History in France, part 5. Joan of Arc.

Goodness – how do I fit Joan of Arc in to one small blog ?  Well, I fitted Eleanor of Aquitaine in, which was sacrilege, so I suppose I can do the same for Joan.

Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc (sometimes Arques) would probably not interest me much, except that one of the many schools I went to was called Joan of Arc.  There was a dreadful school song : Joan of Arc !  For the love we bear thee!  which us girls, neat in our maroon gym slips and brettles, would shout out in to the great hall.

Joan of Arc was born in 1412 at the time of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1437) between England and France, when England owned vast areas of France and demanded a dual monarchy with the throne of France *.  Her parents were land-owning farmers, a couple of notches up from peasants, but almost certainly totally illiterate and simple folk, though her mother did come from a minor noble family several generations before.

The story of Joan of Arc was unheard of till the Prussian seige of Paris in the mid-1800s, 400 years later, when the French authorities needed some kind of heroine-figure to help rally French troops.  Had it not been for that nobody would have heard of her. A hundred years earlier the French had chosen “Marianne” (sometimes “la Marianne”) as a heroine-figure during the Revolution – and she still appears on French postage stamps to this day.  Interesting that, in a male-dominated society, the French chose women figures on both occasions.


Joan was born in the village of Doremy (re-named Doremy-la-Pucelle**) in what is now the Lorraine.  Her childhood home is a museum these days.  She was extremely religious, and one can safely suppose that she heard her father and his friends vehemently discussing the English occupation and control of such large areas of France, and the poor state of mental health of the French king, Charles VI.  Impressionable and heavily influenced by strong family feeling, undoubtedly fired-up with hormones and quite possibly a tomboy, Joan decided she heard voices telling her to help the French army oust the English and replace the mad king with the Dauphin (hier to the throne).

a joan

There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not Joan was in fact schizophrenic (as she heard voices) or suffered from some other mental illness.  But I don’t think so.  There were already other women in the French army – and, oddly, one of the first things Joan did once she was in a position of power, was to ban women from the army – and anyway there is no evidence, either then or now, that she was anything other than bright, asute, controlled, sharp and sincere.  If you read through the transcript of her trial you will see her replies are not those of an insane girl.

In a nutshell, French France was largely divided in to two factions: the Burgundians, who supported the English, and the Armagnacs who supported the French.  There was a great deal of in-fighting, intrigue, devious plots and anger, not to mention battle.  French France was in a terrible state as all the fighting for many years had taken place on French soil, the land was massively burnt-out by English troops and France had furthermore been ravaged by the Black Death.

 all in red/orange was under English control

At the age of 16, Joan asked an influential uncle to help her meet one Count Baudricourt, who in turn helped her (after much sarcasm and several refusals) meet the Dauphin (heir to the throne).  It may be that the French authorities saw Joan, unusual as she was, as some kind of “sign” that they latched on to in desperation as their regime was close to total collapse.  Joan dressed up in armour and demanded to be placed at the head of the army, a request that was granted, one can only assume, in complete hopelessness when everything else had failed.

Joan was successful in that she had the Dauphin crowned the new king*** and she won an outstanding battle. But within three years she had been captured by the Burgundians and sold for a vast sum to the English. She was put on trial by the French pro-English Bishop Cauchon, and eventually burnt at the stake in the town of Rouen in northern France.  She was only 19 years old.

* the French king, Charles VI, was insane and the heir to the throne, Charles VII, was a child

** Joan was affectionately nicknamed la Pucelle, meaning “the little flea”.  Odd to an English ear, but ma puce in French is common to this day

*** pictures portray him as an adult, but he was in fact barely 14 years old

Joan of Arc    There are no surviving pictures of the real Joan, so all illustrations are artist impressions, even this medieval one – which seems to me to be the more realistic and less romanticised

 Click here for Part 6

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Posted on 18/03/2013 by Catherine
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