A church window depicts St. Joan of Arc with a sword. The French peasant girl was inspired by a series of saintly visions to help save France from the English in the Hundred Years’ War. She led the victory at the besieged city of Orleans, but was later captured and burned at the stake. She is patron of France. Her feast is May 30. PHOTO: CNS/Crosiers
Born to Jacques and Isabella D’Arc on January 6, 1412 in Domremy, a village in the east of France, Joan grew up a humble peasant girl, the daughter of a farmer and the youngest of five children.
“One of the most striking things about her is that she starts off as a very simple farm girl,” Father Brian Harrison said in a phone interview from America.
Fr Harrison, an Australian priest from Armidale, New South Wales, has spent close to 20 years overseas, first as a professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico and now as an associate editor of Living Tradition, a publication of the Roman Theological Forum hosted by the Oblates of Wisdom in St Louis, Missouri where he currently lives.
He was ordained by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1985 and now is a theologian and prolific writer on religious issues with a great devotion to St Joan of Arc.
“Her father had about 50 acres of farm land so she was comfortable,” he said.
“She was nobody special, yet she was chosen by God for a special role.”
The centuries that have followed the events haven’t diminished the role Joan played in securing the freedom of her country.
When she was eight years old, France’s queen, Isabeau of Bavana, signed a treaty with the English, effectively handing the French throne over to England.
This act by Queen Isabeau resulted in the turmoil, chaos and bloodshed of The Hundred Years War which was the background of Joan’s upbringing.
The English and French monarchies were locked in battle; at the time of Joan’s birth a fragile truce was in effect that was broken leading to civil war between two factions of the French Royal family, the Armagnacs and Burgundians. The English took advantage of this opportunity and allied themselves with the House of Burgundy, further dividing the French nation.
King Henry V of England stripped Charles VII, rightful heir to the throne, of his title, leading to Charles gradually losing his men’s allegiance and surrounding French territories.
It seemed as if all hope had been lost; France was a nation divided by war without a king to lead it to victory and the country remained vulnerable, open to another English attack.
However, France’s saviour would come in the form of a young peasant girl. At the age of 13, Joan heard the voices of St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret. The saintly voices instructed her to remain chaste, to live a holy life and to serve God.
For the next five years, they provided counsel, guidance and protection, preparing Joan for her mission to liberate France from the English. This was the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years War.
Some scholars have claimed that St Joan’s voices were a direct result of her supposed schizophrenia or other form of neurological disease, raising the question can a person have a mental illness and still be a saint?
“I haven’t heard such reports,” Fr Harrison said.
“One couldn’t generalise about whether someone could be canonised with a mental illness; that would not be ruled out a priori but experts would have to examine each case on its own merits. Some mental illness, for all I know, might be caused partly by behaviour compatible with sanctity.”
There was no denying Joan’s holiness; she had been described as a pious and religious child, and has fascinated the religious and the secular.
“Mark Twain, the famous American writer, was unfortunately quite hostile to Christianity,” Fr Harrison said.
“Yet his best work, which is less known than his other works, is a story about Joan of Arc. He puts himself in the role of a villager from her village, an imaginary spectator right through Joan’s life and said that she is the most perfect example of a human being and the closest thing that would motivate him to become a Christian.”
Joan’s faith led her to leave Domremy in February 1429; the voice of St Michael had commanded her to leave her home town behind.
She was to travel to Chinon to meet the Dauphine and restore him as the rightful King of France.
“Joan’s faith was unshakeable,” Fr Harrison said.
“Humanly speaking, her courage in God and her faith was unthinkable. For a girl of 17 to rise and became her nation’s military leader shows her strength of character. Her faith and determination were tremendous.”
Joan succeeded in seeking counsel with the Dauphine at Chinon. Charles VII famously disguised himself as a member of the audience but, guided by her heavenly voices, Joan was able to identify him among the crowd.
