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Thoughts and Descriptions of Joan of Arc

[In a letter written three months after seeing Joan at Chinon, Perceval de Boulainvilliers sent this impression of her to Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan.]

This maid is rather elegant; she bears herself vigorously, speaks little, shows an admirable prudence in her words. She has a light, feminine voice, eats little, drinks little wine; she enjoys fine horses and arms, likes the company of noble knights, hates large gatherings and meetings, weeps readily, wears a cheerful countenance, and is incredibly strong in the wearing of armour and bearing of arms, sometimes remaining armed for as much as six days and nights.

[Orleans had been under siege for seven months when Joan arrived outside the city with a relief army on April 29, 1428. The situation was serious, but not yet critical. Dunois, “Bastard of Orleans,” (he was the illegitimate half-brother of the Duke of Orleans who had been taken prisoner by the English at Agincourt), who was in charge of defending the city, went out to meet her. Though Joan had yet to fight a battle, her reputation (and promise) had preceded her and she was already becoming an object of adulation. For this reason the party delayed until dusk “to avoid the tumult of the people.” The following passage from Frances Gies’ excellent book, Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, 1981, describes Joan’s entry into Orleans.]

At last at eight o’clock an extraordinary real-life historical tableau was enacted as Joan rode through the Burgundy gate, fully armed, on a white horse, her standard carried before her, Dunois at her side, followed by “many other noble and valiant lords, squires, captains, and soldiers, some of the garrison, and citizens of Orleans.” The cavalcade was surrounded on all sides by a crowd of soldiers and citizens carrying torches, “as joyful as if they had seen God descending among them,” commented the Journal du Siège, or “as if she had been an angel of God,” said Jean Luillier, one of the citizens. The whole city had taken Joan to its heart in advance, and all “regarded her very affectionately, men, women, even little children.” Pressing close, they sought to touch her, or even her horse. A torch coming in contact with Joan’s standard set it ablaze. She spurred her horse, turned him, and deftly extinguished the fire, to the marvel of the crowds, “as if she had long fought in wars,” commented the Journal du Siège. Closely escorted, Joan rode all the way through the city to the Rue du Tabour, where she was to lodge, with her two brothers and her household, at the house of Jacques Boucher, treasurer of the duke of Orleans.

In the leading and drawing up of armies and in the conduct of war, in disposing an army for battle and exhorting the soldiers, she behaved like the most experienced captain . . . one with a whole lifetime of experience.

Thibaut d’Armagnac (a knight who fought with her at Orleans)

[In July 1429, shortly after Joan had raised the siege at Orleans, Jean Chartier, who was in some senses the official historian of the court, exalted her in poetic prose:]

Behold her there, she who does not seem to have come from any place in the world, but to have been sent from heaven to raise up the head and shoulders of a Gaul beaten down into the earth. . . O singular virgin, worthy of all glories, of all praises, of divine honours, you are the greatness of the kingdom, you are the light of the lily, you are the brilliance, you are the glory, not only of the French, but also of all Christians.

[One month after the siege of Orleans had been raised and preparations were being made for the Loire campaign, a young nobleman, Guy de Laval, and his brother André arrived at St. Aignan to offer their services to the king, whom the next day they accompanied to Selles-en-Berry, a short distance to the east. Joan, already in Selles, was summoned before the king. On the 8th of June, 1429, Guy wrote to his grandmother and mother as follows:]

Some say that it was for my sake, in order that I might see her. She gave right good cheer (a kind reception) to my brother and myself; and after we had dismounted at Selles I went to see her in her quarters. She ordered wine, and told me that she would soon have me drinking some at Paris. It seems a thing divine to look on her and listen to her. I saw her mount on horseback, armed all in white armour, save her head, and with a little axe in her hand, on a great black charger, which, at the door of her quarters was very restive and would not let her mount. Then she said, “Lead him to the cross,” which was in front of the neighbouring church, on the road. There she mounted him without his moving and as if he were tied up; and turning towards the door of the church, which was very near at hand, she said, in quite a womanly voice, “You, priests and churchmen, make procession and prayers to God.” Then she resumed her road, saying, “Push forward, push forward.” She told me that three days before my arrival she had sent you, dear grandmother, a little golden ring, but that it was a very small matter and she would have liked to send you something better, having regard to your estimation.”

