Joan of Arc: Visionary Leader or Ill Puppet?

Joan of Arc. Getty Images

Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, was a teenage French peasant who, claiming she heard divine voices, managed to persuade a desperate heir to the French throne to build a force around her. This defeated the English at the siege of Orléans. After seeing the heir crowned she was captured, tried and executed for heresy. A French icon, she was also known as La Pucelle, which has been translated into English as the Maid, but at the time had connotations to virginity. It is, however, entirely possible Joan was a mentally ill person used as a puppet for a short term success and then cast aside for the longer impact.

Context: The Hundred Years War

The Visions of a Peasant Girl

Charles was at first unsure of whether to admit her but, after a couple of days, he did. Dressed as a man she explained to Charles that God had sent her to both fight the English and see him crowned king at Rheims. This was the traditional location for the crowning of the French kings, but it was in English controlled territory and Charles remained uncrowned. Joan was only the latest in a line of female mystics claiming to bring messages from God, one of which had targeted Charles’ father, but Joan made a bigger impact. After an examination by theologians at Poitiers allied to Charles, who decided she was both sane and not a heretic – a very real danger for anyone claiming to receive messages from god – Charles decided she could try. After sending a letter demanding that the English hand over their conquests, Joan donned armour and set out for Orleans with the Duke of Alençon and an army.

The Maid of Orléans

This boosted the morale of Charles and his allies greatly. The army thus carried on, recapturing land and strongpoint from the English, even defeating an English force which had challenged them at Patay – albeit one smaller than the French – after Joan had again used her mystical visions to promise victory. The English reputation for martial invincibility was broken.

Rheims and the King of France

Capture

Trial

This wasn’t just a theological trial, although the church certainly wanted to reinforce their orthodoxy by proving that Joan wasn’t receiving messages from the God they themselves claimed the sole right to interpret, and her interrogators probably did genuinely believe she was a heretic. Politically, she had to be found guilty. The English said Henry VI’s claim on the French throne was approved by God, and Joan’s messages had to be false to keep the English justification. It was also hoped a guilty verdict would undermine Charles, who was already rumoured to be consorting with sorcerers, even though England held back from making explicit links in their propaganda.

Joan was found guilty and an appeal to the Pope refused. At first Joan signed a document of abjuration, accepting her guilt and coming back into the church, after which she was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, a few days later she changed her mind, saying that her voices had accused her of treason, and she was now found guilty of being a relapsed heretic. The church handed her over to secular English forces in Rouen, as was the custom, and she was executed by being burnt on May 30th. She was probably 19.

Aftermath

One thing is clear: her reputation has grown enormously since her death, becoming an embodiment of French consciousness, a figure to turn to in times of need. She is now seen as a vital, bright moment of hope in France’s history, whether her true achievements are overstated – as they often are -or not. France celebrates her with a national holiday on the second Sunday in May every year. However, historian Régine Pernoud added: “Prototype of the glorious military heroine, Joan is also prototype of the political prisoner, of the hostage, and of the victim of oppression.” (Pernoud, trans. Adams, Joan of Arc, Phoenix Press 1998, p. XIII)