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Joan of Arc

Women warriors in the pre-modern world were rare. Some led armies when their husbands were dead, imprisoned, or otherwise occupied; others defended cities, fortifications, and even islands from attack and sieges. But only one rose from peasantry to lead her kingdom’s armies, Joan of Arc. Her military career lasted only a year, but it was an extraordinary year for an extraordinary woman.

Joan of Arc painting. Woman in armour carruing a banner and sword

Joan of Arc was born in the small village of Domrémy, in the northeast of France, what was then the county of Bar and soon to be controlled by the duchy of Burgundy (allies to the English from 1418). Historians have placed her birthdate at 1412, although it was never recorded at the time. (During her trial in 1431 Joan said she thought she was about 19.) Testimonies of those who knew her as a child claimed she had a close family – mother, father, three brothers, and possibly a sister (the sources are vague on the latter). Joan was not an odd, or even a special child to others in the village. They recalled that she was particularly devoted to Christianity – her priest was forced to instruct the young Joan that she did not need to confess every day – but that she also participated in the village’s traditions, even those that originated in a pre-Christian past.

Around the age of 13 Joan started to hear voices. In the grove of trees in between her house and the church – visible still today, although the trees have needed to be replaced more than once in the ensuing centuries. These voices, of many saints, ensured Joan that she was on the right path, but that a ‘mission’ was in her future.

That mission came in 1428, when Joan of Arc was 16 or 17 years old. She testified later that her voices revealed a two-fold mission: raise the English siege of Orléans, which had just begun; and see the French dauphin (heir) crowned as king. Later, her confessor, Seguin Seguin, testified that her voices added two more missions: recapture Paris, then held by the Anglo-Burgundians; and gain the release of Charles, the duke of Orléans, who was captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and had been held in England ever since. That she accomplished those she testified to but not those later remembered by her confessor has called the additional missions into question.

Joan was confident and persistent. She convinced her uncle to take her to Robert de Baudricourt, the leader of the nearby town of Vaucouleurs. Baudricourt and Vaucouleurs had a special credibility with the French as the town and its leader had declared themselves for the dauphin, despite being deep in Burgundian territory. Initially Joan was turned down. But she returned, and this time convinced Baudricourt. A few weeks later she was at Chinon Castle on the Loire River in the very presence of the dauphin. He tried to prove that she was a charlatan with what was essentially a parlor trick: switching clothes with an underling. Joan did not fall for it; instead, she told Charles that God wanted him to be king.

All rulers want God’s approval. Yet Charles wasn’t entirely satisfied, and he made Joan take more tests – including ascertaining her virginity – before he allow her to join the French soldiers attempting to relieve the siege of Orléans. The troops and the citizens were exuberant at her arrival. Rumors had been circulating for weeks of a savior’s appearance – they knew she was a peasant woman, but their faith was strong. When she entered the city, passing an English force without any hindrance, the Orléanais surrounded her, believing that they were in the presence of a living saint; even touching her horse would bless them.

The French military leaders there were less enthusiastic. Confident in her mission, on 5 May 1429 she would reprimand them for excluding her from their planning meeting: Lord Dunois, the leader of French forces at Orléans, later testified that Joan of Arc threatened that, were they to exclude her again, she would surely have ‘their heads’, to which he said that ‘he did not doubt that.’

But Joan did not have the patience to wait for the French generals to like her. So the next morning she took matters into her own hands, leading an attack of the fortified bridgehead, the Tourelles, and the earth-and-wood fortification (called a boulevard) filled with gunners and archers that had been built in front of it. Joan claimed she was first up the wall, carrying the banner filled with religious symbolism that she had recently fashioned. The fighting was intense, and then it stopped. Joan had been wounded – shot between the neck and shoulder. She was taken back to camp and the battle stopped.

Miraculously, at least to contemporary sources, Joan of Arc woke up early the next morning and the conflict resumed. The French rallied behind her, and the English were quickly defeated. Now the French military leaders were impressed. Within 5 weeks the rest of the occupied towns along the Loire had returned to French control, and the French had thoroughly defeated the English army at the battle of Patay.

One mission down, one to go. Orléans was relieved, but the dauphin had not been crowned – and the land between the Loire and Reims, the historical site for all French crownings since Hugh Capet in 987, was held by the enemy. The large towns of Auxerre, Troyes, and Reims fell quickly and bloodlessly – their garrisons having fled – and the French, army, its size growing daily, rode into Reims unimpeded. On 17 July 1429 Charles VII was crowned king of France. Joan stood in armour next to him.

And that was about it.

From Reims she took the army to Paris and prepared an attack. But it would not come until 8 September, and then it didn’t last more than a day. Joan was again wounded, and this time she would not recover so quickly. Her third mission, if Seguin Seguin was correct, was a failure.

Her wound had healed by October, and Joan wanted to return to the action. However, she was sent by the king to fight a mercenary leader, Perrinet Gressart, who had carved himself a little ‘kingdom’ by playing the English and French and Burgundians against each other. Although Joan had only served as a general in the French army previously, against Gressart she was the general. But she was poorly supplied. An unfortified village, Saint-Pierre-le-Moutier, fell, but the mercenaries’ headquarters, La Charité, did not. Joan wrote to every French town nearby pleading for food, cannons, and gunpowder. One of these letters survives, signed by Joan herself (only two signatures exist), but none of her letters brought results. She had to retreat.

She was kept at court, ennobled by the king between Christmas and New Years, but largely as a mascot. Several towns that had declared themselves for the French king were under attack by the English and the Burgundians. But Charles would not let her to join their fight. One day she just left, her escape not recounted in the sources. Joan of Arc ended up among the defenders of Compiègne where, after a couple of months of fighting with them, on 23 May 1430, she was captured.

Her trial in Rouen was a travesty. The English wanted her tried by the Catholic Church: undoubtedly being defeated by a heretic was better than being defeated by a peasant girl. Of course she was found guilty. On 30 May 1431 her judges tied her to a stake and burned her to death. The place can still be seen today, outside of a church built following her sainthood in 1920.

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