Joan of Arc

  • Author: Kathryn Harrison
  • Published: 2014

The story of the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, France’s beloved cross-dressing, schizophrenic war hero, has been told and retold thousands of times. The trove of books, articles, papers and artwork inspired by her can scarcely be counted. The intrigue surrounding her brief and tumultuous life is no surprise - the more you know of her story, the more fascinating she becomes. She was a galloping clash of ideas. The very church that burnt her at the stake later canonized her into sainthood. She was a revolutionary in a time of massive societal control. A free thinking religious zealot. A virgin who slept and fought alongside thousands of men. A battle hardened warrior prone to bursts of tears. A poor farm girl who lectured kings and generals. And perhaps most scandalous of all in medieval France - a woman who cut her hair short and dressed like a man. 

Joan has been used as a standard bearer for hundreds of different groups, each one highlighting the aspect of her persona that suits their needs and often discarding the contradictory details. One can imagine her image stenciled into a stained-glass church window, gazing down at her mirror image, emblazoned upon a LGBTQ protest flag in the streets below. Each portrayal, that of the saint or the firebrand, is far less interesting than the whole. In Joan of Arc, A Life Transfigured, Kathryn Harrison skillfully rescues Joan from an afterlife of superficial symbolism. Harrison dives deep into the historical record, but also sprinkles in descriptions and excerpts from some of the more famous plays and films of Joan’s life. The result is a satisfying blend of fact and impact. A clear-eyed purview of who Joan really was, and how she became “one of the greatest heroines in human history.

Born on a small farm in the quiet village of Domrémy in the northeast of France, Joan showed from an early age that she was different than the other children. At the time of her birth in 1412, “France had not only endured seventy-five years of enemy occupation but also devolved into civil war, as the pragmatic Burgundians, assuming the inevitability of English rule, had allied themselves with their presumptive conquerers. Plagues and famines haunted the land, reducing the oppressed French peasants to a life of misery and toil. “Without science to provide the countervailing wisdom that weather patterns explain drought and famine, or identify the oriental rat flea, as the disease vector of bubonic plague, the church became the unquestionable authority on what afflicted their people: sin. The French, as it was well known to the people of the time, were suffering the wrath of a God incensed at their lack of devotion and piety. It became “bad form to praise the world and life openly, for joyous indulgence in life’s pleasures was the very reason God had decided to punish his people. It was a dark time in a dark land. But the stage was set for a redeemer.

As a girl Joan held almost no interest in games and songs. She instead followed the example of her pious mother, and became obsessed with the catholic church and its teachings. While other children were goofing off in the fields, Joan was often kneeling in a dilapidated old church. With hands clasped and eyes shut tight, she would pray for hours, listening intently for the word of God. Given the stultifying nature of such a routine, it’s not surprising she eventually heard it. The voices came to her from on high, deceased saints speaking for God, telling her that she was to be the liberator of her people and the savior of France in its long running war against the English. Joan was now an instrument of God, and answered only to him. 

There had long been a prophesy in France about a virgin, “la pucelle”, who would one day miraculously appear and save the people from their oppressors. Whether Joan consciously or subconciously chose to inhabit this role is up for debate, but as part of her mission she took a strict vow of chastity. This vow became the very source of her power, providing Joan with an unbreakable shield from the charges of licentiousness and harlotry that were hurled at any woman who attempted to rise above her station. In an age when “something so little as an unwed girl’s poking her head out of a window might be interpreted as evidence of promiscuity” Harris writes, it allowed her to subvert a power system based entirely on purity and fidelity to God. Throughout her life Joan even submitted to several “inspections” by her enemies and accusers to prove that her genitals were unspoiled by wicked urges. Joan’s chastity now became a dangerous weapon, inspiring the populace and unnerving a church that held a monopoly on all contact with the almighty. 

