Joan of Arc: burned alive and then made a saint.
A political and religious event
On 30 May 1431, Joan or Jeannette was about nineteen when she was burnt at the stake in Rouen’s market square. Paradoxically, the reason for her condemnation is her “relapse” (relapsa) into heretical pravity (haeretica pravitas) for having worn men’s clothes while in prison. The details of this are not entirely clear, but we can certainly say, she is the only medieval heretic to have been condemned because of the clothes she wore. This is not the only unusual aspect of a human, religious, judicial - and even political - story that lasted a total of six years. Of these, the last three were spent fulfilling her prophecies, which included on the battlefield, and the final three months defending herself and her mission before the judges. Her immediate - and lasting - fame was followed by the activation of new processes in 1450-1456 and, almost half a millennium later, her canonisation in 1920. Contrary to the common thinking that an inquisitorial trial is singular and definitive, it is not uncommon for a sentence to be overturned following new investigations and an opposite outcome to be arrived at. In the Middle Ages there are many examples of popular sanctity which, after new enquiries (inquisitio generically means enquiry or investigation and is only by antonomasia what we mean today by the term ‘inquisition’), became condemned heresies. In this respect, too, the judicial story of Joan of Arc followed unusual and complex pathways: first, a popular holy figure became a heretic, and then her holiness was recognized. Finally, she was awarded the prestigious and eminent title of patron of France.
How did this extraordinary adventure begin? In 1428, Joan, a sixteen-year-old “poor shepherdess”, left her native village of Domrémy, in Lorraine, a borderland between Anglo-Burgundy and French rule where military clashes were frequent, in order to obtain safe-conduct to speak to the Dauphin of France. In March 1429, she was escorted on horseback to Chinon where Charles VII received her. In the political and military context of the Hundred Years’ War, which pitted the English and French monarchies against each other with the occupation of continental territories and the struggle for succession to the Capetian throne, Joan played a central role. This young woman not only arrived at -and incredibly spoke with- the aspirant to the throne, she not only commanded a victorious army, but also became so inconvenient that she was first abandoned by Charles VII’s support, and then sold by the Duke of Burgundy to the English. Political pragmatism used, ignored and condemned Joan’s prophetic role. The “poor shepherdess” had become a fearsome chef de guerre, a political problem, a religious danger due to her inflexible will and rebellion against all rules in order to achieve the goal of her mission. If faith in an inalienable truth made her rebellious, indocile and indomitable, the prophecy of which she was the repository projected her into a political-military context and into dynamics that were alien to her. As a military leader, she led an army, but without ever killing a man; as a virgin (maiden), she was the guarantor of the sacredness of the Capetian dynasty; as the depository of a prophetic charisma “in action”, she became overwhelming. This alluring and contrasting- almost improbable - portrait created a chiaroscuro myth about her. In order to remove herself from the conceptual impasse of the contradiction between heresy and sanctity, it should be made clear that Joan never declared herself a heretic; moreover, no one in the Middle Ages ever defined themselves as such. Only after the Reformation did this self-identification take on the character of a religious choice.
The contrast between the heretic and saint figures originates from the surviving documentation. The trials in 1431 condemned Joan of Arc for heresy, not for witchcraft, although the judges insisted on leading the interrogation in that direction. The testimonies were against Joan and she was defined as a “proud daughter” for the way she reacted and responded. She did not buckle to the judges’ way of reasoning; instead, she defended herself with words and silences in a confrontation in which provocations and self-awareness brought out an unusual temperament. In 1450-1456, the judicial proceedings concluded in Jeanne’s favour: the many testimonies of those who knew her not only provided biographical data, but also helped to corroborate a reputation for holiness that was already circulating when she was alive.
