Political and Christian Reasons Of Death of Joan of Arc
The conflict between France and England over French succession, known as the Hundred Years’ War, had raged on for nearly a century before either country knew the name ‘Joan of Arc’. In 1415, the French would suffer a crushing defeat at the Battle of Agincourt as the new English king, Henry V, prepared for direct French conquest. The French were spared from defeat by Henry V’s death in 1422, but the young French Dauphin, Charles VII, was too weak of a ruler to seize the throne alone. As if truly a divine miracle, a young peasant girl named Joan of Arc visited the Dauphin, proclaiming the heavenly voice that called her forth to lead the French army into battle and expel the English from French lands. Joan would successfully lead the French army at the Siege of Orleans, a victory notable for boosting French morale after a decade of military defeats against the English. However, her fortune would not last. In 1430, Joan of Arc was captured, sold to the English, and burnt at the stake as a condemned heretic. How did this symbol of French military spirit suffer such a fall from grace? Joan of Arc’s tragic fate was the result of the late medieval period’s use of heresy to destroy political enemies and Joan of Arc’s blatant disregard for gender norms in a medieval society hostile to women and non-conformists.
Joan of Arc was far from the condemned sorceress and heretic she was condemned as. When questioned about her religious habits, she replied that she “confessed her sins each year …[and received] the Eucharist at Easter,” traditions expected of the average devout Christian. She firmly believed it was a messenger of God that compelled her towards her mission. This alleged voice encouraged her “to govern herself well, to go often to church, and that it said she also go to France.” Although the only records of the contents of Joan’s vision came from a contempuous trial, it is notable that Joan of Arc was only a girl of seventeen. Women had no true place in the military in medieval Europe. However, in a time where religious faith prevailed, Joan of Arc felt compelled to leave the security of her home, to seek out the Dauphin, and to fight for France despite this. Joan must’ve firmly believed that God chose her as an instrument to deliver France from English control. It wasn’t as though the French sought out a young divine prophet to boost the morale of their troops as a military strategy, either. Joan sought out a man named Robert de Baudricourt and “twice he denied and withstood her, and the third time he took her and gave her attendants,” showing the reluctance Joan of Arc overcame among the French themselves in allowing her to lead them into battle. To carry the fate of one’s country on one’s shoulders was a heavy burden, even more so for “a poor girl who knew not how to ride a horse nor head a campaign.” Joan of Arc’s conviction to fight was steeped in religious belief, the mark of a true saint and demonstrating the remarkable weight that religion carried in the hearts of the people.
Joan of Arc’s prominence in the Siege of Orleans made her a significant target for the English. The authoritative tone she commanded in her letter to the King of England, referring to herself in third person as “the Maid” and defending the Dauphin’s political claim by invoking “the King of Heaven,” emphasizes how Joan of Arc asserted her defense of France as an action ordained by God. Joan of Arc further declared, “I shall find your men in France, I will make them flee the country…and if they will not obey, the Maid will have them all killed.” In the absence of faith, this use of third-person would come off almost egotistical, as a girl so young was threatening death to someone as powerful as a king. However, the French did perform this mentioned “greatest feat ever done in the name of Christianity” in the English defeat at the Siege of Orleans, proof towards Joan of Arc’s godly claims. Joan of Arc’s voice shone through in this letter as a powerful, righteous holy woman full of charisma. If she carried herself with this same God-given authority in person, there is no doubt that she successfully rallied French morale to fight back against England’s attempted conquest of France. Thus, Joan of Arc’s liberating presence became a major threat to English political interests in the Hundred Years’ War.
Joan of Arc’s trial, though fundamentally religious in nature, took a political skew. Her interrogators would repeatedly ask her questions about the Dauphin “whom she called her king,” about “when the voice disclosed the king,” and “asked how the king regarded the revelations.” Although the subject of these interrogations were the contents of her visions, the underlying purpose of potentially rooting out state secrets highlights how Joan of Arc’s capture was politically motivated. Through Joan of Arc’s influence, the tide of the war began turning in favor of France. Thus, the easiest way for the English to rid of their political enemy, Charles VII, was to discredit the symbol of French morale as a witch and consort of the devil, thereby illegitimizing Charles VII’s claim to the throne. This highlights a notable pattern in the late medieval period, where certain factions sought to destroy their political enemies through heresy accusations.
