IX. JOAN OF ARC: 1412–31

In 1422 the repudiated son of Charles VI had himself proclaimed king as Charles VII. In her desolation France looked to him for help, and fell into deeper despair. This timid, listless, heedless youth of twenty hardly credited his own proclamation, and probably shared the doubts of Frenchmen as to the legitimacy of his birth. Fouquet’s portrait of him shows a sad and homely face, pockets under the eyes, and an overreaching nose. He was fearfully religious, heard three Masses daily, and allowed no canonical hour to pass without reciting its appointed prayers. In the intervals he attended to a long succession of mistresses, and begot twelve children upon his virtuous wife. He pawned his jewels, and most of the clothes from his back, to finance resistance to England, but he had no stomach for war, and left the struggle to his ministers and his generals. Neither were they enthusiastic or alert; they quarreled jealously among themselves—all but the faithful Jean Dunois, the natural son of Louis, Duke of Orléans. When the English moved south to lay siege to that city (1428), no concerted action was taken to resist them, and disorder was the order of the day. Orléans lay at a bend in the Loire; if it fell, all the south, now hesitantly loyal to Charles VII, would join the north to make France an English colony. North and south alike watched the siege, and prayed for a miracle.

Even the distant village of Domremy, half asleep by the Meuse on the eastern border of France, followed the struggle with patriotic and religious passion. The peasants there were fully medieval in faith and sentiment; they lived from nature but in the supernatural; they were sure that spirits dwelled in the surrounding air, and many women vowed that they had seen and talked with them. Men as well as women there, as generally throughout rural France, thought of the English as devils who hid their tails in their coattails. Someday, said a prophecy current in the village, God would send a pucelle, a virgin maid, to save France from these demons, and end the long Satanic reign of war.60 The wife of the mayor of Domremy whispered these hopes to her goddaughter Joan.

Joan’s father, Jacques d’Arc, was a prosperous farmer, and probably gave no mind to such tales. Joan was noted among these pious people for her piety; she was fond of going to church, confessed regularly and fervently, and busied herself with parochial charities. In her little garden the fowls and the birds ate from her hand. One day, when she had been fasting, she thought she saw a strange light over her head, and that she heard a voice saying, “Jeanne, be a good obedient child. Go often to church.”61 She was then (1424) in her thirteenth year; perhaps some physiological changes mystified her at this most impressionable time. During the next five years her “voices”—as she called the apparitions—spoke many counsels to her, until at last it seemed to her that the Archangel Michael himself commanded her: “Go to the succor of the King of France, and thou shalt restore his kingdom.... Go to M. Baudricourt, captain at Vaucouleurs, and he will conduct thee to the King.” And at another time the voice said: “Daughter of God, thou shalt lead the Dauphin to Reims that he may there receive worthily his anointing” and coronation. For until Charles should be anointed by the Church, France would doubt his divine right to rule; but if the holy oil should be poured upon his head France would unite behind him and be saved.

After a long and troubled hesitation Joan revealed her visions to her parents. Her father was shocked at the thought of an innocent girl undertaking so fantastic a mission; rather than permit it, he said, he would drown her with his own hands.62 To further restrain her he persuaded a young villager to announce that she had promised him her hand in marriage. She denied it; and to preserve the virginity that she had pledged to her saints, as well as to obey their command, she fled to an uncle, and prevailed upon him to take her to Vaucouleurs (1429). There Captain Baudricourt advised the uncle to give the seventeen-year-old girl a good spanking, and to restore her to her parents; but when Joan forced her way into his presence, and firmly declared that she had been sent by God to help King Charles save Orléans, the bluff commandant melted, and, even while thinking her charmed by devils, sent to Chinon to ask the King’s pleasure. Royal permission came; Baudricourt gave the Maid a sword, the people of Vaucouleurs bought her a horse, and six soldiers agreed to guide her on the long and perilous journey across France to Chinon. Perhaps to discourage male advances, to facilitate riding, and to win acceptance by generals and troops, she donned a masculine and military garb—jerkin, doublet, hose, gaiters, spurs—and cut her hair like a boy’s. She rode serene and confident through towns that vacillated between fearing her as a witch and worshiping her as a saint.

