Joan of Arc, Visionary
30 May 1431
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc, Jeanne la Pucelle) was born in France, near the border of Burgundy, on 6 January 1412. In her time the King of England claimed the crown of France by the laws of inheritance, and English troops were fighting in France to support that claim. (The English King inherited through a woman, and the French claimants, the House of Valois, asserted that French law did not allow the crown to be inherited by or through a woman.) Henry V of England won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (see Shakespeare's play Henry V, filmed in 1944 starring Laurence Olivier and in 1993 starring Kenneth Branagh, who emphasizes the darker aspects of war), and signed an agreement with the Valois monarch Charles VI, providing that Charles should keep his crown during his lifetime, that his daughter Catherine should marry Henry, and that Henry should be the next king. Charles VI had a son (the Dauphin), but the Queen took an oath that she had been unfaithful to her husband, and that the Dauphin was not the King's son, and therefore had no right to inherit the throne. In 1422, Henry V died, leaving an infant son who became Henry VI of England. England claimed the throne of France in his name. The Duke of Burgundy supported the English claim, and was allied with England. The French claimant, the Dauphin (later Charles VII), had not been crowned. Since many Frenchmen thought that his mother the Queen might be telling the truth about his illegitimacy, the story largely paralyzed the national will to fight for Charles.

Into this situation came Joan. When she was thirteen, she began to hear voices telling her that she was called to save France. Eventually she identified these voices as those of Michael the Archangel (mentioned in the Bible in Daniel and Jude and Revelation), and Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch, two early virgin martyrs about whom little is known historically (the accounts of their lives as we have them contain many blatant improbabilities, and even among thoroughly conservative Roman Catholics, they are widely thought to be fictional persons), but who were popular in France at that time. Acting, as she said, under direction from her voices, she persuaded a local baron to send her to the castle of Charles at Chinon, where she spoke with the Dauphin (French word for the heir to the throne until he is officially crowned king), and convinced him that her message was genuine. The city of Orleans was under siege by the English. Joan and an army marched to the scene and raised the siege (8 May 1429). She then proceeded to win other battles, and to bring Charles to Rheims to be crowned king. However, the king refused to take her advice that he should press the military advantage. When she attempted to recapture Paris from the English, he denied her adequate support, and the attempt failed. In May 1430 she was taken prisoner in battle, and tried on an accusation of sorcery and heresy. Charles made no effort to ransom her or rescue her, although her first captors would almost certainly have accepted a ransom. She was convicted and burned at the stake on 30 May 1431, being then a little less than nineteen and a half years old. The French, however, eventually went on to win the war and to expel the English from France. King Charles, perhaps because it was not to his advantage to have it said that he had been crowned by a witch and a heretic, and that he owed his victories and his kingdom to a pact with the Devil, pressured the Church courts for a review of the verdict against Joan, and got her condemnation annulled in 1456. She came to be regarded as a French national hero, and was eventually canonized by the Pope in May 1920. Her day (or a Sunday close to it) is a French national holiday. She is ranked with Denis of Paris and Remi of Rheims as one of France's three great national saints. She is honored by the Church, not for winning military victories, or even because her visions were necessarily authentic, but because, being persuaded of the will of God for her life, she responded in faith and obedience to that will as she understood it.

Among many literary works inspired by the life of Joan, I mention three:

George Bernard Shaw has written a play about her, Saint Joan. It has a preface for the reader which should not be skipped

Mark Twain has a novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, supposedly related by a follower of Joan. Twain is a devoted and uncritical admirer of Joan.

Friedrich von Schiller, friend of Goethe and eminent German playwright, has a play, Die Jungfrau Von Orleans, which has been highly praised. It is available in translation.

PRAYER (traditional language):

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgement, and light Riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, to ask what thou wouldst have us to do; that the spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight paths may not stumble, the which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgement, and light Rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, to ask what you would have us do; that the spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, that in your light we may see light, and in your straight paths may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.