[In June, 1434 the Duke of Bedford, Regent of France and brother of Henry V, wrote a letter to his nephew Henry VI (the boy-king) defending his decisions as Regent. In part, it runs as follows:]

All things prospered with you till the time of the siege of Orleans, taken in hand by God knows what advice. At the which time, after the adventure [i.e. death] fallen to the person of my cousin Salisbury, whom God assoil [absolve], there fell by the hand of God, as it seemeth, a great stroke upon your people that was assembled there in great numbers, caused in great part, as I trow [think], by unfaithful doubt that they had of a disciple and limb of the Fiend, called the Maid, that used false enchantments and sorceries. The which stroke and discomforture not only lessened in great part the number of your people there, but, as well, withdrew the courage of the remainder in marvellous wise, and couraged your adverse party and enemies to assemble them forthwith in great number.

[On November 7, 1455, almost six years after the opening of an inquiry that eventually culminated in Joan’s rehabilitation, her mother, Isabelle Romée, traveled to Paris to visit a delegation from the Holy See. Although over seventy years old, she addressed the assembly with a moving speech which began as follows:]

I had a daughter, born in legitimate marriage, whom I fortified worthily with the sacraments of baptism and confirmation and raised in the fear of God and respect for the tradition of the Church, as much as her age and the simplicity of her condition permitted, so well that having grown up in the middle of the fields and of the pastures, she went frequently to church, and every month after due confession received the sacrament of the Eucharist, despite her young age, and gave herself to fasting and to prayer with great devotion and fervour on account of the necessities then so grave in which the people found themselves, and with which she sympathized with all her heart. Nevertheless, certain enemies betrayed her in a trial concerning the Faith, and, without any aid given to her innocence, in a perfidious, violent, and iniquitous trial, without shadow of right, they condemned her in a damnable and criminal fashion and made her die most cruelly by fire.

Of the witnesses at the Rehabilitation, only Joan’s squire Jean d’Aulon provided any information about Joan’s appearance; in his eyes and memory she was “beautiful and well-formed.” He was not, however, sexually aroused by the sight of “her breasts and sometimes her bare legs, when he dressed her wounds . . . although he was then strong, young, and in his full powers . . . and neither were any of her other men-at-arms and squires, as he had heard them say many times.” Some writers have concluded from this absence of sexual response that Joan was not attractive. Not only does d’Aulon positively affirm the contrary, but he makes clear that he and his companions regarded their restraint toward her as truly miraculous. Several men on the Anglo-Burgundian side, in whom she did not inspire the same sentiments of awe and respect, later made sexual advances to her.

Frances Gies (from Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, 1981)

[The great humanist pope, Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), who reigned from 1458 to 1464 and played an influential role in European politics, left memoirs which included a summary of the history of the fifteenth century. His account of Joan’s story was generally sympathetic.]

. . . Thus died Joan, that astonishing and marvellous maid who restored the kingdom of France when it was fallen and almost torn asunder; who inflicted so many defeats on the English; who being made general over men kept her purity unstained among companies of soldiers; of whom no breath of scandal was ever heard . . . Whether her career was a miracle of heaven or a device of men I should find hard to say.

[The following passage is from Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique.]

. . . .Up to the present the ridiculous; here now is the horrible.

One of Joan’s judges, doctor of theology and priest, by name Nicholas the Bird-Catcher, comes to confess her in prison. He abuses the sacrament to the point of hiding behind a piece of serge two priests who transcribed Joan of Arc’s confession. Thus did the judges use sacrilege in order to be murderers. And an unfortunate idiot, who had had enough courage to render very great services to the king and the country, was condemned to be burned by forty-four French priests who immolated her for the English faction.

