Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orleans
Like Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, the French heroine, was many things to many people. To some, she is the icon of France, to others a saint, and to yet others a religious fanatic who had visions and fought a holy war. Perhaps she was a little of each, but what cannot be denied is that she was a woman of great conviction, almost superhuman courage and astonishing charisma.
The story of Joan of Arc hardly needs elucidation here. If you have never heard of Joan of Arc, then you are probably from another planet. The backdrop of her rise to prominence was the ‘Hundred Year War‘, a festering conflict between England and France that flared and dimmed between 1337 and 1453. In about 1412, towards the end of that era, Joan was born to a peasant farming family from the northeast of France. It was an unsettled time in Europe, and the Anglo/French War was not the only one. Multiple other feuds and alliances complicated a shifting, uncertain and violent political landscape.
As Joan was reaching puberty she began to have visions. She claimed that Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret ordered her to drive the English out of France, and bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation. She took these visions extremely seriously and assumed that she had somehow been chosen for a divine mission. She took a vow of chastity, cropped her hair, dressed in men’s clothes and presented herself at the court of Charles VII, where she begged the opportunity to lead an army against England.
It is astonishing to imagine that a French crown prince would take in any way seriously the petition of a sixteen-year-old peasant girl to lead an army, but he did. Possibly Joan’s unshakable conviction, her messianic appearance and her charisma played a part. The city of Orleans was under siege at the time, and Joan promised that she would break that siege, and against all odds, she did.
After such a victory, Joan’s reputation spread, and she became little less than a saint in the eyes of the French army. She and her followers escorted Charles VII across enemy territory to Reims, taking any towns that resisted by force, and in July 1429, he was crowned King.
In those days, however, presenting oneself as a special messenger of God carried all kinds of risks. In the spring of 1430, was captured and charged with, among other things, the crime of heresy. This was a charge for all situations because it construed as guilty any belief that did not conform with those of the inquisitor.
With great courage and composure, Joan answered to all charges, but then briefly repented. It is easy to imagine that a nineteen-year-old girl, facing an inevitable fate of burning at the stake, would say what needed to be said. A few days later, however, gathering her courage, she repeated her convictions and was led to the stake on the morning of May 30, 1431.