Joan of Arc – Seer, Soldier, Leader of Men, Martyr

(1412-1431)

In a little farm-yard hard by the village of Domremy, ia Lorraine, a peasant maid of some sixteen years was wont to sit and sew or knit on pleasant afternoons when she was not out in the meadows herding the sheep. Not unlike her fellows was this petite bergerette, this little shepherdess. Blue-skirted, bare-legged, shod with great wooden shoes, she was just a little French villager. Like her fellows, she was fair, straight-limbed, hardy as a boy. Unlike them, she had the two gifts of imagination and faith and who has these gifts may go far.

The time was one of peril to France — or rather to the warring factions into which France had been broken. Charles VII should have been king, but was so hard pressed by foes that he could not enter Rheims to be anointed with the holy oil of consecration as had been the custom of centuries. The troops of Henry V of England were on French soil, and in their project to make Henry VI, then a boyish English prince, king of France, had the aid of powerful Frenchmen such as the Duke of Burgundy. His soldiers sometimes would sweep through quiet little Domremy frightening the peaceful peasants and rifling their homes. In the quiet of her garden the girl, Jeanne, the villagers called her, sometimes Jeanne d’Arc, for her father Jacques had come from Arc, a neighboring hamlet, would sit and think over the disordered state of France that set loose these swash-buckling soldiers on peaceful folk. She could not read nor write, could Jeanne (or Joan, as we of the English tongue call her), but she could imagine the young king kept out of his coronation city, and the invading British making ready to divide France up among themselves.

One day as she sat among the flowers, with the buzzing of the bees and the soft tones of the distant church bells in the air, there seemed to her to be a great shining light in the air, bright as the summer afternoon already was. And out of the light spake a voice saying, “Jeanne, sois bonne et sage enfant: va souvent d I’eglise” — “Joan, be a good, wise girl; go often to church.” Not a very original or stirring message to come from a supernatm-al brightness on a summer’s day, but she held it the voice of an angel and felt herself in touch with the Most High. Other manifestations appeared in later days until at last came a winged warrior, wearing a crown, who told her the story of her country’s woes and said, “Joan, it is you who shall give the King of France back his kingdom.” She knew this knightly visitor for Saint Michael, as she says, “after he had instructed her and shown her many things.” Moreover, a stained glass window in the church showed the saint in all his trappings and the vision took that form.

With silence the heavenly visitor heard her plead that she was but a simple, ignorant village maiden unfit to undertake so great a task. Commending her to the Captain of Vaucoulexirs for earthly aid, and to the spiritual guidance of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine, the vision vanished.

That is the simple story of the beginning of the most marvelous and almost the most pathetic career that history has recorded for us. It is the story as told and lived by its central figure, the girl Joan of Arc, later called the Maid of Orleans, and in time known to all Frenchmen as the Maid {la Pucelle) as though in all the land she were the only one. For nearly four years the visions were constantly with her. When at last she mustered courage to tell her parents she was roundly ridiculed, and, as she persisted, they called the parish priest to drive out the devils that possessed her, just as in our day we would have summoned a doctor to test her sanity. In time she prevailed on her uncle to tell her story to the Captain of Vaucouleurs while she awaited nearby the summons she was safe would come. But the captain’s response was a burst of coarse laughter and the advice, “box her ears and send her home.”

Her faith was imitated. It was of the sort that will move mountains. Before long she silenced the ridicule of the valiant captain and had found an escort to take her to the king. Her story had become widely known and the inhabitants of Vaucouleurs bought for her a boy’s traveling suit and a horse, while Baudricourt gave her a sword. Thus caparisoned, with a knight on either hand and a small guard of soldiers who alternately thought her a saint and a devil, she set forth for Chinon to find the dauphin whom she was determined to make king.

That prince awaited her coming with mingled emotions. His counselors differed widely. Some thought the girl either mad or indeed an instrument of Beelzebub. But the case of France was desperate and even so frail a weapon as this peasant maid was not to be lightly rejected. In the end the dauphin consented to receive her, but before her arrival removed all insignia of his rank and took station among the gentlemen of his covut. “If she be of God,” thought he, “she will come direct to the only one having royal blood.” And the maid in her travel-stained boy’s dress walked straight through the richly garbed throng and falling on one knee before him said, “Gentle Prince, God give you new life.”