“I shall last a year, and but little longer; we must think to do good work in that year. Four things are laid upon me: to drive out the English; to bring you to be crowned and anointed at Reims; to rescue the Duke of Orleans from the hands of the English; and to raise the siege of Orleans,” Joan said to the Dauphine.
After her meeting with France’s heir to the throne, Joan was sent to Poitiers where she was examined by theologians and scholars who found her to be free from flaws and authentic in her mission.
The Dauphine gave Joan approximately 12,000 men and together they proceeded to Orleans.
She had a suit of armour made, and carried a sword with five crosses on the blade which she was led to find by St Catherine behind the saint’s chapel. She also had a banner made, adorned with the words Jesus Crucified.
She was ready for battle; she said to her troops; “In God’s name, forward boldly!”
“Joan was a great heroine of France,” Fr Harrison said.
“The last 100 years had seen an increasing emphasis on women’s issues and the role of women; Joan was out there in a suit of armour, heading into battle with a sword.
“She fits in with modern culture, she attracts the Christians and non-believers, and Joan of Arc was a powerful witness to the Catholic faith. Based on documents at her trial, a lot of historians thought she was just a figurehead but recent research shows she was a lot more than that: she was a skilled strategist, no 17 year old could do what she did naturally, she was inspired by God.”
Despite taking an arrow to the shoulder, Joan succeeded in lifting the siege at Orleans, gaining one of her many titles, the Maid of Orleans. She was also known as The Maid of Lorraine and, simply, La Pucelle, which translates into The Maid.
“She is a focus of patriotism, instrumental in The Hundred Years War, and was such an astonishing person that there really is no one like St Joan of Arc,” Fr Harrison said.
Following her victory, the Dauphine was crowned King Charles VII at Reims Cathedral on May 11, 1429.
But Joan’s days were numbered. Her faith would be tested and only someone of saintly virtue could have faced the obstacles and trials thrown at her.
She was captured on the morning of May 23, 1430.
The English and the House of Burgundy were still allies and wanted to see her dead as she had cost them numerous victories.
“She wasn’t technically a martyr,” Fr Harrison said.
“To be a martyr, you have to be killed out of hatred for Christ; the reason she was killed was purely political.”
There were unsuccessful attempts by King Charles VII to persuade the Burgundians to release Joan with a ransom typical of the time period.
Joan’s trial started in February and ended May 30. She was to be burnt at the stake as a relapsed heretic.
On May 24, she had been taken to the Cemetery of Saint-Ouen where she signed a written form of abjuration but then retracted her statement, saying “what I said, I said for fear of the fire”, sealing her fate as a relapsed heretic.
“After Our Lady, Joan’s about the best example of God choosing someone who is very humble and weak in the eyes of the world.
“God uses the weak, lowly and little ones to bring about great accomplishments. The Bible says to enter the Kingdom of Heaven you have to be a child; Joan led her forces as a child.
“She had faith, integrity, purity, humility, all reasons which made her a saint.”
Joan was burnt at the stake in 1431.
As the fire engulfed her small body, her last words were “Jesus, Jesus”.
Eyewitness accounts claim that the Secretary to the King of England said, “we are all ruined for a good and holy person was burned”.
By the end of the Hundred Years War, around 1449, the Burgundians, allied with the rest of France, ceased civil war and fought their way to victory, thwarting the English invaders.
In November 1449, the post-humous acquittal denouncing Bishop Cauchon – who condemned Joan to her death – and proclaiming Joan a saint began.
Joan was beatified in 1909 and canonised as a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XVI, some 500 years following her death.
Her feast day is celebrated on May 30.
Armed with faith, a simple peasant girl from a small French village in Domremy rose up against the English; she united a divided nation, gave her country back its king, and died at the stake unshakeable in her trust in God.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc.”
Graduating from Fremantle’s University of Notre Dame in Politics and Journalism, Juanita has been writing for The Record for almost a year, first as an intern and now as a permanent journalist. Juanita is a hopeless romantic who enjoys writing stories which encompasses both her love of history and romance.