Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
(Jehanne d’Arc)
(ca. 1412–1431)
   Joan of Arc, also called the Maid of Orléans, was a peasant girl who became a national heroine and the patron saint of France. At a crucial period of the Hundred Years’War, she led the French resistance to English invaders and turned the tide of the war. A mystic visionary, Joan was ultimately captured and imprisoned by the English and condemned by an ecclesiastical court to be burned at the stake in 1431. She was 19 years old. The France of Joan’s youth was torn by civil war. The Treaty of Troyes (1422) had recognized the claim of England’s Henry V to the French throne, and his heir, supported by the duke of Burgundy, was accepted as king in all parts of France controlled by England and Burgundy. The dauphin Charles, last heir of the Valois line, had no rights under the treaty but was supported by the Armagnac party, and controlled part of France south of the Loire River.
   Joan was born into a peasant family in the village of Domrémy in Lorraine about 1412. By the age of 13 she began to hear what she described as her “voices,”whom she later identified as the Archangel Michael and Saints Catherine and Margaret. Over the next few years these voices urged Joan to find an escort to the dauphin, from whom she was to receive an army and drive the English out of France. She resisted the voices until 1428, when she first approached the Armagnac captain Robert de Baudricourt at nearby Vaucouleurs. Baudricourt refused her at first, but her persistence finally convinced him to give her an armed escort to the dauphin’s court at Chinon in February 1429. By then the English had laid siege to Orléans, the strategic gateway across the Loire into the dauphin’s territory.
   When Joan met the dauphin, she was able to convince him of her divine mission (some say by relating to him a private prayer he had made to God). After having her examined by a group of clerics and advisers at Poitiers to ensure her orthodoxy, Charles gave her titular command of an army. She was given armor and her own banner (reading “Jesus, Mary”), and brought to the army at Blois, 35 miles southwest of Orléans. She is said to have expelled prostitutes and forced her men to go to confession, give up foul language, and swear to refrain from looting civilians. Her army lifted the siege of Orléans on May 8, 1429, and pushed on to victories in several other cities to arrive at Rheims, where, in accordance with tradition, the dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France on July 17. After the coronation Joan begged the king to deliver Paris from the English, but Charles was uninterested, preoccupied with trying to negotiate peace with Burgundy.While Joan was fighting on the outskirts of Paris, the king withdrew his forces, and Joan spent a restless winter at court. In May Burgundy renewed the war, laying siege to Compiègne. Determined to help, Joan led a small army of additional troops into the city on May 23. That afternoon she led a sortie outside the city and was ambushed by Burgundian troops. Staying in the rear guard, Joan was trapped outside when the gates of the city were prematurely closed, and was captured. Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, refused to ransom her and sold her to the English for 10,000 francs. Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais and a longtime supporter of the Anglo-Burgundian party, was charged with organizing an ecclesiastical court in Rouen (deep in English territory) to try Joan for witchcraft and heresy. Yet against inquisitorial custom, she was held in an English military prison with male guards, a situation that put her in constant danger of rape.
   Joan’s trial lasted five months, and is well documented, including her often witty and confident replies to her interrogators. Ultimately, however, threatened with execution and torture, she signed a document abjuring her voices on May 24, and assumed female attire as the court directed her. But by May 28, condemned to perpetual imprisonment, she had resumed her male clothing and recanted her abjuration. She was immediately considered “relapsed” by members of the tribunal. She had a quick “Relapse Trial”May 28–29 and was convicted of “idolatry” for her cross-dressing, and of refusal to submit to the authority of the church, and on May 30, 1431, was turned over to the secular English authorities and burned at the stake at Rouen as a relapsed heretic.
   Peace was concluded between France and Burgundy in 1435, and in 1436, the Armagnacs recovered Paris. They regained Rouen in 1449, and early in 1450, King Charles initiated an investigation into Joan’s trial and condemnation. The church began its own inquiry into Joan’s trial in 1452. In 1453, the Hundred Years’War ended, and in 1455, a rehabilitation trial opened for Joan. In 1456, the Inquisition announced her rehabilitation at Rouen, in a document read publicly declaring her trial to have been tainted with fraud and errors of law, therefore rendering the Condemnation Trial null and void. Her innocence was proclaimed and her good name restored. In 1920, Joan was canonized, and her feast day, July 10, declared a national holiday in France. She remains the only figure in history ever to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.
   Joan has been of particular interest to literary scholars for a number of reasons. Her mystic “voices” have invited comparisons between her and other, more literary, female mystics of the late medieval period, like JULIAN OF NORWICH and Margery KEMPE. Further, Joan was the subject of CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’s last poem, Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc. Written while Christine, an ardent Armagnac partisan, was sheltered at the abbey of Poissy, the poem is the only literary text written about Joan during her lifetime. Composed two weeks after Charles VII’s coronation, it displays unbridled optimism, and sees Joan as the contemporary embodiment of the examples of courageous women Christine provided in her BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES. A host of later writers turned to Joan’s life for inspiration:Maligned in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Pt. 1, she fares better in the hands of Voltaire, Friedrich Schiller,Mark Twain, Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, and Bernard Shaw. In addition the text of her trial itself has recently been read as a literary text in its own right (for instance, in Sullivan 1999).
   ■ Astell, Ann, and Bonnie Wheeler, eds. Joan of Arc and Spirituality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
   ■ Fraioli, Deborah A. Joan of Arc: The Early Debate. London: Boydell and Brewer, 2002.
   ■ Gordon,Mary. Joan of Arc. Penguin Lives. New York: Viking, 2000.
   ■ Margolis,Nadia. Joan of Arc in History, Literature, and Film: A Select, Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990.
   ■ Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc: By Herself and Witnesses. Translated by Edward Hyams. Lanham, Md.: Scarborough House, 1982.
   ■ Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
   ■ Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism. New York: Knopf, 1981.
   ■ Wheeler, Bonnie, and Charles T.Wood, eds. Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc. The New Middle Ages 2. New York: Garland, 1996.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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