Jeanne d'Arc Reconsidered

30 May 2009

Today is the Saint Day of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc, if you prefer). It's her Saint Day because it's the day she was executed by His Most Holy Roman Catholic Church for all accounts of heresy 578 years ago. Now, I'm not one to think much about saints or religion, which makes my affinity towards Jeanne perhaps a bit peculiar. Despite it all, she's one of my personal heroes.

The stories say that she heard the voices of a trio of saints telling her to boot the English out of France (as the English had taken over a significant portion of French soil in Burgundy). Her role in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) only amounted to three years, one of which was spent in an English prison. Yet, she is so well revered for that hugely significant, albeit short, role that she played.

Many regard Jeanne with the hushed awe of pious worship. A human conduit to their god through her communication with angels. I, of course, do not believe any of this. The notion that she was in contact with saints who guided her on the word of god to complete a mission is ludicrous. It stinks of the same self-serving righteousness that make people believe that god has a special, vested interest in a particular sports team or a particular country at war. My disbelief of anything theological precludes my support that any god would take the side of the French or the English in their squabbles, much less send a sixteen-year-old girl into battle for his favored side. That is utter nonsense and beyond rational thought.

Instead I admire Jeanne for reasons that the Church, who now praises her as an agent of god, would rather ignore. That's the same Church that burned her at the stake in 1431, for those keeping track. I even admire her over the debate of many skeptics who suggest that she must have suffered from an acute case of schizophrenia that led her to honestly and wholeheartedly believe that she heard voices, and that she convinced herself of this falsehood. There are, however, many problems with this line of logic. First off, that schizophrenia -- or most brain disorders of this sort -- would likely have prevented her from accomplishing all that she did. Jeanne was a brilliant military leader, exhibiting clear and reasoned thought processes while under fire. She led her troops into battle and victory, based on her orders, displaying proof that her brain was not only well-adjusted and clear-minded, but also that she was a brilliant thinker and tactician.

Thus, it suggests, that of all alternatives between hearing voices or not, that if hearing voices implies either a belief in the supernatural or an admission of schizophrenia, and that neither can be considered true, that the lack of voices should then be the only remaining result. In fact, this is a perfect case of Occam's Razor -- that the simplest solution of all possible alternatives will likely be true. Historians love Occam's Razor because it often is shown to be correct and that it is unnecessary to become mired in layers of unrealistic assumptions to make a particular case work. Sherlock Holmes summed this up with the witticism that, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." With this established, then where does this leave Jeanne?

My views of Jeanne d'Arc reveal a girl who was neither an agent of supernatural communication nor a victim of a delusional mind. Instead, she was a young woman who was in full control of her facilities and who had come, through the course of her childhood in a country ravaged by English aggression, to develop both a keen intellect and a daring that many of her male counterparts failed to possess. The happenstance of her being born a female in a time when women were to be the subservient and speechless domestics is what makes her case so remarkable. Jeanne, a teenage girl, was somehow able to circumvent the rigidly held and long-standing gender rules that were designed to keep her in her place. The only way to achieve this aim was through the graces not of god, but of her king.

Charles VII had gained the throne in 1422 upon the death of his father, Charles VI. The late king was also known as Charles the Mad. Charles VI suffered from the delusions and dementia that many have accused Jeanne of having including paranoia, forgetfulness, and imagined voices. This made his successor, Charles VII, highly suspect of inherited madness, and his court included many personnel, on order from those above even the king's head, to keep a watchful eye on the new monarch in the event that psychosis ever presented itself. Needless to say, the admission of a teenage girl suffering from schizophrenia or other brain disorders into Charles' court would have been easily spotted by the team of advisers on hand to do just that. The advisers considered it political suicide to take this peasant girl seriously not from any mental defects on her behalf but simply due to her improper sex. In other words, Jeanne passed the litmus test.

So where does Jeanne fit in? Jeanne and Charles formed a symbiotic relationship, each person needing the other to get ahead. Despite his essentially filling the position, Charles was not technically the King of France. Still considered a Dauphin, his coronation was prevented by a minor succession crisis and his own weak will. He needed someone else to make him great. Jeanne needed a powerful patron to help her achieve her grandiose goals. Both saw in one another a chance to be more than they could ever hope to be on their own.

Jeanne, an extraordinary clever young woman, knew how people worked and how to manipulate them. The Dauphin Charles possessed no great intellect and no powerful determination. Jeanne, charming and clever, knew what to say to win his attention. This meant an extravagant story about visits from angles with divine orders to fight the English. This story required little to no alibi on the conditions that the saintly specters would speak only to her. It was also perfect for Charles, who had been receiving flak for his inaction in driving the English out of France (his lack of action yet another factor holding up his coronation). That Jeanne's story combined theology and patriotism into one tidy package was the perfect selling point in a nation besieged by war and reliant on religion. How much weak-minded Charles believed can be debated. What matters is that Jeanne readily knew what she was doing.

An army was granted to the teenage girl from Domremy, a highly unlikely commander that the would-be king insisted upon. She proved victorious in the Seige of Orleans on April 27, 1429. She succeeded in storming the Tourelles fortress on May 7. She won the day at Jargeau and Meung-sur-Loire on June 12. She excelled in the Battle of Beaugency on June 17 and at the Battle of Patay the next day. During this time, a veritable winning streak for French forces, the English were beaten back, much to the dismay of their honor, by a peasant girl. Charles, boosted to great popularity by Jeanne's actions, was finally crowned the de facto King of France at Chinon on July 17. Charles had achieved his goals and his need of Jeanne was complete. Jeanne, in the field, still relied on Charles despite her own popularity. Her luck ended on May 23, 1430 when she was captured at Compiègne, outside Paris. Captured by the Burgundians (English-loyal French) and sold to the English, Jeanne would spend the next year in prison and on trial for her crimes.

The English, of course, would find her guilty for something. Her trial was conducted by members of the Church, rather than a military tribunal, and was led by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. Through it all she kept up her story, of saints and god's desires. In essence, it was a no-win situation. This was a show trial, designed to set an example and discourage future Jeannes from taking the stage. She knew going in that there was no way out. She would die there, either by fire if guilty or by slowly rotting away in a cell if innocent. Knowing this, there was no reason for this bold and outspoken person to cooperate with her tormentors, for there would be no freedom even if she fed them precisely what they wanted. That she signed a confession, only to retract it, suggests that she was not completely dedicated to her background story. It was a strategy that worked in the beginning but could do her no good now. Facing the two options available to her, she allowed the shorter one to determine her fate. Not content to wither away in a damp prison, she accepted the consequences that led to her death by immolation.

So ended the life of Jeanne d'Arc, peasant girl from Domremy. Not a saintly agent of god but rather a crafty and brilliant young woman. In their insistence of Jeanne's true raison d'etre being determined by supernatural communiques, the Church and its followers are guilty of the upholding the same unfortunate prejudices that Jeanne strove so hard to escape, ultimately, with the loss of her life. It is a belief that a woman could not be intelligent or coercive enough to gain recognition and power on her own willpower and craftiness. It is a disbelief in the ability of a woman to achieve more than the station that society forced her to never rise above. It is an unfortunate position that stinks of the hurt pride that manly English commanders felt as they lost to that French girl. In the end, to define Jeanne by the supernatural or by dementia is to purposefully ignore what a tremendous individual she really was.

I will end this essay with a quote from former Hungarian politician and freedom fighter Louis Kossuth:
"Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of an entire nation at the age of seventeen."
And someday I will get around to penning that opus I've been tossing around for so long, "The Secularization of Joan of Arc."


[ ] Engaged 8 September 2009 | Updated 8 September 2009