have to wonder why God cared at all about the Hundred Years' War. Prior to Joan's entry, the war had no religious component, both sides were Catholics who largely believed the same things, and the central conflict was a hereditary dispute. It only makes more sense when you consider the prevailing contemporary belief of the divine right to rule: God would presumably care if the wrong king was running a given country, but not even very conservative modern Catholics believe in the divine right to rule.
For those looking for rational explanations for this improbable sequence of events, history only provides clues. She could have been a super smart prodigy who was able to uniquely navigate her draconian time period, or she could have been a religiously devout but mentally ill girl who was used and coached by those in power to be a symbol to improve morale. Perhaps she had good tactical instincts and a kindly French churchman coached her in case she should be captured and interrogated (though this seems out of character for the time). Historians have never been able to agree on a single interpretation of the events that satisfied all the evidence.
As with many historical figures who have claimed they have had "visions", the most reasonable explanation is they had them for the same reason people now have them: mental illness, or intoxication. Modern neurologists have pointed out that the descriptions of her visions at her trial most closely resemble those of a specific kind of epilepsy, though schizophrenia and other mental disorders are also plausible. There is also the possibility that she was simply lying about the visions and using them as a way to get the ear of those in power.
Like biblical prophecies, Joan's prophecies can be judged in a similar manner. Joan's first prophecy was about the French losing a military engagement in Rouvray, which was a town north of Orléans. While it was a relatively minor engagement, the French expected to overrun an English position to weaken the siege in Orléans, but despite outnumbering the English, the French were handed a defeat. Joan supposedly predicted this defeat days before messengers informed the garrison commander in Vaucouleurs of the loss. One could simply say it was a lucky guess; battles only have two outcomes and the French had lost quite a few battles recently, so predicting they would lose another was not a wild guess.
Her main prophecies were that Orléans would be won back by the French and that the empowered French king would be coronated officially in Reims, both of which happened. However, she played a personal role in both of those events, being present for the lifting of the siege in Orléans and then leading the army to take over Reims. While "calling her shot" is impressive, it does not count as prophecy.
|—Mark Burnett, producer of the TV series The Bible|
The name "Joan of Arc" is an erroneous Anglicization of "Jeanne d'Arc", because in French the prefix "d'" usually means "of" or "from". In Joan's case, however, d'Arc was simply her family name, there is no relevant place called "Arc" and it carries no religious meaning. Despite being illiterate, she could at least sign her name, and she spelled it "Jehanne". In any case, it is a feminine form of "John" in French, and is pronounced largely the same way as "John" in English.
Joan was a tomboy/lesbian/transgender
Joan is occasionally portrayed as being boyish, masculine, or even transgender, due to her cutting her hair and wearing male clothing at different times during her prominence. While this is true, she did so for practical reasons, likely due to the advice of those around her. Those describing her while she was with the French army, as well as those present at her trials, described her as demure and feminine, and wore feminine attire whenever there was no danger. Certainly, leading an army is not generally considered the most ladylike thing to do, but it's important to remember that she was a symbol and at most a strategist. She was famously quoted as having a preference for staying at home and had a penchant for sewing, weaving, and other more traditional "feminine" activities. As far as anyone knows, these tendencies were sincere and not just an act to make her seem more pious.
Joan was a warrior
Sometimes Joan is depicted or believed to have actually learned how to fight or participate actively in battles. While she did wear armor and occasionally carried a sword, she is mostly known for carrying the banner of the French army and being kept out of battle. There is no evidence to suggest she even used a sword, and armor simply made sense considering arrows and other ranged threats.
Joan as a feminist icon
Some attempt to paint Joan as an early, rare example of a young woman reaching prominence during a time when roles for women were very narrow. Like many women persecuted across history, she was falsely accused of heresy and even witchcraft for simply doing more than men of her time. While she is a somewhat rare female icon in medieval Christianity, Joan was truly impressive because she was a peasant; there were noble women who had direct involvement in the Hundred Years' War, along with many other wars in medieval Europe. Part of her success was that she was considered a proper, pious Christian girl; she never advocated for social reform when it came to women, and may have even reinforced the values of the time.
