Portrait of Jeanne d’Arc
When Joan of Arc was three years old, in October 1415, Henry V of England defeated the French army at the Battle of Agincourt. The scene was set for the life and tragedy of the Maid of Orléans when the Burgundians recognized Henry V as the legal heir to the French throne in place of Charles VII, the Dauphin.
Imagine a young girl growing up in a remote part of Eastern France. The region remains loyal to the Dauphin even though the surrounding area is predominantly occupied by Burgundians. One day, when she is twelve years old, she is in the fields, and, out of nowhere, she has a vision of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret telling her to be pious and go to church regularly. They are so beautiful that when they leave she weeps. But the visions keep returning and, by the time she is sixteen years old, they are urging her to dress in men’s clothing, and drive the English and Burgundians out of France.
In our empirical age, when we feel the need to have events explained and quantified, Joan’s visions present an awkward case, and there have been attempts to diagnose them as epilepsy or even schizophrenia. But the records from the time don’t suggest illness or madness. Whether she was persuading the king or holding her own against learned theologians, her deportment and demeanor earned their respect.
In October 1428, Orléans, which was the last major stronghold of the Dauphin, was besieged by the English. After three attempts Joan was finally given permission to go with an escort to meet with the Dauphin in the city of Chinon. She dressed as a male for the journey, partly for disguise but also for protection against sexual abuse, and she referred to herself as Jeanne La Pucelle, Joan the Virgin. She and her escort spent eleven days on the road, and, after another delay of two days, she was admitted to an audience with the Dauphin. The outcome of this meeting was that the Dauphin agreed to let Joan of Arc lead his army.
Again, one wants to step back and look at the situation through modern eyes. What on earth would make the king entrust his army to an illiterate farm girl who claimed to hear voices? One account is that she convinced him to take her seriously by telling him, in detail, about his private prayer asking God’s help in his cause. Whatever truth there is in that, there is no doubt that the military and the country were defeated and demoralized by this time. Every rational attempt had been tried, and giving Joan control of the army may have been a final act of desperation when everything else had failed.
Joan of Arc was given the rank of Captain and a suit of armor that was made to fit her slight body exactly. She reformed the army by throwing out the prostitutes and forcing the soldiers to take confession. Then, in May 1429, she led the troops to a miraculous victory in Orléans. Word began to spread that the Maid of Orléans was a saint.
She continued victorious over the English, and when Charles VII was crowned in July 1429, Joan was given a place of honor at his side. The very next year she was captured by the Burgundians, and ransomed to the English to be tried for witchcraft and treason. Charles VII made no attempt to come to her defense. After fourteen months of interrogation Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in the marketplace of Rouen on May 30, 1431. She was nineteen years old.
One of the sticking points at Joan’s trial had been her determination to continue to wear male clothing. Her prosecutors called it an act against the church, but she believed that her voices had not yet told her to do otherwise. The fact that her life hinged on this particular issue speaks volumes about the odds that were stacked against her.
Joan of Arc comes from a long line of revolutionary women who have made their mark on history against all odds. Elizabeth I, who was never expected to rule, presided over one of the greatest eras of all time. Florence Nightingale defied perceptions by being the first woman to work in wartime field hospitals during the Crimean War, and changed the face of nursing forever. Maryland's own Harriet Tubman, leading more than 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and Rosa Parks, sparking the bus boycott and becoming a icon of the Civil Rights movement, had to overcome misconceptions of not only gender but also of color.
The Maid of Orléans, young, illiterate, visionary woman that she was, and dressed in male clothing, won wars that men had failed to win. In defending her right to be that young woman she not only changed the course of history, she became a symbol of conviction and courage that is still compelling 600 years later.
Judith Krummeck is the Evening Drive Time Host of WBJC-FM. She is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program at the University of Baltimore.
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