joy & moxie

From History

Stranger than Fiction Pt 3: Joan of Arc

Author’s Note: I presented a version of this piece at the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on October 3, 2015 as part of an alumni panel. I’ve divided it into four parts and edited it for the blogosphere. This is part 3. Enjoy!

A pin once worn by little Adelaide Harlow (Pike).

There is no greater legend than that of Joan of Arc, or in French, Jehanne d’Arc. Six-hundred years after her birth, her story has been retold countless times – on the stage, in films, in masterpieces, in books upon books upon books – from Shakespeare to Mark Twain. She was a symbol of French national pride, sainted in the 20th century.  I have a pin my great-grandmother Adelaide wore as a little girl, made from an old commemorative coin. Over a hundred years old, I am quite proud of it.

One can even find her image in England, the land of her enemies, at Winchester Cathedral, immortalized in stone.


Joan of Arc at Winchester Cathedral.

If Catherine, Called Birdy’s world was imperfect, Joan’s was a tinderbox. In 1429, France had already been torn apart in skirmishes between the English and French, each with complicated claims to French territory. Joan grew up in Domremy, a village on the tempestuous border between English-allied Burgundy and France. England had dominated the field of battle for a decade, and France was slowly  succumbing. This is a side of the Middle Ages we don’t like to see: the utter waste, the burning fields, violent sieges of entire cities, and an uncrowned king hiding in the last safe corner of his realm.

It might as well have been the end of the world.

Joan of Arc entered my life about the same time as Star Wars. (I am a child of the 1997 revival.) I was instantly taken with the idea of the Jedi Knights fighting a noble war against a deep-rooted evil. It might as well have been Joan’s war: in a time of hopelessness, the most unlikely hero – or heroine – brings about a massive change in the hearts of a people.


Joan’s only contemporary portrait was a sketch in the margin of the register of one Clément de Fauquembergue in Paris. He must have just heard of Joan’s victory at Orleans in the spring of 1429, stopped what he was doing and took the time to imagine her.

There isn’t time in this piece to carefully sift through every facet of her story, but I will say this: the most important thing about Joan of Arc is that she battled for control of her own narrative in a time when women were primarily silent and submissive. It was a battle to the death.

Joan’s chosen counsel were her Voices. The Archangel Michael and Saints Catherine and Margaret were a direct, irresistible link to God’s will. Whatever our speculations on what those voices might have been, Joan fully believed in them, and her belief gave her power. She answered to an authority higher than any warring king, higher even than the Church itself, which would later prove dangerous. It was the Voices who propelled her on her journey in the first place, advising her to be good, go to Mass often and remain a virgin. Their influence was strong enough to convince an otherwise obedient daughter to abandon her family, dissolve a pre-marriage contract (no small feat for a young woman in that age), and to make her way across France to see Charles, the king.  Her mission sounds impossible: she didn’t know how to ride a horse, much less lead an army of men. How could she? She was a girl who spun with her mother and herded cattle. But she went, the king saw hope, and the rest is history.

She was the spokeswoman of God, of France, and France’s king. She called herself The Maid, and made a lasting impression through the letters she dictated, such as this one:

King of England, and you, Duke of Bedford, who call yourself regent of the Kingdom of France… acknowledge the summons of the King of Heaven. Render to the Maid here sent by God the king of Heaven, the keys of all the good towns which you have taken and violated in France. She is here by God’s will to reclaim the blood-royal. She is ready to make peace if you will acknowledge her to be right, provided that France you render, and pay for having held it. And you archers, champions of war, men-at-arms and others who are before the town of Orleans, go away into your country, by God! And if so be not done, expect news of the Maid who will come to see you shortly, to your very great injury. King of England, if (you) do not so, I am chief-of-war and in whatever place I meet your people in France, I will make them quit it, will or nil. And if they will not obey, I will have them all slain. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you, body for body, out of France. And if they will obey I will be merciful to them… If you will not believe the news conveyed by God and the Maid, in that place soever we find you, we shall strike into it and there make such great hahay that none so great has been heard in France for a thousand years, if you yield not to right…

This was no shrinking violet. (“Hahay” indicates a great clamor. The bold & red emphasis is mine.)

No shrinking violet. “Jeanne chasse les prostituées de l’armée”

This is one of my favorite illustrations of Joan: the Maid chasing prostitutes out of camp and away from her soldiers. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I once read that she broke a sword doing so. She was adamant that her soldiers not sully themselves, attend Mass and refrain from swearing. This is part of a series of miniatures in the “Vigils du roi Charles VII”, created in the 15th c. and probably within decades of her death.

The Maid was armored like a knight and had a sword (several, actually), and she rode into battle, seated on a white horse, in unadorned armor. Her primary function was not to kill but to lead, shout encouragement, to propel the men forward, holding high her pure white standard. She was an honorary chief de guerre, but unmistakably a force of sheer nerve at the center of the action, taking her share of arrows. She had a natural gift for positioning artillery and for contending with her generals. She was not merely a mascot or a lunatic in armor.

Her days on the battlefield numbered little more than a year when she was captured by Burgundian soldiers in 1430. When she learned that Burgundy was selling her to the English, she climbed the tower of her castle prison at Beaurevoir and fell seventy feet to the ground below. She survived the fall unscathed.

The English tried her for heresy and sundry evil deeds – primarily the wearing of men’s clothing. The trial was grueling. She was beaten, enchained, and interrogated for hours on end. She was bombarded with difficult and contradictory questions, and harassed if her answers were unsatisfactory. A lesser person might have imploded, blamed others for her fate, or submitted, but she endured the testing of her character for four months. She would not swear the oaths asked of her. She cleverly and cynically evaded questions she could not answer. They denied her the Eucharist. They tied her to a wooden stake. They threatened her with torture. She held firm. The records, even biased against her, cannot hide the fact that she was mistress of her own story. In her eyes and by the strength of her statements, she was not a heretic but a messenger.

She never strayed from her conscience.

It was only “for fear of fire” that she signed an abjuration (a formal statement of rejection), which she could not read, to relinquish male clothing and to submit to the authority of the church. Days later, she recanted, and was condemned to burn. In burning Joan, the English-allied church hoped to weaken the resolve of France’s newly resurrected spirit and delegitimize Charles VII’s claims to power. It didn’t matter that they’d fixed the trial against an innocent person. It was politics, it was hate, and they had the power.

Joan of Arc’s Execution, Jules Janin illustration. Under public domain.

Though rushed into the fire without an official execution order and made to suffer long, Joan was in control of her story in her last moments. She asked to see a crucifix. She prayed to God, to the saints who had guided her, to Jesus Christ. She screamed for them and fell silent. A witness said “We have burnt a saint.” The injustice horrified both the French and English present.

A heretic, an apostate, a vile idolatress would not have called for her God with her dying breath.

Her story is so complicated, so nuanced, so mysterious, because it is a story that results from the great stew of many stories – some that celebrate her, some that vilify her and some that seek to understand her. In navigating through this briar patch, a writer must tread carefully and with the utmost respect for the silences of the past. I will never know the whole truth about Joan. The mysteries she took with her – her Voices, her miraculous signs, her feelings – cannot be recovered. But they don’t have to be.

I don’t want to fill in every gap. I want to learn what I can from the silence, and what it says about her courage, her dignity and her faith. It is only natural, then, that Joan of Arc lives on in my characters – those who muster their courage in dark, starless worlds.

Don’t be surprised if she appears in further posts!

Click here to read Stranger than Fiction Pt 4: Oxford & Elsewhere.

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