St. Joan of Arc
“Savior of France” Feast: May 30 Lifespan: 1412-1431 Patronage: France, martyrs, soldiers, captives, prisoners, people ridiculed for their piety, the Woman's Army Corps
RECOLLECTION "Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it." - Mark Twain
Jeanne d' Arc. The Maid. The Savior of France.
What woman has her renown? Truly, outside of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is none. Joan of Arc is one of three women on TIME Magazine's list of 100 Most Influential Figures in history. She is the exemplar of valor, vocation and victory - even in the face of death.
One of the world's great author's, Mark Twain, wrote a biography on Joan of Arc. It was a departure from his usual witty satire, and he considered it his greatest work. Here, he writes of her girlhood:
"In Joan of Arc at the age of sixteen there was no promise of a romance. She lived in a dull little village on the frontiers of civilization; she had been nowhere and had seen nothing; she knew none but simple shepherd folk; she had never seen a person of note; she hardly knew what a soldier looked like; she had never ridden a horse, nor had a warlike weapon in her hand; she could neither read nor write: she could spin and sew; she knew her catechism and her prayers and the fabulous histories of the saints, and this was all her learning. That was Joan at sixteen."
But it was this 16 year old girl that God singled out to save France in the midst of The Hundred Years War.
Joan lived as one of five peasant children in Domremy, a village in the province of Champagne, France. Mark Twain did well to mention Joan knowing her catechism and the stories of the saints, because she was a very faithful young woman. She frequented the sacraments and had empathy for the poor, even to the point of giving up her own warm bed for someone who had nowhere to sleep. Those who knew her testified, "She was so good, that all the village loved her."
Our heroine was born in the 75th year of the period known as “The Hundred Years War.” It was a series of conflicts and battles between the kingdoms of England and France over who would take the French throne, which at the start of the conflict was occupied by the insane King Charles VI. To make matters more complex, France was in a sort of civil war, with two parties forming: those who supported the Dauphin of France, Charles VII (heir to the throne), and those who supported the Duke of Burgundy, who called themselves the "Burgundians."
By the time Joan was 10, the majority of the upper half of France was under English control. This included the city of Rheims, which was significant as that was where the Dauphin was to be crowned. Instead of this stirring up motivation to reclaim his country, the Dauphin, Charles VII, receded from the fray and frittered his time away at royal court.
In 1428, Joan received her call to save France. For two years she experienced heavenly voices that moved her to consecrate herself to God, and lead an increasingly devout life. Eventually she was able to see her heavenly messengers, and recognized them as St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret. They began to give her specific instructions as to her mission. She was to see to it that Charles VII would be crowned, and then she would lead the French army in driving the English from France.
This was a dramatic task, but Joan didn’t have a big head about her mission. She had not even told people of her heavenly voices and visions. She did what God asked of her and faithfully embarked on a journey that would change her life and history forever.
Her first move was to inform the commander of the Dauphin's forces, Robert de Baudricourt, that she was to lead the Dauphin to his coronation. She also predicted an up- coming defeat the French army would suffer. Of course, this all went over like a lead balloon. She was a mere peasant! Baudricourt laughed at her, and she was sent home. Joan returned to her village, but the saints who spoke to her would not relent. She protested their insistence, and acknowledged how unequipped she was for the task - she had never even ridden a horse - but it was to no avail. The saints told her, "It is God who commands it."
Joan obediently made her way back to Baudricourt. It was perfect timing, as her pre- diction of the French defeat came to pass. It was an unexpected loss, and it left the last stronghold of Orleans weak and ready to fall. It was enough to turn Baudricourt's scoff- ing to support, and he sent Joan to the Dauphin.
Before she set out, Joan donned men's battle garb, as a form of protection. She travelled with three soldiers, and reached the royal court after several days. The Dauphin knew Joan was coming and disguised himself amidst the courtiers as a test. Upon entering the court, Joan’s heavenly guides helped her to identify him at once, and conveyed to him a sign that he had declared to God alone. This convinced Charles of her authenticity.
Others were not so easily won over, and Joan was sent to endure a three-week questioning by Church theologians. She was found to be of sound mind and virtuous character. With this seal of approval, she was appointed commander of a small army.
The men called her La Pucelle, the Maid. She wore white armor, and brandished a banner, which bore the words: "Jesus Maria.” It also had the symbol of the fleur-di-lis, which represents the Trinity.
At her first battle, her beautiful face and pure heart emboldened the army, and they broke through the English lines, entering the city of Orleans. The siege was underway and a week later the English fort was overrun.
During the battle, she was shot in the shoulder with an arrow, but pressed on and led another victory in the Battle of Patay. This was a decisive win because it cut the path to Rheims, which was the place of coronation. Joan insisted there be no further delay in Charles VII ascending the throne, and those in power listened to her. Charles was crowned, and Joan was standing at his side, holding her banner.
This was a great moment, but it only accomplished the first part of her mission, as the English still had yet to be completely driven from France. Sadly King Charles VII was a coward, and due to his lack of support Joan was unsuccessful in overtaking Paris. This led to a period of truce for the winter, and in the spring Joan would lead another campaign to free Compiegne. This too failed and Joan was taken from her horse and captured. She was jailed in the high tower of the Duke of Burgundy. Shockingly, those she risked her life to save did nothing to save her.
The English wanted possession of France's greatest weapon - Joan - and so an ex- change was arranged. Their goal was to snuff out her influence, and sought to condemn her as a witch and a heretic. The tribunal was put in motion and was presided over by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. He was not a good man and sided with the English in hopes of being appointed Archbishop of Rouen. The judges, lawyers, and theologians presiding over Joan's inquisition were hand picked by Cauchon, so she never had a chance at a fair trial.
Over the next ten weeks Joan was cross-examined in six public and nine private sessions. They brought forward everything to cast doubt on her character: the voices, vi- sions, even dressing like a man. She represented herself, and answered frankly with answers like, "About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter." She had an excellent memory that allowed her to escape the snares the inquisitors set for her, but due to her lack of knowledge on certain theological terms, she was tricked into making damaging statements. In the end she was labeled a heretic, and her private revelations were declared works of the devil.
Joan was at the nadir of her suffering. She had undergone psychological torture and was completely abandoned. The punishment for being a heretic was to be burned at the stake. The tribunal offered to mitigate the sentence if she confessed to being a witch, and to say she lied about hearing heavenly voices. Joan refused again and again, but when they dragged her out into the courtyard before a huge crowd to hear her sentence of being burned alive, she was overwhelmed. She fell to her knees, re- canting her testimony.
The Maid was taken back to her cell where she regained composure. She took courage, put on her former battle garb, and when Cauchon came to question her, she met him with the original truth, the resolution that she had been instructed by God through the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. She said that by giving a false confession “she would damn herself, for in truth she was sent from God."
At this, she was declared a "relapsed heretic" and given to the English to be burned at the stake. On May 30, 1431, she was led out to the platform of her martyrdom. The glorious temporal life of this saint was about to be extinguished, but she faced the gruesome end with courage. As the torches touched the kindling beneath her, she called for a crucifix to be held before her eyes. She had solace only in the name of Jesus.
One of the English king’s secretaries cried out, "We are lost! We have burned a saint!" Joan’s heart was impervious to the flames and did not burn. The work of Joan’s mission came to fruition 25 years after her death when the English were finally driven out of France. At this time her case was re-tried and the trial nullified as "irregular." She was completely exonerated, but no one needed this official declara- tion. Devotion to her had already spread, with people acknowledging her rightful titles of savior, saint, and the maid who saved the eldest daughter of the Church, France.
She was canonized in 1919.