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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jeanne d'Arc: Hero or Heretic?

Yesterday marked the 600th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc), the infamous French peasant girl who defied the English. Joan of Arc's life story is fascinating to say the least. As a poor daughter of a peasant family in eastern France, Jeanne's life should have come and gone without so much as a footnote in the history books. So how did such a young, poor and obscure female of the 15th century become such a powerful and influential hero?

It is difficult to say. If we asked Jeanne herself, the answer would no doubt be "because it was the will of God." After all, Jeanne claimed that her "calling" came as a result of several heavenly manifestations throughout her childhood (beginning at age 12). She remained steadfast in that assertion throughout the remainder of her short life, even in the face of execution. As she stated during her interrogation and trial:

I know well that that which is contained in my case has come to me by the Commandment of God; what I affirm in the case is, that I have acted by the order of God: it is impossible for me to say otherwise. In case the Church should prescribe the contrary, I should not refer to any one in the world, but to God alone, Whose Commandment I always follow.
This is a remarkable declaration considering the fact that Jeanne d'Arc was all of nineteen years of age. To be a 15th century female of humble roots and to stand defiant against one's accusers was almost unheard of. And though inspiring to say the least, this was the least of Jeanne d'Arc's accomplishments

With the sporadic conflicts that came as a result of the Hundred Years' War, France was thrown into crisis mode, as rival French lords and invading English Kings jockeyed for control of the French crown. These conflicts left the French countryside nearly destitute, as English forces employed Chevauchée tactics that ravaged poor villages. One of these villages was a small northeastern community called Domrémy, which just happened to be home to a young married couple named Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée. The couple owned about 50 acres of farmland, placing them on the higher end of the French peasantry. The family was fairly well off, as Jacques was able to supplement his farming income as a tax collector of sorts. In addition, Jacques' post also included making provisions for the villages defense. Perhaps this is where his famous daughter gained her knowledge of warfare?

Regardless of where or how Jeanne d'Arc gained her military prowess one fact is undeniable: this young peasant girl was a genius. The sheer fact that she was able to gain a command with a group of male French soldiers is astounding by itself, but when we also factor in her generalship on the battle field, Jeanne's brilliance comes to life. Not only did Jeanne successfully predict a the outcomes to key battles but she was also able to effectively lead a number of successful military campaigns. As historian Stephen Richey states: "She proceeded to lead the army in an astounding series of victories that reversed the tide of the war."

Whether Jeanne was an actual battle commander in war, a standard bearer that inspired the army, or a combination of the two has been debated by historians for centuries. There is no doubt that Jeanne participated in a number of war councils with other military commanders, who resented her age, gender (which she tried to hide) and her lack of nobility. Nevertheless, virtually everyone recognized Jeanne's astounding talent, foresight, and apparent divine sanctioning. To many of her French colleagues, Jeanne was a prophetess of sorts, who had a direct line of contact to God himself. And in the wake of defeat after defeat at the hands of the English, anyone, even a young peasant girl claiming divine revelation, was a welcomed change. Her presence brought with it a change in the war. As Jeanne d'Arc herself stated:

Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.
But not everyone was as quick to revere Jeanne d'Arc's supposed clairvoyance. The English, who had been on the receiving end of Jeanne's military brilliance/inspiration, denounced her as a heretic. After her capture and eventual "sale" to the English, Jeanne d'Arc was put on trial in what became a corrupt show court. Inquisitors tried to pin the French peasant down on a number of theological issues, but were cleverly rebuffed by Jeanne's keen intellect. In one of the more popular exchanges, Jeanne was asked if "she knew she was in God's grace", to which she answered "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me." The question was meant as a trap for Jeanne. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God's grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt (her answer was similar in tone to the one given by Jesus Christ to the Pharisees in Matthew, chapter 21:25).

Jeanne's response left inquisitors dumbfounded and forced them to convict her of heresy on bogus charges relating to her dressing as a man. Some scholars have suggested that Jeanne's apparent habit of dressing in men's clothing may have been the result of transgender issues. This is unlikely, however, due to the fact that Jeanne did so only to infiltrate enemy lines and to keep herself safe while in the army. In addition, her choice to dress in men's clothing while imprisoned was likely for protection. Instead of being placed under the care of nuns (which was customary for female prisoners), Jeanne was placed in a prison guarded by English male soldiers. Needless to say, these soldiers took advantage of the female guest who was at their mercy. Dressing in men's clothing of the time afforded Jeanne more protection from rape. As historian Robert Wirth explains:

[W]itnesses related that Joan of Arc had told them that she had worn, and had resumed, this clothing and kept the hosen and doublet "firmly fastened and tied together" because this provided her with the only means she had of protecting herself against the incidences of attempted rape which her English guards were inflicting on her. This description will be immediately understandable if one is familiar with this type of clothing. Based on a description in the Condemnation transcript itself as well as period illustrations of the general type of garment in question, her outfit was equipped with two layers of hosen securely fastened to the doublet, the inner layer being waist-high conjoined woolen hosen attached to the doublet by fully twenty cords, each cord tied into three eyelets apiece (two on the hosen and one on the doublet), for a total of forty attachment points on the inner layer of hosen. The second layer, which was made of rugged leather, seems to have been attached by yet another set of cords. Once this outfit was thus fastened together by dozens of cords connecting both layers to the doublet, it would be a substantial undertaking for someone to try to pull off these garments, especially if she was struggling.
Regardless of the practicality of wearing men's clothing for a woman in Jeanne's position, English inquisitors found her guilty of heresy. And even though she was technically justified by law to dress as a man for her protection and to preserve her chastity, Jeanne was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Her last words were (allegedly) "I am not afraid. I was born to do this" (again, an incredible declaration from a nineteen-year-old peasant girl).

It is probably a foregone conclusion that much of Jeanne d'Arc's legacy as a hero of France rests with the fact that France was able to defeat the English and reclaim the lands they had lost. Had England emerged victorious, it is likely that Jeanne's legacy would be quite different; a heretic rather than a hero prophetess. And we can't ignore the fact that the multiple conflicts we now call the Hundred Years' War lead to the development of early French and English nationalism, thus exalting Jeanne d'Arc to the status of a national symbol. But regardless of these facts, the remarkable life of Jeanne d'Arc is an astonishing example of unshakable faith, remarkable bravery and undaunted determination. Her life story makes even the most skeptical person wonder if maybe she really did have a divine call from heaven. Whether or not such is the case, Jeanne d'Arc remains one of the most fascinating figures in all of human history.

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