st.Joan of Arc

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  st.Joan of Arc

Feast Day : May 30



Patronage: captives; martyrs; people opposed to Church authorities; people ridiculed for piety; prisoners; rape victims; service women; soldiers; virgins; women in the air and naval services; women in Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES); women in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs); France




Name meaning: God is gracious




Also known as: Jeanne d’Arc, Jean D’arc, Jehanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, la Pucelle (the Flea)



Joan was born in January 1412 to Jacques and Isabelle Darc (allegedly, a French poet changed the surname to d’Arc) in the village of Greux-Domremy in the Lorraine region of France, near the province of Champagne. Although peasants, the family was not poor, and young Joan spent her childhood tending the animals, learning domestic skills and in pious devotion and prayer. She never learned to read or write. But she and her neighbors were affected by politics. Since 1337, France and England had been at war, with some periods of peace, over the disputed ownership of several large provinces, including Aquitaine, Gascony, Poitiers, Normandy and Brittany. These regions had been fiefdoms of English kings for over 300 years, especially after the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but did not accept English rule graciously. Nor did these regions desire absorption into France. Fiercely independent, the provinces continually fought with their English overlords, first allying themselves with one king, then another, to further their own agenda. By the time Joan was three, the French had suffered defeat after defeat, first at the hands of England’s King Edward III and his son Edward, the Black Prince, then through the loss of Aquitaine and the port city of Calais in the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, and most recently at the disastrous battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which the heavily outnumbered English (skilled at longbow) under Henry V routed the French: 6,000 French soldiers killed in battle as against English losses of 300. Even more horrible was Henry V’s order to massacre the French prisoners to prevent their rebellion—an act contrary to all accepted conventions of warfare and chivalry. Charles VI of France sued for peace, signing the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, in which Henry V won the right to rule his conquered French territories; was recognized as the heir to the French throne, disinheriting the dauphin, Charles VII; and received Charles VI’s daughter in marriage. The loss at Agincourt hardened French resolve, but men and supplies were few. And many French nobles, most important, those of the House of Burgundy, allied themselves with the English. Further complicating the situation was that both Henry V and Charles VI died within two years after signing the Treaty of Troyes, leaving the infant Henry VI the legal heir but unable to rule, providing an opportunity for the dauphin’s supporters to reinstate him as king. In Joan’s little village of Domremy, sympathies were with the Armagnacs, or the French party supporting the cause of the dauphin. And the villagers believed stories of a prophecy—perhaps spoken by King Arthur’s wizard, the great Merlin— that a virgin maiden would come from the oak forests of Lorraine to lead the king to victory and restore all of France to the French. When she was 13, Joan began hearing voices accompanied by great blazes of light. At first the unidentified voices exhorted her to go to church and be good, but gradually Joan understood that the speakers were St. Michael the Archangel and the virgin martyrs SS. Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch (extremely popular in the Middle Ages, these two saints have been dropped from the calendar and their cults suppressed). They spoke to Joan often, eventually becoming visible to her as well. Soon they began to give Joan commands: She was to lead an army against the English and raise the siege at Orleans, then see the dauphin, Charles VII, crowned king of France at Reims. Joan protested that she was merely a young girl, unschooled in warfare and unable to lead an army. But her voices insisted the mission was God’s will, so in 1428 Joan persuaded an uncle to take her to Vaucouleurs, where Robert Baudricourt, commander of the dauphin’s forces, was headquartered. She explained her mission and asked to be taken to the dauphin, but Baudricourt rudely dismissed her, suggesting to her uncle that he have Joan’s father whip the girl for such impudence. Joan returned to Domremy, but her voices gave her no rest, insisting she return to Vaucouleurs. She arrived in Vaucouleurs in January 1429 and demanded to see the dauphin. Although again dismissed by Baudricourt she remained in the village, where in February she told Baudricourt of a terrible French defeat at the battle of the Herrings outside Orleans. When Baudricourt learned confirmation of the loss days later, he finally conceded. With an escort of three armed men and dressed as a man, Joan traveled to the village of Chinon in March to meet the dauphin. Charles kept the little party waiting for two days, fearing a trick, but finally agreed to an audience. He disguised himself so that Joan would not recognize him. But with the help of her voices Joan knew Charles immediately and gave him a secret sign known only to him, assuring him of the authenticity and supernatural power of her mission. Historians have speculated on this secret sign, believing it to be a confirmation of Charles’s questionable legitimate birth. Charles still dithered about Joan’s motives, and finally decided to have her examined by a committee of bishops and doctors in Poitiers—the churchmen to assess her strength of faith, and the doctors (at Charles’s mother’s instigation) to verify her gender and the state of her virginity. All found Joan to be sincere, ardent and pure, so she returned to Chinon to lead an expedition. She wore white armor and carried a special standard bearing the words “Jesus: Maria” with a representation of God receiving the French fleur-de-lis from two kneeling angels. But instead of using the sword Charles presented her, Joan’s