Joan’s testimonies broke from a tradition whereby women, or rather the so-called heretics, were represented as a choral image (in the writings of the polemicists) or only spoke seldomly, if at all in the inquisitorial trials. Marguerite, known as the beautiful one, was a follower of brother Dolcino and his prophecies. She was an itinerant preacher of whom we do not know anything because the trial details have been lost. Marguerite, known as Porete, the author of the Mirror of simple souls, found herself before judges who interrogated her. She refused to speak, and in disavowing their authority, we could say that she became the author of her own silence with which she signed her condemnation to be burnt at the stake in Paris in 1310. Joan did not write, in fact she was illiterate, but she dictated in imperious terms; for example, the so-called letter to the English addressed also to the king of England. At the trial, however, she spoke. Her voice was clear and courageous, combative and lucid, reactive and provocative notwithstanding the filter of burocratic reports which rarely allows one to hear in such circumstances. However, the judges who questioned her were interested in another voice, namely the one that supported, guided and advised her during her exciting prophetic journey. For Joan, this represented strength and faith, but for the judges was suspected to be witchcraft.
Joan says that at the age of 13 she heard a “voice from God”. It was summer, and she was in her father’s garden. It was almost noon when the voice and a light - which rarely appeared together - came from a part of the church. At that moment, she made the decision to remain a virgin. The voice - or voices - and virginity are the shield of protection that the judges, by insisting at length, intended to demolish. Virginity preserves her from the accusation that the voices came from demons; after all, a maiden, a young virgin, cannot be an evil creature. Nevertheless, it is clear from the testimonies in court that they were trying to find elements to strengthen this accusation.
Tradition and local folklore in one village provide the cue to link rural rituals around the “ladies’ tree” or “ fairy tree” , a majestic beech tree near Domrémy on which young men and women hung garlands, to what is occult, foreign, obscure, because fairies are said to be evil spirits. The inquisitors claim that she heard the voice in that place; where at night she would dance and sing around the tree, after hanging garlands, uttering invocations, spells and curses. The reference to the unnamed Sabbath is obvious. Even at the Dauphin’s court, someone asked her if she came from a place called Bois Chenu from which a prophecy said a maiden would come who would perform miracles. She was later accused of possessing the mandrake and of always carrying it with her for good luck, an accusation that she denied.
The judges continue to insist on the voice. Joan was reluctant to identify it, but as the interrogations proceeded, she found herself forced to personify it. The voices are those of St Catherine and Margaret, as well as of the Archangel Michael. On the way to Chinon where she wanted to meet the Dauphin, “by revelation” of the voice she was able to locate a sword buried behind the altar of the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois. She explained to the judges “God can conduct revelations to whomever he chooses”. Having come to the Dauphin, she revealed the signa - the contents of which she never reported - showing a lucid sense of reality even when in contact with the supernatural. Then, the military campaigns began. On 8 May 1429, the English withdrew from Orleans. This was her most famous victory, from which she received the epithet that she is still known by today: the Maid of Orleans, that is to say, young virgin woman, victorious military leader. On 17 July, Charles VII was crowned at Reims. The sacredness of the Capetians was linked to the prophecies of a woman that the English had to condemn as a witch to prove the demonic origin of royal power. Nevertheless, she rebelled against this demonstrative scheme by remaining true to herself and the voices that spoke to her.
At the height of Joan’s success, on 31 July 1429, another woman, in her own way a prophetess in verse with lucid political acumen, concluded the Ditié a Jehanne d’Arc: Christine de Pizan’s last work and first poem about Joan, a sort of snapshot in 500 verses of the enthusiasm aroused by the fulfillment of certain prophecies. God’s support for the crown of France through Joan is intertwined with prophecies of the past and present, “what an honour for the female sex! [...] In Christendom and in the Church Joan will bring concord. She will destroy the unbelievers [the English] and the heretics of ignoble life, so said the prophecy”. In the following month, with the defeat of Paris, her decline began and which led, a year later, to her capture and, by strange fate, to her accusation of heresy. On 24 May 1431 in the cemetery of Saint-Ouen, when she was about to be burnt at the stake, Joan abjured. It was the only recantation of a rebel, of a lonely woman. She was taken to prison where men’s clothes awaited her, which are the symbol and epilogue of her prophetic journey.
By Marina Benedetti
Professor of History of Christianity at the University of Milan. The author, among other volumes of “Condannate al silenzio. Le eretiche medieval” [Condemned to silence. Medieval Heretics], Mimesis, and has edited “Storia del cristianesimo, ii: IL Medioevo” [History of Christianity, ii: the Middle Ages], Carocci.