The story of la pucelle and her visions spread like wildfire. Joan’s voices instructed her to support Charles VII, the disinherited son of the French King Charles VI, who suffered bouts of madness and had turned the monarchy over to Henry V of England. It was now Joan’s mission to reinstate Charles VII as the true king of France, recover his lost territory, and hold his coronation at Reims, the traditional crowning site for the kings of France. Joan quickly collected an array of patrons and supporters, and these Dukes and noblemen outfitted her with armor, bodyguards and horses. But it was an army Joan wanted, and she went to King Charles to get it. After speaking with Charles away from the prying eyes of the court, eyewitnesses testified that “by all accounts the chronically indecisive and ineffectual dauphin emerged from the private audience radiating optimism and confidence, suddenly appearing as a man capable of rule.” Joan herself never disclosed what transpired between her and the king, not even to save her life. But the sheer intensity of her belief inspired thousands, so it’s easy to see how she was able to convince an exiled king in need of a miracle, that she was it. The uncrowned king sent Joan to Orlean’s, a strategic French city upon the Loire river that was currently under siege by the English. It became the watershed battle of the Hundred Years War. Joan rode with the cavalry, “a medieval army’s assault troops, under a banner of white and gold. Her presence amongst her troops exciting them to a “giddy bloodlust.”  The city was theirs in three hours. This victory followed several more and soon the Loire River was back under French control. In each battle Joan rode into battle with the bravery of a woman possessed, inspiring her soldiers to follow her into the din of war like an angel at the gates of hell. Between all the bloodshed Joan could often be found wailing for the dead, chastising her men for any boorish behavior, and firing off missives to the English threatening more slaughter to come. With her victories secure, Joan marched to Rheims, were the dauphin Charles, with Joan at his side, was finally consecrated as King of France. The quick fulfillment of Joan’s promise to the king remains stunning to this day. 

Having accomplished her goal, Joan’s troops began to disperse, leaving her weakened and restless. With no immediate enemies to vanquish, Joan became obsessed with recapturing Paris. “With or without a sizable army or adequate entourage, she retained the reputation of a sorceress who bent the odds of battle. Harris writes. Her enemies began circling. Despite her diminished resources, Joan continued to make war upon the Burgundian-English forces. At Compiègne, she charged headlong into an ambush and was captured by Burgundian soldiers. They soon turned her over to the English, and she was put on trial by the pro-English Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who was looking to fill his purse and burnish his reputation amongst the English elite. 

As daring and bold as Joan was in battle, her performance during her trial was perhaps her greatest feat of all. “Some sixty assessors, of whom at least forty attended each day of the trial’s public sessions, were drawn from the pro-English University of Paris. All summoned were required to sit in judgement: none could abstain from offering his opinion. The few brave enough to raise objections became immediate cautionary tales. Spies were sent to Domrémy to try and dig up dirt. Endless question and answer sessions sapped Joan of her strength, of which there was little considering the abysmal prison conditions she was kept in. Assessors would interrupt her answers and each other, shout complicated questions at her, and in general verbally assault her for hours on end. Several times Joan had to chastise her interrogators with shouts of “My dear lords, please take your turns!”  Through it all she remained defiant, articulate, sarcastic and impossibly composed. Some of the assessors complained about the exhaustion they experienced each day following their participation in an inquisition that “proceeded in an atmosphere of ‘the greatest tumult". The point of the trial was to discredit Joan as thoroughly as possible. To prove her voices were nothing more than blasphemy, sorcery or both. Although they were unable to charge her with witchcraft after a duchess of the court confirmed her virginity, they instead focused intensely on her decision to wear male clothes and cut her hair, deriding these acts as an affront to God. To hurry things along the court considered torture, and gave her a tour of a torture chamber as a means of intimidation. Joan’s remarkable resolve can be best captured by her reply at the beginning of the trial as to whether or not she would answer all questions truthfully. “You may ask me such things,” Joan said, “that to some I shall answer truly, and to others I shall not… If you were well informed about me, you would wish me to be out of your hands. I have done nothing except by revelation.

With her health failing her the court sped to its conclusion, and announcing that Joan’s beliefs were evil, and that she had strayed from the faith. She was burned at the stake in front of tens of thousands in the city of Rouen, at the age of nineteen. Her body was then burnt twice more to reduce it to ash, in order to prevent the collection of any keepsakes or relics. Soon thereafter the alliance between the English and the Burgundians dissolved, “significantly undermining Henry V’s claim to his throne.” 

By 1453,” Harris writes, “the Hundred Years War was over. Had Joan lived to see what she had prophesied, she would have been forty-one years old.” After the war ended, the church conducted a posthumous retrial of Joan, where a panel of theologians pronounced Joan a martyr, and convicted Pierre Cauchon of heresy for “having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. He was excommunicated posthumously by the Pope.

Kathryn Harris chronicles the stirring life of Joan of Arc with a clarity and purpose often missing from her narrative. Hers is a classic work of non-fiction, providing readers with the true story, while also honoring portrayals of Joan by countless artists and writers, illustrating how her tale has long echoed down the halls of history. This technique can at times slow the pace of Harris’ prose, but nevertheless provides a unique mixture of history and legend, without ever confusing the two. Joan’s story remains a galvanizing force for millions. Harris herself best captures why Joan still captivates us today: “The tension between truth and fiction continues to quicken Joan’s biography, for a story, like a language, is alive only for as long as it changes. Latin is dead. Joan lives.