Remembering the Maid of OrleansJAMES MAHONY
No one knows for sure when Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domremy. But many believe the date was Jan. 6, 1412 — six centuries ago today.
Although just 17 when she left home, with no training beyond spinning wool and sheep-herding, Joan's goals were ambitious. She planned to lift the siege of Orleans, free France of its English occupiers, restore the Kingdom of France and see its leader, Charles VII, crowned King.
Joan began her mission about 1429, having been guided by interior voices for about two years. When she set out for Chinon, where Charles the Dauphin was staying, much of France, including Orleans, was occupied by English armies. For anyone considering it, the prospect of restoring the French monarchy must have seemed slim.
Yet Joan was not deterred. She was persuasive, enlisting the aid of many Frenchman on the road to Chinon. Villagers contributed money to buy the horse and body armour she needed for her divinely inspired mission.
A normal teenager in many ways, she impressed those around her by her simple living and unflagging faith in God.
If the rest of her life was not remarkable, the way Joan found the Dauphin at Chinon was. He did not appear in royal robes, and tradition says he dressed plainly, hiding himself among courtiers when Joan arrived. She was not fooled, but approached him directly and addressed him by name, despite never having seen him before.
All of Joan's goals were achieved, most before her death. She led ragtag, undistinguished French soldiers to successive victories over English armies at Orleans and elsewhere, victories that some witnesses called miraculous. As a result, she was hated by the English. Eventually, she was taken prisoner by allies of the English who handed her over for trial.
When Joan was tried in the French town of Rouen, it was not for attacking English armies, but for the ecclesiastical offence of heresy. Although illiterate and facing execution if convicted, she was never allowed a lawyer. Her trial was rife with irregularities that would today be grounds for a mistrial.
While on trial, her answers — as quoted by witnesses — show an amazing presence of mind. Asked if she was in a state of grace — a critical issue for Catholics — she answered thoughtfully. "If I am, may God keep me in it, and if I am not, may God make me so, for I had rather die than not be in the love of God."
At times, her prosecutors, apparently unhappy with her earlier testimony, repeated questions they'd posed days or weeks before. Joan said that she'd already answered the queries, and asked the clerks to read back her responses from earlier in the trial. Her prosecutors argued that Joan had often worn men's clothing, something she'd never denied.
Oddly, no death sentence was ever passed. But before the trial has even finished, English soldiers had built scaffolding and were setting wood afire in Rouen's town square. In medieval France, convicted heretics were burned at the stake.
As her trial ended, Joan's captors tied her hands and led her into the square before hostile English soldiers joined by many sympathetic French villagers. Weeks earlier, while still a prisoner, she'd told her captors: I know the English will have me killed, because they believe they will gain the kingdom of France after my death — but they never will.
As the flames rose around her, Joan called out for a crucifix to be held before her, and a priest who'd attended her in prison came forward and complied. After much suffering, she died, at 19 years old. Later canonized by the Catholic Church, she is today the patron saint of France.
James Mahony, "Remembering the Maid of Orleans." National Post, (Canada) January 6, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
James Mahony writes for the National Post.
Copyright © 2012 National Post
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