Joan of Arc is considered a French heroine for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War, and has since been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint.
Our story begins when Joan was about thirteen years old, it was at about noon on a summer’s day and Joan was in her father’s garden when she heard her first voice. In her own words she describes having heard a ‘voice from God to help me to govern myself’. She was apparently visited by this celestial spectre many times before she decided it was the Archangel Michael. Her story then takes a Dickensian turn when Michael told her she would also be visited by two other righteous phantoms; Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. Sure enough the two spirits visited her. Joan had been told by the voice of Michael that she must believe and obey everything the spectres told her “for it is our Lord’s command”.
Joan reported that she continued to hear these voices counselling her for the next four years, guiding her in the mission to free her country from occupation. The female voices would instruct her on how to govern herself and primed her for ‘the greater mission’. Joan also confessed to having been visited, although not often, by the Angel Gabriel.
At the age of seventeen the tone of the voices turned to one of a more pernicious intent. The voice of Michael visited her more often and began outlining a scheme which involved the young Joan liberating her country. Joan’s response to the suggestion that she makes a militant life choice is not too dissimilar to the ‘virgin’ Mary’s response when she was told she was with child. Joan claimed that she was ‘a poor girl who knew nothing of riding and warfare’ just like Mary ‘knew not of man’. Joan came to the same natural conclusion we all would after four years of hearing conniving voices in our heads and that is that it must be the will of God. Joan said that if ‘God had commanded me to go, I must do it. And since God had commanded it, had I had a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers, and had I been a king’s daughter, I would have gone’. Yeah, alright luv.
Now, this is where we take a little step back and think about what we’ve just read. Just think about it. Someone hears multiple voices in their head; controlling their actions over a period of years which eventually climax with the demand, not suggestion, but demand, that they go out into the world with the purpose of killing a named group of people. Yes, there was already a war being waged and this order from on high was for her to join said war and liberate her country, but you can’t say that killing isn’t implied as a result of these actions. Hearing voices can point to mental health diagnoses such as psychosis, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Joan of Arc’s reports of hearing voices telling her to do things come just over 100 years before women were being wrongly accused by the church of the same thing, only they were being hunted and burnt at the stake for it instead of an entire country pandering to their ramblings. Whether you keep or remove the religious context of the voices in Joan’s head it is still a tad unsettling.
Joan’s situation reminds me of the Euthyphro Dilemma – a philosophical question which asks, ‘is something good because god wills it, or does god will it because it is good?’ This question on its own can be enough to addle the brain, but if you throw in a case like Joan’s it makes things a little harder. Things become even more complex when you start to also consider similar cases of divine voices such as that of Pedro Alonzo Lopez who was apprehended in 1980 for having raped and killed three-hundred young girls across South America. Pedro spent his time in prison professing his love for Jesus, reciting scripture, and carving the Lord’s likeness on any surface he could find. Lopez would praise God and thank him for bestowing this ‘great fortune’ upon him and claimed that killing these girls was ‘the work of the Lord’ and that Jesus himself had given him the power to give life and take it away. Similarly, Peter Sutcliffe “The Yorkshire Ripper” murdered thirteen women and said that he was ‘on a divine mission’ and that he had ‘heard the word of God’. You may think that these are a little extreme and nefarious comparisons to make, but they all have one thing in common, they all claim to have received the word of God instructing them to act, unkindly shall we say, toward one’s fellow man. Just because Joan of Arc went to war in the name of God and her country, does that condone her actions entirely and render her totally free from sin compared to Pedro and Peter? Neither does it declare her at completely sane. It’s worth a thought.
So, after receiving her heavenly orders Joan petitioned the local garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, for an armed guard to accompany her to the French Royal Court at Chinon. She gave the very convincing argument of, “I must be by the King’s side, there will be no help for the kingdom if not from me”. You can appreciate why the commander initially refused her plea, how can a young girl make such a claim. But he didn’t know that Jesus was her homeboy. Finally she was granted an escort and arrived at the Royal Court for an audience with Charles VII. Joan asked if she could tag along on the relief mission to Orléans, but not before she received full armour, a banner, a horse, and a sword – to help forcefully enlighten her enemy with the word of God.
Not long after her arrival in Orléans she managed to turn the well-established Anglo-French war, which started off as a bickering over the rightful ascension to the French throne, into a religious conflict. Charles’ advisers warned that unless Joan’s belief could be recognised without a doubt, and that she was neither a heretic nor a sorceress, then the allegation could be made that Charles’ crown was a gift from the devil. Remembering a quote from one of his favourite films, “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball”, Charles ordered a full inquiry and theological examination to confirm Joan’s moral standing – he can deal with losing a few more battles, but the accusation of his crown being fought for by an instrument of evil was much worse. In 1429 the inquiry declared Joan to be, ‘of irreproachable life, a good Christian, possessed with the virtues of humanity, honesty, and simplicity.’ Theologically speaking there was no evidence to support the claim of divine guidance, but at least her morals were sound (erm….ok).
