by Rowan Wyatt
When I was young my love of the study of history was encouraged by the man who raised me, my grandfather Robert, himself an amateur historian and archaeologist. But my sphere of interest was steeped in Anglo-Saxon Britain, Ancient Egypt, and the Bible lands.
As I grew older, I developed a taste for the Medieval period and at a converging point a band I was into then (still am), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, released two songs which I instantly fell in love with and both were about the same person. The two tracks were named ‘Maid of Orleans’ and ‘Joan of Arc’. Knowing nothing about the history of her I decided in my youthful exuberant naivety to embark on a research project, unaware of the how the findings would shape me by inspiring such feelings of sympathy, anger, compassion, and rage.
In this short article I want to look at two key points in the tragedy of Jeanne d’Arc, these being Visions and Trial. There is not enough space to go into enough detail, so I urge you dear reader to further study.
At that time in 15th Century France there were prophecies abounding about the nation being saved by “A virgin from the borders of Lorraine who would work miracles”. There are other prophecies pertaining to women but this I feel is the key one that may have inspired Jeanne as a young girl. The visions Jeanne had consisted of her being visited by St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret where they instructed her to “Drive the English out of France and present the Dauphin at Reims for consecration”.
A struggle I have always had with ‘visions’ are that they can neither be proved or disproved, one can only accept the word of another that a vision is genuine or not. Certainly, at the time, Jeanne’s vision was accepted eventually by the French nation, after careful investigation into her background and testing her to check for heresy or ‘sorcery’, much like one would carry out a background check today.
In our time many, Christians, and Historians alike, dismiss Jeanne’s visions as delusion, deliberate lie or even Schizophrenia, though that last one is surely from those seeking to discredit her story as nastily as they can.
Again, it is impossible to know the validity of her visions and I have always struggled with any vision that has a call to war aspect to it, but then these abound in the Old Testament and we readily accept them. I for one feel, after much contemplation over the years, her visions to be real, the situations and development just would not have occurred had she just been a lying teenaged girl or suffering from a mental illness. Somewhere along the line she would have been found out and of course God does use the most unlikely of souls to do his will. In 15th Century Europe a teenage girl was by no means the most likely of souls to lead an army into battle, and there is no doubt the court of the Dauphin believed her.
I said in my opening that the story of Jeanne inspires anger and compassion in me, well it this part of her story that engenders those feelings.
On 23rd May 1430 Jeanne was eventually captured after an ambush at the battle of Compiègne. She was imprisoned at Beaurevoir castle but made several daring escape attempts, all of which failed until eventually following the guidance and negotiations of Bishop Pierre Cauchon (more of him later) she was sold to the British for the sum of 10,000 livres. She was transferred to Rouen where several attempts were made to free her and leading the French to threaten bloody reprisals if she was not released.
But sadly, all was in-vain and a show trial was convened, a Kangaroo court if you will.
The trial was to be led by none other than Bishop Cauchon playing his own political power game after already pleasing the British with his negotiation of Jeanne in the first place. He was not eligible to lead the trial; he was never officially appointed. The trial was nothing more than the premeditated murder of a young girl orchestrated by a bishop, putting power and glory before faith and the word of God. She was illegally refused French representation after multiple requests and so was left at the mercy of a court that was clearly partisan against her and with one outcome in mind.
Unable to convict her of Heresy she was however found guilty of the crime of cross-dressing. Many witnesses were able to attest having seen her in male attire and armour. Indeed, during her trial, she wore men’s clothing, the only thing available to her after having her dress stolen by guards whilst in custody. And so, having achieved their ends the young woman was executed in one of the more vicious methods employed at the time, burned at the stake. Afterwards the executioner expressed his feared damnation for his part in “burning a holy woman”.
Later in 1452 her trial was declared null and void and Jeanne declared a Martyr, Bishop Cauchon was ironically declared a heretic.
In 1909 Jeanne was finally beatified and canonised in 1920.
As a youth I was inspired by this tale of another youngster the same age as me leading armies, later I was inspired by her faith and courage and left saddened and horrified by her treatment and death. My ideas of Christian faith rocked by the machinations of a corrupt hierarchy in the church that was instrumental in Jèanne’s murder.
It became clear to me that whilst genuine faith and courage can be inspiring, faith can also be used and twisted into a weapon. Ploughshares have been shaped into swords far too often in the history of Christianity. Such things led me to be wary of believers, and if we can take one lesson away from Jeanne d’Arc’s sad tale, it is that the church’s own inhumanity (even to its own) is the witness that testifies most powerfully against the loving Gospel it is supposed to be spreading.
Photo by Rowan Wyatt, used with permission.