No one is ever quite indifferent to Joan of Arc once they’ve found out about her. She’s been called a witch, she’s been called crazy, she’s been called a mystic. Some people think her Voices were actual Saints and others don’t. Either way, we all know Joan’s a towering figure to many, and because of that there have been tons and tons of books and movies and scholarly works about her.
We also know Joan was put on trial and later burned at the stake. It was an absolute travesty. Among other stupidities, the questions asked of Joan were designed to trap her and for some reason her answers were recorded in third person. So basically Joan was only tacitly allowed to speak for herself.
Editor Willard Trask fixed all that, however. Joan Of Arc In Her Own Words puts Joan back in first person and in the spotlight. She tells her story very simply with surprising vigor and humor, considering the circumstances.
“I was born in the village of Domremy. My father’s name is Jacques d’Arc, and my mother’s Isabelle.”
I’m guessing a lot of people are familiar with Joan’s story, but for those who aren’t, here’s the general jist of it. Joan was born on January 6, 1412. According to the St. Joan of Arc Center, Joan, who was called Jeanette as a child, was pretty typical, although she was teased by other kids in her village because of her piety. She could also more than hold her own in the domestic arts. Joan’s ordinariness all changed when she turned thirteen and first heard her voices–St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret.
“When I was thirteen, I had a voice from God to help me govern myself. The first time, I was terrified.”
Joan said that only St. Michael came to her initially. His instructions seemed simple–he told her to be good and go to church often. He was soon joined by Sts. Margaret and Catherine, whose voices Joan described as being “sweet and soft.” Joan loved talking to her three Saints and wept when they would leave, kissing the ground where they had stood.
“It pleased God thus to act through a simple maid in order to turn back the King’s enemies.”
Joan lived at a time when France was occupied by the English, who had defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought because Henry V had claim to the throne of France. When Joan was around sixteen or seventeen, the Voices instructed her that she would help the Dauphin of France, Charles, become king and drive the English from the country. Joan knew her parents would try to stop her, as they were afraid she would become a camp-follower, so she kept this new development under her hat. In the end, they let her go in the care of an uncle because they understood that Joan needed to obey God.
“I do not know A from B.”
Joan was functionally illiterate, although she was very articulate and intelligent. She dictated many letters over the course of her career and even managed to tease her enemies when she felt like it, such as in this letter sent by arrow to English troops in Orleans on March 5, 1429: “I should send you my letter more decently, but you detain my heralds. For you have kept my herald Guyenne. Send him to me, and I will send you some of your men who were taken at Saint-Loup, for not all were killed.”
“Fear not, however many there may be! Neither weigh difficulties. God guides our work. Were I not certain that God guides this work, I would rather keep sheep than expose myself to such perils.”
Joan wasn’t a one-hit wonder. After the Siege of Orleans there was still danger from the English before Charles could be crowned King. Understandably, everyone was nervous because they knew the English would be extra angry after their recent trouncing. Long story short, the battle was won when Joan’s forces took the bridge at Meung-sur-Loire and then the town of Beaugency on the following day.
“I did not know that I would be taken that day.”
The people of France were ecstatic that they had a new King. The English weren’t. French clergy who sided with the English accused Joan of being a heretic and a cult leader. Joan was captured at the town of Compiégne on May 23, 1430. After that, she was imprisoned and put on trial, where her detractors did their darndest to prove Joan wasn’t legit. It was completely rigged, of course. Not even Charles helped her, as he was afraid of what it would mean for him politically. Joan was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.
Legend has it that Joan’s heart never burned. Whether or not that’s true, there was immediate regret upon her death. Joan’s mother, Isabelle, had an audience with the Pope, who called for an investigation. The bishops and English officials who presided over her kangaroo court of a trial were called before Guillaume Bouillé, who was appointed by turncoat King Charles to find out the particulars of Joan’s trial and clear her name. Joan’s Trial of Nullification took place between November 7, 1455 and July 7, 1456. Joan was not only vindicated but declared a martyr. She was canonized as a saint in 1920.
It’s not often we see an unfiltered picture of an enigmatic historical figure, which is why Joan of Arc In Her Own Words is a nice find. It’s a lightning-fast read but extremely meaty and interesting. As an added bonus, there’s a section at the end by Sir Edward Creasy that gives more details about the Siege of Orleans. History lovers, especially Joan fans, won’t want to miss this one.
Another binge post is coming out on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and have a great week…
Joan of Arc In Her Own Words. Compiled by Willard Trask. New York: B-O-O-K-S & Co., 1996.