Joan of Arc was a peasant girl from a small village in France. Yet, 600 years later, Joan has better name recognition than the reigning monarchs and religious leaders of her time. She only lived to be 19 years old before her gruesome execution. Her renown was not entirely posthumous. Joan held the stature of a mythological figure even in her own lifetime.
There was nothing to distinguish Joan from her peers except for her exceptional piety by all contemporary accounts. She began hearing voices and having visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. (Now, we’d likely call Joan a schizophrenic, but back then. the term was “visionary.”)
These voices instructed Joan to help King Charles boot the English from France, who controlled and claimed sovereignty over a large portion of the country. The voices and visions were so frequent and persistent that 16-year-old Joan was convinced that God intended her to deliver France from the hands of English tyranny. She decided to schlep to Chinon to let the King in on God’s plan for freeing France.
When she shared her intentions with her parents, they tried to dissuade her, brushing off her visions as nothing more than vivid dreams produced by an over-active imagination. But Joan was all fired up(no pun intended) and hit the road. She was welcomed with kindness by Charles VII when she arrived in Chinon.
Her calm, matter-of-fact manner obviously made an impression on her sovereign. She told the King she would see him crowned at Rheims, as God had sent her to liberate Orleans. After conferring with his nobles, Charles gave Joan of Arc the OK to head an army of 5,000 against the English at Orleans.
I am woman — hear me roar.
Joan dressed the part of a warrior — she cut off her hair, dressed like a dude, and donned battle armor. But she knew that looking like a soldier and acting like one were two different things. She told her voices that she “knew not how to ride or lead in war.”
Yet somehow, she led an exhausted and ill-equipped French army to a series of stunning victories on the instructions of the voices of the saints, earning her the nickname the “Maid of Orleans.”
Charles was crowned King of France at Rheims, and Joan was present to see it happen. After the coronation, Joan asked leave of her king to return home to her family. But Charles wanted her to hang around awhile, as there were still some pesky English lurking about. This made Joan major uneasy. Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret had all bounced, so Joan was no longer hearing voices and didn’t know diddle about warfare herself.
But you don’t say no to your King.
When Joan was leading a battle against the Duke of Burgundy, she was taken prisoner and sold to the English. She languished in a dank prison cell for over a year until an ecclesiastical court put her on trial for witchcraft and sorcery. The court had to at least make a show of having just cause to bump her off. Joan dressing in men’s clothing seemed as good a just cause as any, so they ran with that.
Ironically enough, her refusal to renounce the voices that led France to victory was also used as proof that the Devil was at work within her. And the King that owed her his throne, Charles VII, didn’t lift a finger to save Joan during her trial. There’s gratitude for you.
Joan of Arc was sentenced to execution by burning at the stake, which was carried out on May 30, 1431, at the marketplace in Rouen. A sympathetic English soldier hastily made a small wooden cross for her that she placed in the front of her dress. Two clergymen held up a couple more crosses so she could fix her gaze on them as she passed from this world to the next.
A rather farcical posthumous retrial was held in 1456. Joan was declared innocent of all charges, an epic example of too little too late. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920 (Our bad. Here’s a sainthood for ya), almost 500 years after her death.
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