Joan of Arc, who lived from 1412 to 1431, has been a source of fascination for over five hundred years. “There is no one like her,” Mary Gordon asserts as she begins her biography. “She may be the one person born before 1800, with the exception of Jesus Christ, that the average Westerner can name,” and most can even provide information about her—that she was French, wore men’s armor, led an army, and was burned at the stake. Gordon claims that Joan has been re-created by more well-known authors than any other figure—by William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Friedrich Schiller, Thomas De Quincey, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, and George Bernard Shaw, for example; in addition, films continue to be made about her. Gordon points out that while most of the books and films focus on some particular interpretation of Joan, her real fascination lies in the contradictions in her life, and “in the way that these contradictions did not end” with her death.
Joan was born in the village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle, now the province of Lorraine, France, in January (probably January 6), 1412. She was the fourth child and only daughter of a peasant father, Jacques d’Arc, and a religious mother, Isabelle, called Romée. France was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, a dynastic conflict with England that included the Burgundian faction in France siding with the English. Violence and pillaging repeatedly spilled over into small towns and rural areas. The church in Domrémy was burned and plundered by these marauders in 1425, the same year that Joan started having visions of angels and saints speaking to her. The Burgundy forces destroyed Joan’s family home in 1428. By half a year later, the visions and voices were telling her that she must make herself a soldier who would crown the king and save France. She accomplished the first two goals and perhaps in a sense (though posthumously) the third as well.
Telling her parents that she was going to help a relative who was nearing childbirth, she instead convinced a local lord to give her entrée to the court. She never saw her parents again. Somehow she convinced the dauphin, a boy who was the surviving eleventh son of the previous king and disputably his successor, to outfit her with armor so that she could lift the long English siege of the city of Orléans. Although like other peasant girls she was illiterate and had no experience in speaking in public, she attracted soldiers who responded to her inspiration and led them in battle successfully for a few months. The visions and voices she identified as St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret had told her she should crown the dauphin king, which she literally did, placing the crown on the head of Charles VII at Chinon. The hope was that he would become the king of a united France. Charles, however, was weak and unstable. He was personally extravagant but did not provide for troops. What money he had came from De la Tremoille, a duke who was never a friend to Joan. The troops began to desert for lack of pay and the successes ended. When Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English as a prisoner, no one, including King Charles, ventured to pay ransom for her return, as was custom.
Records of the notorious trial of Joan of Arc have survived. Joan was imprisoned for over a year, and the trial itself in Rouen, France, lasted for five months. Rather than a military or legal trial, it was an ecclesiastical trial conducted by the Roman Catholic Church’s inquisition and based on the presumption of heresy. The eager man in charge was Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, who was on the English and Burgundian side and who opposed everything else Joan stood for, especially her model of authority—mystical, individualistic, and female. Cauchon assembled for the trial one cardinal, six bishops, thirty-two doctors of theology, sixteen bachelors of theology, seven doctors of medicine, and one hundred other clergymen associates. Joan was the only woman present, and she had no one on her side but herself.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion, though certainly not a swift one. In true inquisition style, rather than bringing a set of charges against Joan, the authorities continuously questioned her and then twisted anything she said to claim that she had disobeyed the Church. At one point Joan managed to try to escape by jumping out a window to the ground sixty feet below. She was scarcely injured but was immediately recaptured, and the event was used as further evidence against her. Was she trying to commit suicide? A sin against Church teachings. Did she think she could escape? A sin of pride and a sin against the Church court. How could she escape injury? A sin of witchcraft. The charge of idolatrous...
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