“But there is the king over yonder,” said Charles, thinking to put her still further to the test. “By my God, gracious prince,” responded Joan, “you are the king and none other.” And therewith she told him that she had come to open the way whereby he might be crowned and consecrated at Rheims.

Still harried by doubt, the king sent her to Poitiers that she might be questioned by the learned clergy of the University. One of these asked for a proof, a sign that she could win mighty victories. “By my God,” again she swore, “it is not to Poitiers I have been sent to give signs; take me to Orleans with as few soldiers as you please. The sign I am to give is the raising of the siege.”

In the end her faith and persistence triumphed. She was given armor, a standard, a body guard and put in command of a portion of the army. The armor was of silvery white in token of her purity, but she wore no bonnet and her girlish head crowned with fair hair was a more glorious orifianune than any white plimae of Navarre. In a vision she was told that a sword lay in a tomb near the high altar of Saint Catherine’s church. That saint was her patron — the sword must be hers. So the tomb was opened and the sword found. Duly cleaned and in a scabbard of crimson velvet broidered with the lilies of France, it was hung by her side. Her standard was of white, sprinkled with the fleur-de-lys and bearing a golden figure of the Christ with adoring angels on either hand.

Strictly she held to her belief that hers was a holy war and should be waged in Godly wise. Stout old Oliver Cromwell long afterward discovered that God- fearing men made the best soldiers, but the Maid of Orleans anticipated him. Her soldiers believed in her and while she led no curse nor blasphemy rose from the ranks. Cards, dice and the implements of the sorcery practiced in that superstitious age disappeared from the camps. Priests and exhorters followed the army. Never did the churches so resound with the clash of arms; never were the confessionals so crowded with suppliants for forgiveness.

The first point in Joan’s campaign was Orleans. In it the Bastard of Orleans, called Dunois, lay sore besieged by the English and nearly out of food. Joan accomplished the revictualing and re-enforcement of the city, and challenged the English to battle. They for a time held back. But one night as the maid lay sleeping she suddenly awoke. “Arm me! Arm me!” she cried to her astonished squire, “I am commanded to attack the enemy. Great God, the blood of France is flowing! Why did you not call me sooner?” Her retinue amazed, for no alarm had reached them, fitted her for the field, and faring forth, she found the armies engaged. Her presence inspired the French and they beat back the English. And she fought. Hers was no empty parade of leadership. In one sortie she received an arrow full in the shoulder, the barbed shaft standing out behind a hand’s breadth. At the moment she was placing a ladder against the rampart, but the shock of the wound bore her to the ground, seeing which, the English rushed out to capture her. A valiant French knight bestrode her body, battle axe in hand, beating back the foe and calling to his fellows to return.

In the end Joan was rescued and taken to the rear, where her wound was dressed. She wept at the sight of blood, but shed fewer tears than she was wont to let fall by the litters of her wounded soldiers. The crimson flow was scarcely stanched when she caught up her silken banner with the golden lilies and made again into the hurtling storm of arrows and of javelins. Up and over the wall the assailants went “as if it had been a stair,” wrote one witness, and the day was won. In eight days the English destroyed their works and retreated and the long siege was ended.

This was Joan’s first triumph and she had trouble enough in getting opportunity for another. The king was idle, pleasure-loving, indifferent to the progress of the war so long as the gayety of his court, carefully established far from the battlefields, was unabridged. Joan pleaded for action and cried with prophetic truth, “I shall only last a year; take the good of me as long as it is possible.” Bedford, whom the English had named regent of France, wrote home that his disasters were “caused in great part by the fatal faith and vain fear that the French had of a servant of the Enemy of Man, called the Maid, who used many false enchantments and witchcraft, by which not only is the number of our soldiers diminished, but their courage marvelously beaten down and the boldness of our enemies increased.”

At last the king set out for Rheims. On the journey a band of the Domremy villagers came to see their petite Jeanne pass, and marveled much at her shining armor and prancing charger.

“Hast thou no fear of arrow or bullet?” asked one.

“I fear naught save treason,” replied Jeanne with fatal foresight.