After traveling 450 miles in eleven days she came to the King and his council. Though his poor raiment gave no sign of royalty, Joan (we are told—for how could legend keep its hands from her history?) singled him out at once, and greeted him courteously: “God send you long life, gentle Dauphin.... My name is Jeanne la Pucelle. The King of Heaven speaks to you through me, and says that you shall be anointed and crowned at Reims, and be lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is King of France.” A priest who now became the Maid’s chaplain said later that in private she assured the King of his legitimate birth. Some have thought that from her first meeting with Charles she accepted the clergy as the rightful interpreters of her voices, and followed their lead in her counsel to the King; through her the bishops might displace the generals in forming the royal policies.63 Still doubtful, Charles sent her to Poitiers to be examined by pundits there. They found no evil in her. They commissioned some women to inquire into her virginity, and on that delicate point too they were satisfied. For, like the Maid, they held that a special privilege belonged to virgins as the instruments and messengers of God.

Dunois, in Orléans, had assured the garrison that God would soon send someone to their aid. Hearing of Joan, he half believed his hopes, and pleaded with the court to send her to him at once. They consented, gave her a black horse, clothed her in white armor, put in her hand a white banner embroidered with the fleur-de-lis of France, and dispatched her to Dunois with a numerous escort bearing provisions for the besieged. It was not hard to find entry to the city (April 29, 1429); the English had not surrounded it entirely, but had divided their two or three thousand men (less than the Orléans garrison) among a dozen forts at strategic points in the environs. The people of Orléans hailed Joan as the Virgin incarnate, followed her trustfully even into dangerous places, accompanied her to church, prayed when she prayed, wept when she wept. At her command the soldiers gave up their mistresses, and struggled to express themselves without profanity; one of their leaders, La Hire, found this impossible, and received from Joan a dispensation to swear by his baton. It was this Gascon condottiere who uttered the famous prayer: “Sire God, I beg Thee to do for La Hire what he would do for Thee wert Thou a captain and La Hire were God.” 64

Joan sent a letter to Talbot, the English commander, proposing that both armies should unite as brothers and proceed to Palestine to redeem the Holy Land from the Turks; Talbot thought that this exceeded his commission. Some days later a part of the garrison, without informing Dunois or Joan, issued beyond the walls and attacked one of the British bastions. The English fought well, the French retreated; but Dunois and Joan, having heard the commotion, rode up and bade their men renew the assault; it succeeded, and the English abandoned their position. On the morrow the French attacked two other forts and took them, the Maid being in the thick of the fight. In the second encounter an arrow pierced her shoulder; when the wound had been dressed she returned to the fray. Meanwhile the sturdy cannon of Guillaume Duisy hurled upon the English fortress of Les Tourelles balls weighing 120 pounds each. Joan was spared the sight of the victorious French slaughtering 500 Englishmen when that stronghold fell. Talbot concluded that his forces were inadequate for the siege, and withdrew them to the north (May 8). All France rejoiced, seeing in the “Maid of Orléans” the hand of God; but the English denounced her as a sorceress, and vowed to take her alive or dead.

On the day after her triumph Joan set out to meet the King, who was advancing from Chinon. He greeted her with a kiss, and accepted her plan to march through France to Reims, though this meant passing through hostile terrain. His army encountered English forces at Meung, Beaugency, and Patay, and won decisive victories, tarnished with vengeful massacres that horrified the Maid. Seeing a French soldier slay an English prisoner, she dismounted, held the dying man’s head in her hands, comforted him, and sent for a confessor. On July 15 the King entered Reims, and on the seventeenth he was anointed and crowned with awesome ceremonies in the majestic cathedral. Jacques d’Arc, coming up from Domrémy, saw his daughter, still in her male attire, riding in splendor through the religious capital of France. He did not neglect the occasion, but through her intercession secured a remission of taxes for his village. For a passing spell Joan considered her mission accomplished, and thought, “If it would please God that I might go and tend sheep with my sister and brother.” 65

But the fever of battle had entered her blood. Acclaimed as inspired and holy by half of France, she almost forgot now to be a saint, and became a warrior. She was strict with her soldiers, scolded them lovingly, and deprived them of the consolations that all soldiers hold as their due; and when she found two prostitutes accompanying them she drew her sword and struck one so manfully that the blade broke and the woman died.66 She followed the King and his army in an attack upon Paris, which was still held by the English; she was in the van in clearing the first foss; approaching the second, she was struck in the thigh by an arrow, but remained to cheer on the troops. Their assault failed, they suffered 1,500 casualties, and cursed her for thinking that a prayer could silence a gun; this had not been their experience. Some Frenchwomen, who had jealously waited for her first reverse, censured her for leading an assault on the feast of the Virgin’s birth (September 8, 1429). She retired with her detachment to Compiègne. Besieged there by Burgundians allied with the English, she bravely led a sally, which was repulsed; she was the last to retreat, and found the gates of the town closed before she could reach them. She was dragged from her horse, and was taken as a captive to John of Luxembourg (May 24, 1430). Sir John lodged her honorably in his castles at Beaulieu and Beaurevoir.