In March 1430 there was a truce with England and Joan became bored from not getting what she wanted. She decided to occupy her time by dictating (because she was illiterate) threatening letters to the Hussites. The Hussites were a rebellious group who had broken away from the Catholic Church over one or two points of doctrine. They believed in such atrocities as freedom of preaching, Holy Communion in both forms (bread and wine), poverty of the clergy and the expropriation of church property, and punishment of notorious sinners. This group had come under numerous attacks and so far managed to defeat all crusades against them. Joan’s letter was warm and from the heart, she promised to, “Remove your madness and foul superstition, taking away either your heresy or your lives”. She also sent a letter to the English, which seems a little unrealistic in the terms she lays out. She demanded the English leave France, but that they also join forces with her and march on Bohemia to destroy the Hussites. The English did not respond. “new number, who this?”
Joan was a zealous Catholic who hated all forms of heresy and also Islam, not very nice if you ask me *religious extremism alarm bells ring in the distance* she sounds like a frenzied young lady, a true Christian, and full of the religious love known as Agapé (sarcasm intended).
Surprisingly, the truce with England came to an end. Joan hopped straight back on the militant bandwagon and traveled to Compiègne to defend the city against a siege of English and Burgundian troops. In 1430 she was part of a group who tried to attack the Burgundian camp at Margny, but unfortunately this preachy teenager and her friends were ambushed and captured, Joan agreed to surrender.
Joan remained in custody until her trial for heresy in 1431. The trial was offiated entirely by pro-English and Burgundian clerics and commanders including the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Warwick. Bishop Cauchon owed his position to his biased support of the English crown and under ecclesiastical law he lacked authority over the case. With minimal to no evidence against Joan the court had no grounds take her to trial, but they did so anyway. The court also broke a few more rules by not allowing impartial clergy to be in attendance (a requirement in heresy trials) and neither did they grant her legal counsel – perhaps they thought her seraphim advisor might show up to support her instead, but alas no such supernatural being appeared.
Trial records contain astonishing statements from Joan. Known to be illiterate and uneducated she somehow managed to escape the theological bear traps laid out before her; the most famous trap being a subtle one. When asked if she knew she was in God’s grace she gave the answer, “if I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” This seems like a simple question, but the scholarly trap lies in the reasoning that Church doctrine dictates that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If Joan had answered with a resounding yes, she would have been found guilty of heresy, and if she had said no, she would have confessed herself a liar.
The illiterate girl signed a document renouncing her claims under the threat of immediate execution. The court however were still not satisfied and wanted to obtain further justice. Heresy was a capital offence, but only for repeat offenders and therefore more fuel had to be added to the fire. Multiple offences of cross-dressing were added to the accusations, humorous considering the men at the time wore tights, elaborate tunics with enormously flared sleeves, and a Chaperon (type of hat) which was mega fancy. Joan had been wearing military clothing throughout her entire campaign and had reportedly been wearing the same clothing whilst in prison. She defended her wearing military clothing in prison through fear of being raped, a woman’s dress offered zero protection whereas her uniform enabled her to fasten her hosen and tunic together into one piece making access to her nether yaya. After signing her confession under the threat of execution she had briefly gone back to wearing women’s attire, but had reported that some of the prison guards had tried to molest her and went back to wearing military clothing. The court considered this a relapse of her cross-dressing heresy and added it to the list of offences. These accusations were later appealed when the court case was reviewed after the war. It states in the Summa Theologica by St Thomas Aquinas that necessity would be a permissible excuse for cross-dressing; this would include the use of clothing to protect oneself against rape.
Joan of Arc was found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. On 30th May 1431 she was tied to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marché in Rouen and burnt alive. Joan had requested that two clergymen stood before her and hold a crucifix. After her death the English cleared away the coals and debris to expose her scorched remains to eliminate any claims that she had escaped. Her body was then burnt twice more to prevent anyone from collecting any relics and her ashes were cast into the River Seine.
In 1456 Pope Callixtus III authorised an enquiry into the trial and officially declared Joan innocent and a martyr. In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte announced her as a national symbol of France and in 1920 she was canonized.
So, Saint Joan of Arc – French heroine, religious zealot, or fruit loop? You decide.