In the great gray church of Notre Dame at Rheims, Charles was crowned with due pomp and ceremony. To him the great and haughty bowed low, but about Joan the soldiers clustered, kissing her standard, and women and little children flocked about reverently touching the hem of her garment. At the end she knelt before Charles. “O gentle King!” said she, “now the will of God is accomplished. He commanded me to lead you to Rheims to receive your crown. Behold, you are King, and France will become subject to your sway.”

With tears she now begged to be sent home, but the king thought her presence with the army too useful and he refused. Loyally she took up her task again, but no longer with that implicit faith that had worked such marvels. Omens of ill befell her. In endeavor- ing to save a peasant girl from the violence of some soldiers she broke the sword of St. Catherine. The king again became indolent, lolling in the pleasures of dissipation. In an attack on one of the gates of Paris she was wounded and her troops suffered a bloody-defeat. Her enemies even set up a rival “inspired maid” to supplant her. In the face of so much evil she laid her armor and battle axe on the tomb of Saint Denis in the cathedral and sought to retire, but was coaxed back by the king and generals. In a few weeks, abandoned by her men in an assault at Compeigne, she was taken by the enemy.

Great was the exultation of the English. From their joy one might have thought they had conquered all France. Abysmal was the woe of the French people — though the court hardly seemed to share it. In great cities public prayers and processions were organized for her deliverance. At Tours the people marched barefoot through the streets, with streaming eyes, chanting the Miserere. Gloom enveloped the land and the poor bitterly accused the lords and generals with having betrayed the holy Virgin who had been sent by God. The court of Charles VII was singularly indifferent to the Maid’s fate. She was entitled to ransom, but none was offered, and she passed from hand to hand among her captors until at last the Inquisition of Paris demanded her that she be tried for witchcraft.

Once in the hands of the Inquisition, Joan’s life was one continued torture. She was beset by spies, surrounded by cross-examiners, guarded by soldiers who did not confine their brutality to obscene words, but actually resorted to violence to do her evil. At Beaurevoir, having a measure of freedom, she threw herself from the top of a tower, but escaped death. Thereafter she was more closely guarded and three soldiers slept in her chamber. She wore male clothes for protection, and this was construed by her judges as a sin. Then she donned women’s raiment and it was promptly stolen. Finally she was placed like a wild beast in an iron cage, and at times was chained upright to its bars by ankles, wrists and neck.

Pale from long imprisonment, clad in her worn boy’s suit, she faced the inquisitors. The story of that girlish soul upon the monastic rack cannot be told here. When they had failed to wrest from her any confession of witchcraft, any repudiation of her story of the voices in the garden, they led her out into the cemetery and showed her the towering scaffold and the stake at which she had to die unless she abjured her faith. Weakness came upon her as it might upon any girl confronted with so gruesome a sight and, as the recording clerk noted it, “at the end of the sentence, Jeanne, fearing the fire, said she would obey the church.” And later in her cell the persecuting bishop extorted from her the admission that her beloved and revered voices had lied to her. But later in open court she most pitifully but bravely repudiated these recantations.

To the stake they sent her on a bright May day in 1431. In a cemetery back of the church de Saint Ouen, at Rouen, a spot now called the Place de La Pucelle, they had reared the scaffold and piled the fagots about the sinister stake. Thither was the Maid brought in a cart, the populace silent or tearful, held in check by the English soldiery. Though she had been tried and condemned by the French clergy, the English, under the implacable Lord Warwick, executed the sentence with open glee. No crucifix was given her until in response to her appeals an English soldier bound two twigs together in the form of a cross and handed it to her. But as the fire rose the monk Isambert, one sympathetic soul among her executioners, ran to the neighboring church and bringing the processional cross held it high above smoke and flames that her eyes might rest upon it.

About the girlish figure, clad in spotless white, the flames rose and crackled. Out of the miu-k and the noise came a cry, “My voices were of God. They did not deceive me!” And after this last brave reiteration of her faith her soul passed away while her lips formed the word, “Jesus, Jesus.”

An Enghsh cardinal caused her ashes to be scattered upon the Seine that France might be purged of this heretic. But to-day the girl who there suffered is esteemed a saint and the saviour of France, while the cardinal’s own land unites with the world in revering her memory.

- text taken from the “Joan of Arc” chapter of Notable Women of History, by Willis J Abbot, 1912