His good fortune brought him a dangerous dilemma. His sovereign, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, demanded the precious prize; the English urged Sir John to surrender her to them, hoping that her ignominious execution would break the charm that had so heartened the French. Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who had been driven from his diocese for supporting the English, was sent by them to Philip with powers and funds to negotiate the transfer of the Maid to British authority, and was promised the archbishopric of Rouen as the reward of his success. The Duke of Bedford, controlling the University of Paris, induced its pundits to advise Philip to hand over Joan, as a possible sorceress and heretic, to Cauchon as the ecclesiastical head of the region in which she had been captured. When these arguments were rejected, Cauchon offered to Philip and John a bribe of 10,000 gold crowns ($250,000?). This too proving inadequate, the English government laid an embargo on all exports to the Low Countries. Flanders, the richest source of the Duke’s revenue, faced bankruptcy. John, over the entreaties of his wife, and Philip, despite his Good name, finally accepted the bribe and surrendered the Maid to Cauchon, who took her to Rouen. There, though formally a prisoner of the Inquisition, she was placed under English guard in the tower of a castle held by the Earl of Warwick as the governor of Rouen. Shackles were put on her feet, and a chain was fastened around her waist and bound to a beam.

Her trial began on February 21,1431, and continued till May 30. Cauchon presided, one of his canons served as prosecutor, a Dominican monk represented the Inquisition, and some forty men learned in theology and law were added to the panel. The charge was heresy. To check the monstrous regiment of magic-mongers that infested Europe, the Church had made the claim to divine inspiration a heresy punishable with death. Witches were being burned for pretending to supernatural powers; and it was a common opinion, among churchmen and laymen, that those who made such claims might actually have received supernatural powers from the Devil. Some of Joan’s jurors seem to have believed this in her case. In their judgment her refusal to acknowledge that the authority of the Church, as the vicar of Christ on earth, could override that of her “voices” proved her a sorceress. This became the opinion of the majority of the court.67 Nevertheless they were moved by the guileless simplicity of her answers, by her evident piety and chastity; they were men, and seem at times to have felt a great pity for this girl of nineteen, so obviously the prey of English fear. “The king of England,” said Warwick, with soldierly candor, “has paid dearly for her; he would not on any consideration whatever have her die a natural death.” 68 Some jurors argued that the matter should be laid before the pope—which would free her and the court from English power. Joan expressed a desire to be sent to him, but drew a firm distinction that ruined her: she would acknowledge his supreme authority in matters of faith, but as concerned what she had done in obedience to her voices she would own no judge but God Himself. The judges agreed that this was heresy. Weakened by months of questioning, she was persuaded to sign a retraction; but when she found that this still left her condemned to lifelong imprisonment within English jurisdiction, she revoked her retraction. English soldiers surrounded the court, and threatened the lives of the judges if the Maid should escape burning. On May 31 a few of the judges convened, and sentenced her to death.

That very morning the faggots were piled high in the market place of Rouen. Two platforms were placed near by—one for Cardinal Winchester of England and his prelates, another for Cauchon and the judges; and 800 British troops stood on guard. The Maid was brought in on a cart, accompanied by an Augustinian monk, Isambart, who befriended her to the last, at peril to his life. She asked for a crucifix; an English soldier handed her one that he had fashioned from two sticks; she accepted it, but called also for a crucifix blessed by the Church; and Isambart prevailed upon the officials to bring her one from the church of Saint Sauveur. The soldiers grumbled at the delay, for it was now noon. “Do you intend us to dine here?” their captain asked. His men snatched her from the hands of the priests, and led her to the stake. Isambart held up a crucifix before her, and a Dominican monk mounted the pyre with her. The faggots were lighted, and the flames rose about her feet. Seeing the Dominican still beside her, she urged him to descend to safety. She invoked her voices, her saints, the Archangel Michael, and Christ, and was consumed in agony. A secretary to the English king anticipated the verdict of history: “We are lost,” he cried; “we have burned a saint.”

In 1455 Pope Calixtus III, at the behest of Charles VII, ordered a reexamination of the evidence upon which Joan had been condemned; and in 1456 (France being now victorious) the verdict of 1431 was, by the ecclesiastical court of review, declared unjust and void. In 1920 Benedict XV numbered the Maid of Orléans among the saints of the Church.

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