In various accounts of Joan of Arc, many noted her disregard for gender norms and gendered dress. In contemptuous accounts of Joan of Arc, this disregard is weaponized against her. She was interrogated “by whose advice she put on men’s dress, which she refused to answer several times.” In asking who advised her to wear men’s clothing suggests that it wasn’t the norm for women to wear men’s clothing, nor did women possess the agency to decide to wear men’s clothing for a purpose other than by the temptation of some perverse force. In Johann Nider’s accounts, when the master is asked of witches and sorcesses, he recounts Joan of Arc. Joan “always wore man’s dress, nor could all the persuasions of any doctors [of divinity] bend her to put these aside and content herself with woman’s garments, especially considering that she openly professed herself a woman and a maid.” Despite Joan’s successful military campaigns in a century-long conflict, a massive accomplishment for any military figure, her hateful contemporaries emphasized her mode of dress as evidence that Joan consorted with the devil. Even doctors of divinity sought to restrict France’s God-sent savior to women’s clothes. This debasement of Joan of Arc’s character based on her clothing establishes the late medieval period’s attitude towards gender roles and gendered behavior. The belief in strict adherence to expected attire may also reflect the time period’s general anxiety towards outsiders and non-conformists.
The late medieval period did not hold women in high esteem, and it could be particularly malicious towards women who did not conform to expected conduct or the interests of men in power. The late medieval period’s view towards women can be gleaned through Johan Nider’s exchange between master and pupil. This exchange concerned two women who were arrested for declaring that they were sent by God to help Joan of Arc. Although one woman recanted her proclamations, but the other woman refused to deny her statement and was burnt. This story demonstrates the fate of women who speak out: silence, or death. The master states that in nature, there is “the tongue, the ecclesiastic, and the woman: all of three are commonly best of all, so long as they are guided by a good spirit, but worst of all if guided by an evil spirit.” The tongue and the ecclesiastic are not sentient human specimens on their own; speech and the body of faith are two fundamental parts of the medieval experience, but they cannot exist without man. By comparing women alongside these two elements, women are stripped of their agency, becoming either objects of holiness or misguided temptations. The pupil states, “I cannot sufficiently marvel how the frail sex can to rush into such presumptuous things” and the master follows with, “[these] things are marvelous to simple folks like you, they are not rare in the eyes of wise men.” The knowledge that wise men possess at this time is the fragility of women’s souls emphasizes the condescending regard that men hold for women’s capabilities. Women who act against men’s wishes are silenced, both corporeally and their convictions humiliated.
Joan of Arc herself defied the expectations of women and refused to recant her convictions; thus, malicious contemporaries resorted to base slander to ruin her name. During her trial, interrogators prodded the source of her visions in search of any and every contradiction. Joan of Arc, however, stayed firm in her mission to God and “she refused several times to answer” became a common theme in her responses. Her enemies’ inability to break her spirit led her to her burning: a forceful silencing. Countless other acts of slander followed Joan of Arc’s legacy in an attempt to tarnish her power. The master speaks of a woman claiming to be Joan, “a wretched woman [who] would not obey the commands of the Church…where [she married] a certain priest, or rather pimp, seduced this witch…[and] went to Metz, where she lived as his concubine and showed all men openly by what spirit she was led.” The scandalization of women who bore Joan’s likeness demonstrates how hostile factions sought to ruin the reputation of women who were a threat to their power. Many contemporaries attempted to scandalize Joan of Arc’s purity, a further effort to condemn Joan since one of the Maid’s virtues was her purity. Joan’s aforementioned manner of dress came under scrutiny and the visions Joan bore that led her to such military heights were “judged to be [the work of] an evil spirit.” Joan of Arc’s words and deeds held great merit and swayed the tide of the war. Thus, her enemies found no way to debase Joan of Arc without resorting to base insults that circumvented her pure convictions altogether. This slander of Joan of Arc’s image culminated in her enemies’ long-sought ending: evidence to condemn Joan as a witch and eliminating Joan as a political threat.
Joan of Arc was a true saint, possessing religious devotion so deep she left the safety of her peasant life to take up arms against the English. Without her divine visions and leadership, the French might have never recovered from a defeat at the Siege of Orleans and the English might have succeeded in their conquest of France. However, it was this same staunch belief in God that would lead to Joan of Arc’s death: burnt for political interference as well as the heresy of disregarding societal expectations. By examining the conditions that led to the downfall of one of the most well-known female figures in the late medieval period, one can investigate not only contemporary attitudes towards women, but also the contradictions present in navigating political warfare in a Christian world.
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