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Apr 29 The Visions of Joan of Arc

Today the fascinating figure of Joan of Arc broke the siege of Orleans in 1429 and possibly delivered France from English domination. A young illiterate peasant girl whose visions drove her to access the corridors of power and win the trust of a beleaguered King. What was the historical context and how did she do it? How was she captured in the end? What happened at her trial and why did the Pope overturn it 40 years later? Was she mad - and how can we assess that? She has since been declared a saint and is still an icon for France.


Historians, now talk about the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Covering a period that lasting from 1337 to 1453 but this really was a series of conflicts rather than a contiguous war specifically between the House of Lancaster and the House of Valois over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. This period can be seen as the apex of the age of chivalry and the start of its decline. As a result of these conflicts we also see the development of stronger national identities in both England and France, although scholars frequently place the beginning of nationalism in the late 18th century or early 19th century with the American Declaration of Independence or with the French Revolution.

One of the most fascinating characters to emerge from this period was a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans, who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory. With no military training, she famously led a French force to break the siege of Orleans. It was a time of decline for France after the reign of ‘Charles the Mad’. His insanity had left a power vacuum which the English were keen to exploit. Joan claimed to have received visions of the archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII, the son of the dead insane King, who was still unanointed as King and in a weak position. Joan's claims to have received a vision from Catherine, famous for dying in the fifth century on the Catherine wheel, is particularly interesting. Catherine was famous for speaking truth to power, rebuking the emperor Maxentius for his cruelty and persecution of Christians. So fearless and impressive was she, that the emperor had summoned 50 of the best philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine won the debate. Mirroring Catherine, Joan of Arc managed to access the corridors of power, an unlikely achievement for a teenage peasant girl, and even more incredibly convinced Charles to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans. There under her leadership it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their local allies, the Burgundians.

By the time Joan of Arc began to influence events nearly all of northern France and some parts of the southwest were under Anglo-Burgundian control. The English controlled Paris and Rouen and had been conducting a siege of Orléans, one of the few remaining cities still loyal to Charles. Strategically this was a crucial town, and it is possible that on the fate of Orléans hung that of the entire kingdom. For generations, there had been prophecies in France which promised the nation would be saved by a virgin from the "borders of Lorraine who would work miracles" and "that France will be lost by a woman and shall thereafter be restored by a virgin". The second prophecy predicting France would be "lost" by a woman was taken to refer to Isabeau's role in signing the Treaty of Troyes. People were still waiting for the first, and Joan was able to exploit this climate of expectation. However, after Joan’s unlikely victory at Orleans, she would be ambushed and captured by the English in just over a year. Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle she made several escape attempts, on one occasion jumping from her 21 m tower, landing on the soft earth of a dry moat. The English moved Joan to the city of Rouen, their main headquarters in France. The Armagnacs attempted to rescue her several times by launching military campaigns toward Rouen before her execution. After she had been put on trial and killed for the curious charge of cross dressing, Charles VII threatened to "exact vengeance" upon "the English and women of England" in retaliation for their treatment of Joan.

The Trial was politically motivated and has been discredited by historians, but the records give us an interesting insight into inquisitorial processes. Joan was tried for heresy by an eccliastical court overseen by a French Bishop Cauchon. Undoubtedly compromised, as he who his appointment to his partisan support of the English Crown, which had financed the trial. The low standard of evidence used in the trial violated inquisitorial rules. The threats to theological experts, and the domination of the trial by a secular government, were violations of the Church's rules and undermined the basic right of the Church to conduct heresy trials without secular interference. Under Inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of female guards (i.e., nuns). Instead, the English kept her in a secular prison guarded by their own soldiers. The Vice-Inquisitor of Northern France (Jean Lemaitre) objected to the trial at its outset, and several eyewitnesses later said he was forced to cooperate after the English threatened his life.

The trial record contains statements from Joan that the eyewitnesses later said astonished the court, since she was an illiterate peasant and yet was able to evade the theological pitfalls, the tribunal had set up to entrap her. The transcript's most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety: "Asked if she knew she was in God's grace, she answered, 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.'" The question was a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God's grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have been charged with heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Bishop Cauchon denied Joan's appeals to the Pope, which should have stopped his proceeding.