voices told her to look for an ancient sword buried behind the altar in the chapel of Ste. Catherine-de-Fierbois. It lay right where they described. Joan audaciously called upon England to withdraw from France, and when the English refused she and her troops entered Orleans on April 29–30, 1429. The city had been under siege since the previous October. Such a bold maneuver and Joan’s inspiring presence invigorated the French soldiers, who captured all the surrounding English forts by May 8, liberating Orleans. Joan was wounded by an arrow, an act that she had foretold. Joan begged to continue her successful campaign, but Charles’s advisers cautioned against proceeding. They did allow Joan a sortie on the Loire River in June, joined by troops of her friend the Duc d’Alençon, which resulted in a crushing defeat of the English forces led by Sir John Fastolf at Patay. Joan pressed for the dauphin’s coronation. On June 17, 1429, Charles VII was crowned king of France at Reims Cathedral. Joan stood next to the king, in full armor, holding her standard aloft. The mission from the voices complete, Joan may have wished to return to Domremy, or, taking heed of the voices’ warning that she had only a short time left, to press her military advantage. An abortive attempt to take Paris in late August failed, damaging Joan’s prestige, and when Charles signed a truce with the duke of Burgundy for the winter, Joan was left inactive and miserable at court. Perhaps to cheer her, Charles ennobled Joan and her family in late December 1429, allowing them to add the name Du Lis (of the lily). When hostilities resumed in April, her voices told Joan that she would be taken prisoner before midsummer. This prophecy was soon fulfilled. While fighting to defend Compiègne from the Burgundians on May 24, she and some of her soldiers were unfortunately left on the other side of the river when the drawbridge was raised, and Joan, pulled from her horse, became the prisoner of John of Luxembourg. No attempt was made by Charles to rescue Joan or bargain for her ransom, even though the French had the earl of Suffolk prisoner, and the two could have been exchanged. Instead, John of Luxembourg sold Joan to the duke of Burgundy in November for 10,000 francs, and he turned her over to his English allies, an event foretold by the voices. The English, enraged and terrified over Joan’s military success and her supernatural powers, couldn’t execute her for her fighting abilities but instead sought to prove her a witch and a heretic. They had a willing prosecutor in Peter Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais (Compiègne was in his diocese), who hoped the English would install him as archbishop of Rouen. He set up a tribunal composed mainly of theologians and doctors from the University of Paris, most of whom were English supporters, and began interrogating Joan on February 21, 1431, not long after her 19th birthday. Joan complained bitterly about her incarceration in the secular Rouen prison, and she declared that since she had been judged orthodox in Poitiers in 1429, the trial should take place in an ecclesiastical council. All her pleas were ignored; she was harassed by the guards and even kept in chains in an iron cage after she attempted to escape. The 37-member tribunal questioned her mercilessly about her visions, her voices and her choice to wear men’s clothing. With no advocate to defend her, Joan spoke honestly and forthrightly about the truth of her visions and her mission from God. She was charged with 70 counts of sorcery, heresy, prophesying, conjuring and divining, but that number was reduced to 12. The tribunal denounced Joan and threatened torture if she did not recant her heresy, but Joan stood fast. In March she even told her English accusers that within seven years they would suffer a defeat much worse than Orleans, and this also came true when Henry VI lost the battle for Paris in November 1437. On May 22 Joan was again urged to recant, and when she did not, the authorities erected a stake in St. Ouen cemetery. Admonished and sentenced before a large crowd, Joan’s courage failed, and she signed a retraction agreeing that her voices were lies and that she would wear only women’s clothing. She was led back to prison, ostensibly with female guards. But whether the jailers took her clothes, leaving her only men’s apparel, or whether she despaired of her voices’ rejection, Joan resumed wearing men’s clothes, a clear violation of her retraction, and declared the truth of her voices. She was condemned as a relapsed heretic on May 29 and sentenced to burn at the stake. The next morning at 8:00 A.M. Joan was led out to the stake in the marketplace of Rouen dressed in a long white garment and wearing a mitre cap that bore the words “Heretic, Relapsed, Apostate, Idolator.” She asked for a cross to hold, standing on a pyre so high that the executioner could not administer the coup de grace to save her from pain. She called out “Jesus” until the end, and legend says her heart did not burn but was found whole in the ashes. An English soldier swore he saw a white bird rise out of the pyre. Afterward the authorities threw her ashes into the River Seine. Joan was 19 years old. In 1454, Joan’s mother and two brothers appealed to the Vatican to reopen the case, and Pope Callistus III appointed a commission to reexamine the episode. Popular opinion in France had swung back to veneration of Joan, and the pope’s appellate panel reversed and annulled the sentence on July 7, 1456—only 25 years too late. The question of whether Joan’s voices were divinely inspired or manifestations of modern schizophrenia was examined by the English psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers. Myers believed that the visions and voices came from Joan’s own subconscious, her “subliminal self.” Anthropologist Margaret A. Murray even speculated that Joan was indeed a witch. But author Andrew Lang asserted that Joan’s lack of hysteria, her steadfast belief in the truth of the voices and the absence of other miraculous events connected to the voices and visions proved their veracity. As C. S. Lewis once said, “If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say we have been the victims of an illusion.”

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