Joan of Arc woo?
Despite being fertile ground for all kinds of woo, not even the most creative among us have tried to make Joan the center of many modern theories. While there are some alternate and revisionist theories regarding Joan dating back centuries, most of them are antiquated, discredited, and haven't been brought up in some time. It might make some sense, since conspiracy theorists typically look to make a simple or mundane story more fantastic, whereas it's the opposite with Joan.
Revisionist and conspiracy theories
The oldest alternate theory, posed in 1805, was that Joan was secretly a royal bastard child, and had much more education and coaching than the historical accounts suggest. The theory relied on a number of things which have been proven to be bunk, making it venture into fractal wrongness territory. The theorist Pierre Caze claimed that the Queen conceived Joan with the Duke of Orléans, making Joan King Charles' half-sister. The girl was then hid away in a small village and secretly educated. When she met Charles, she gave him some kind of secret handshake, and he gave her a coat of arms that included the "baton of bastardy". Almost every step of this theory is wrong: it is almost impossible for the Queen to have conceived a child with the Duke in question, as he died only weeks after she had a (legitimate) son, and there was no baton of bastardy on Joan's actual crest given to her family. This theory is interesting only because it makes Joan of Arc sound like Luke Skywalker - along with some very classist undertones, because Heaven forbid a simple peasant girl could actually help defeat the manly nobles of the time!
A number of imposters claimed to have been Joan of Arc in the years after her execution, which had led some to believe that one of them, Claude des Armoises, was actually Joan of Arc who had survived. Claude did manage to fool many people during her act, including Joan's brothers, but she later admitted she was a fraud. Some have tried to claim that Claude was lying about lying, and really was Joan, who had survived because a substitute was put in her place. There is little evidence for this, and many eyewitnesses testified at Joan's retrial that it was her who was executed.
And of course, you will always have denialists who believe that Joan of Arc never actually existed, or her story was greatly exaggerated. While claims of the supernatural may be exaggerated, other basic facts about her life and deeds have enough historical basis to support them. There is one particularly amusing theory forwarded by certified bullshit-pusher Margaret Murray in 1921 that claims that Joan was actually a witch and the English were right to execute her. Murray is famous generally for claiming that the witch hunts were all justified.
As with many famous figures, magic or non-magic, there are a number of items that people claim to have been from Joan of Arc, including one museum that claims to have one of her bones (though tests show that it belongs to a mummy). Amazingly, the authentic d'Arc house Joan lived in is still standing in Domrémy-la-Pucelle in France, and an authentic statue of St. Maragaret from that time period has been kept by the nearby church that Joan very likely attended, so these things should not be considered woo outright.
Defender of French culture
The image of Joan of Arc sacrificing her life to rid France of immigrants has proved a very appealing one for the extreme-right Front National, who have decided to honor her memory each May 1st. This provides them with a convenient excuse to mount a counter-demonstration to the traditional International Workers' Day demonstrations and their evil international communist themes.
The Catholic church has reminded them repeatedly that
- Joan of Arc's official saint's day is not May 1st, and
- they don't have the authority to set the church calendar,
but those usually pious extremists have been busy ignoring them.
The story of Joan of Arc is one that has been frequently told and retold in various forms in more or less every kind of media possible. Her story is told by everyone from Shakespeare and Voltaire to Japanese anime and manga. How Joan is portrayed often depends upon if the author is either English or French, given how crucial her role was a conflict which is a key part of both countries history. Notably, Shakespeare’s portrayal is most unflattering. By contrast, France views her as a national hero and patron saint.
George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan, written in 1924, summarized what is known about Joan's life and death in a dramatic context, creating a juicy role that actresses have trampled each other to death for. Well, maybe not. But they've certainly relished playing the part ever since the play was first written. The film adaptation, written by Graham Greene and directed by Otto Preminger, was famous as the début of the American actress Jean Seberg. Ms. Seberg was burned twice — once in an accident on the set, and again by the critics when they saw her performance.
- Prime-Time Scripture by By Emma Allen (March 18, 2013) The New Yorker.
- Régine Pernoud (1982) Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, translated by Edward Hyams, Scarborough House, London