The France of 1429 lay in tatters. From the middle of the 14th Century, France had battled England in what came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. A peace treaty signed in 1420 had disinherited the crown prince of France, Charles Valois. By 1429, the English and their allies, the Burgundians, held much of northern France.
At age 13, Jeanne d’Arc, the daughter of a tenant farmer from occupied France, began to hear voices which persuaded her that she had been ordained by God to save her nation, expel the English and to set Charles upon the throne as the King of France. In 1429, at age 16, she cropped her hair and put on men’s clothes. Disguised, she led a small group of followers across enemy territory to the crown prince’s castle in Chinon.
Jeanne d’Arc, Joan of Arc in English, promised Charles that she would free Reims, the traditional site for French kings to be crowned. Reportedly, she initially won credibility by identifying him mingling incognito among the courtiers while a stand-in sat upon the throne. She further persuaded him by allegedly revealing information that could only have come from God. Against the advice of his military advisors, Charles agreed to support her. Dressed in white armor and riding a white horse, she led forces to Orleans as part of a relief mission. The French broke the English siege of Orleans. Then, she escorted Charles to Reims, capturing towns that resisted the French. In July 1429, Charles of Valois was crowned King Charles VII of France.
In the Spring of 1430, the newly crowned French king ordered her to repulse a Burgundian assault on Compiegne. In the battle, she was thrown from her horse and left outside the gates of the city. The Burgundians captured her and delivered her to the English commander in Rouen.
In early 1431, the English commander and his priests brought their accusations against Joan. Among the charges, they said she had violated divine law by dressing as a man and bearing arms. She, furthermore, had deceived simple people by making them believe that God had sent her. Finally, she had committed “divine offense,” heresy. Some days later, when the trial opened, the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, added the charge of witchcraft. She had, he argued, cast spells and invoked demons. The best pettifogging theologians among the English were brought to put questions to this uneducated farm girl.
Question: Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?
Joan: If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”
A “yes” or “no” answer would likely have condemned her for violations of church doctrine of the day. This answer avoiding the theological trap, left the judge “stupefied” in the words of the court reporter.
In May 1431, after a year in custody, and under death threats, with the instruments of torture on full display, Joan signed a confession denying that she had ever received divine guidance. As a sign of submission, she agreed to wear women’s clothes. Almost immediately, she renounced her confession and resumed her practice of wearing men’s clothing. The voices had returned, she explained to the judges and chastised her for weakness. She was, nonetheless, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death. On the morning of May 30th, Joan of Arc was taken to the market square of Rouen and burned at the stake.
The tide of the war, however, had shifted. English holdings in France were reduced until they possessed only the port of Calais. More than 20 years after Joan’s death, her sentence was overturned following an inquiry ordered by Charles VII. Centuries later, in 1920, Joan of Arc was declared a saint.
At a time when gender roles were fixed, a cross-dressing, sword wielding teenage girl who led French armies to victory while hearing the voices of saints got noticed. She still does. Shakespeare portrayed her in Henry VI, Part 1. Mark Twain declared his book, Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his favorite and his best. Her life is remarkably well documented for the era, particularly for peasant woman. These resources exist because of the records kept during her trials: the posthumous retrial in which she was acquitted, and the original trial in May of 1431.
A historical figure whose story unfolds like a character in a video game, the case of Joan of Arc, whose trial culminated in May 1431, presents my trial of the month.