It is sufficiently well-known how someone had the cunning and meanness to put a man’s suit beside her to tempt her to wear this suit again, and with what absurd barbarism this transgression was claimed as a pretext for condemning her to the flames, as if in a warrior girl it was a crime worthy of the fire, to put on breeches instead of a skirt. All this wrings the heart, and makes common sense shudder. One cannot conceive how we dare, after the countless horrors of which we have been guilty, call any nation by the name of barbarian.

Most of our historians, lovers of the so-called embellishments of history rather than of truth, say that Joan went fearlessly to the torture; but as the chronicles of the times bear witness, and as the historian Villaret admits, she received her sentence with cries and tears; a weakness pardonable in her sex, and perhaps in ours, and very compatible with the courage which this girl had displayed amid the dangers of war; for one can be fearless in battle, and sensitive on the scaffold.

I must add that many persons have believed without any examination that the Maid of Orleans was not burned at Rouen at all, although we have the official report of her execution. They have been deceived by the account we still have of an adventuress who took the name of the “Maid,” deceived Joan of Arc’s brothers, and under cover of this imposture, married in Lorraine a nobleman of the house of Armoise. There were two other rogues who also passed themselves off as the “Maid of Orleans.” All three claimed that Joan was not burned at all, and that another woman had been substituted for her. Such stories can be admitted only by those who want to be deceived.

This admirable heroine, to whom the more generous superstition of the ancients would have erected altars, was, on pretense of heresy and magic, delivered over alive to the flames, and expiated by that dreadful punishment the signal services which she had rendered to her prince and to her native country.

David Hume

[George Bernard Shaw, though acquainted with the historical sources, invariably had his own peculiar (and often contrary) interpretation of any social or political phenomenon, and Joan was no exception. His interpretation was designed to fit his theory of the life force. Thus for him Joan was one of the great individuals that history throws up from time to time in order to advance the cause of creative evolution. The following excerpt is from the 20,000 word preface to his play St Joan.]

Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and most pious Catholic, and the projector of a Crusade against the Husites, she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs. She was also one of the first apostles of Nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom-gambling chivalry of her time. She was the pioneer of rational dressing for women, and, like Queen Christina of Sweden two centuries later, to say nothing of Catalina de Erauso and innumerable obscure heroines who have disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers and sailors, she refused to accept the specific woman’s lot, and dressed and fought and lived as men did.

As she contrived to assert herself in all these ways with such force that she was famous throughout western Europe before she was out of her teens (indeed she never got out of them), it is hardly surprising that she was judicially burnt, ostensibly for a number of capital crimes which we no longer punish as such, but essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption. At eighteen Joan’s pretensions were beyond those of the proudest Pope or the haughtiest emperor. She claimed to be the ambassador and plenipotentiary of God, and to be, in effect, a member of the Church Triumphant whilst still in the flesh on earth. She patronized her own king, and summoned the English king to repentance and obedience to her commands. She lectured, talked down, and overruled statesmen and prelates. She pooh-poohed the plans of generals, leading their troops to victory on plans of her own. She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgment, and authority, and for War Office tactics and strategy. Had she been a sage and monarch in whom the most venerable hierarchy and the most illustrious dynasty converged, her pretensions and proceedings would have been as trying to the official mind as the pretensions of Caesar were to Cassius. As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable.

[The following passage is from Winston Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Vol. I, 1956.]

Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. The records of her trial present us with facts alive today through all the mists of time. Out of her own mouth can she be judged in each generation. She embodied the natural goodness and valour of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang. All soldiers should read her story and ponder on the words and deeds of the true warrior, who in one single year, though untaught in technical arts, reveals in every situation the key of victory.

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