Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans, is one of the most iconic figures in Western folklore as a military heroine. Her brave actions allowed the French kingdom to resist the English invasion during the Hundred Years’ War. However, her short life was a turbulent and challenging one as it ended at 19 years of age after being politically prosecuted. Joan of Arc was a prominent historical and political figure in the French resistance after rising from a working farming family and becoming a symbol of French freedom, heritage, and feminism.
Joan of Arc was born in the French village of Domrémy in approximately 1412. Her family was farmers, politically affiliated with the French crown in a region that was primarily Burgundian during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan was considered to be illiterate. According to accounts, she began experiencing divine visions in early teenagerhood. As her village of Domrémy was in an area stronghold for the French, there was a garrison present nearby.
She attempted twice to gain the attention of the commander, rejected until she was able to predict an outcome of a battle before messengers arrived. Finally, with the persuasion of two captains who respected her determination and piety, Joan was allowed to join the garrison. Eventually, she convinced the captain to be allowed to travel to Chinon to see the Dauphin at the time, Charles (Vale and Lanhers).
Upon gaining an audience with Charles, Joan told him of the visions and begged him to allow her to lead his troops into battle against the English forces. She promised him a victory at Reims where he would be crowned. After questioned by allied theologians, Joan was entrusted to go into battle with the French troops and wrote letters of defiance to the English. In 1429, several hundred men set out for Orléans, a city that had been controlled by the English for over a year.
After initially falling back, Joan suddenly decided to attack the city. Arriving at an already ongoing skirmish, her bravery and leadership allowed the French to rapidly capture several vital strongholds in the area. It was the first major victory of the French army in 13 years as English forces were eventually pushed out of their base at the for of Les Tourelles (Vale and Lanhers).
Many saw the victory at Orléans as a sign that Joan of Arc was a messenger of God. She reunited with Charles and encouraged him to travel to Reims to be coronated. Several other minor battles were won to clear the path. The Dauphin was crowned, becoming King Charles VII. Joan famously kneeled before him, calling him king, and later recounted visions of light shining down upon the coronation. Joan began to encourage Charles VII to attack Paris which was under Burgundian control, setting up forces and strategies through small skirmishes as the French army drew closer to the city. The Paris attack was unsuccessful, and Joan was injured.
Although her reputation suffered a blow, she still served as an inspiration. Charles VII retreated and most of the army was disbanded for the time. Joan along with her brothers a small company of men traveled to various cities such as Bourges, Reims, and Brie to protect them from the re-engaged duke of Burgundy that sought to recapture territory (Vale and Lanhers).
Political Prosecution and Death
During a battle in Northern France in the town of Compiegne, Joan was inadvertently surrounded and captured during a nighttime siege. The Duke of Burgundy sold her as a prisoner to King Henry VI of England and she was jailed and trialed at Rouen, Normandy. A Catholic church tribunal led by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, an avid servant of Henry VI, was seeking to charge Joan on several religious crimes (Linder). From thirteen years of age, Joan of Arc reportedly experienced brief hallucinations, suggesting that she had partial epileptic seizures. She often referred to seeing and hearing Saint Michael guiding her actions. During her prosecution, at the Trial of Condemnation in 1431, this evidence was used extensively against her to convict her of witchcraft (Nicastro and Picard 1525).
A highly hostile and long trial persisted as Joan of Arc was accused of various absurd and politicized crimes such as murder, falsely presenting herself as a divine messenger, and dressing in male clothing which was prohibited by religious law at the time. There were other accusations such as witchcraft and crimes against God that were presented. Bishop Cauchon gathered a team of theologians and clergy to judge and create pressure on Joan, including the threat of torture and death.
Even though Joan was initially spared her life in exchange for public renunciation of her crimes, she continued to wear men’s clothing in protest of her imprisonment conditions. The tribunal saw her as a relapsed heretic and sentenced her to death (Grigat and Carrier 197). Joan of Arc continued to stand her ground, particularly regarding visions that she saw and was burned at stake in 1431 with her ashes thrown into the Seine.
Legacy and Iconic Status
Joan of Arc’s death was an inspiration and a symbol of martyrdom for the French forces. In 1435, King Charles was recognized as the legitimate ruler as a result of the Treaty of Arras and entered Paris. English forces were driven from France the next year. Joan was recognized as a public figure, and both the king and Pope Calixtus II issued orders to investigate the trials. In 1456, it was announced that the charges and trial were drafted fraudulently and maliciously, with evidence of corruption and vendetta, vindicating her posthumously. In 1920, the Roman Catholic Church publicly announced Joan of Arc as a saint, often considered to be a patron of the military and France (Linder).
Joan of Arc’s story became immortalized in myth and legend, establishing her as an iconic figure as a virgin warrior that defied the system. She became a hero of France, later becoming a national symbol on the orders of Napoleon himself. Her name is symbolic in the fight for freedom and enduring power, a consistent reference in works of classic literature and art, which further reaffirmed her cultural significance.
In the modern era, Joan of Arc is considered to be a strong feminist symbol for having the bravery to defy male-dominated rules and perceptions and demonstrating strength and equality against powerful men even when faced with death (Harrison). Joan de Arc is commonly believed to have significant moral and physical courage as well as being very logical and a strong leader, all characteristics which made her a prominent female visionary in history.
Through her bravery and actions in the military campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War Joan of Arc had become a symbol of the French resistance. Her life was complex and challenging as she faced backlash and political prosecution for her role in the military efforts, eventually executed at a young age on trumped-up charges. However, Joan of Arc eventually became a national hero and Catholic saint as a symbol of freedom and French heritage.
Grigat, Daniel, and Gregory Carrier. “Gender Transgression as Heresy: The Trial of Joan of Arc” Past Imperfect, vol. 13, 2007, pp. 247-250. Web.
Harrison, Kathryn. “Joan of Arc: Enduring Power.” The New York Times. 2012. Web.
Linder, Douglas O. “The Trial of Joan of Arc.” UMKC Law, 2017. Web.
Nicastro, Nicolas, and Fabienne Picard. “Joan of Arc: Sanctity, Witchcraft or Epilepsy?” Epilepsy & Behavior, vol. 57, no. B, 2016, pp. 247-250. Web.
Vale, Malcolm G. A., and Yvonne Lanhers. ” Saint Joan of Arc.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. Web.