"Joan was born about 1412 in the village of Domremy, in the Champagne district of northeastern France. As the daughter of a farmer, she grew up herding cattle and sheep, and helping in the fields during the harvest. She did not go to school and never learned to read or to write. Like most peasants in her time, Joan was religious and spent much time praying to the statues of saints that stood around the church in her village”
Joan of Arc led and motivated her troops to drive the English out of France. She knew nothing about warfare, but claimed to be guided by visions of saints. Few people believed her, and many thought she used sorcery. When Joan's enemies captured her, they declared her a witch and burned her at the stake. Nevertheless, Joan's inspiration lived on after her death. To fight for the king and her country as a whole was a new idea to the people at that time, and it helped unite them in victory. Afterward, many came to believe that, indeed, she was divinely led. “Joan has been neutralized as one of the “immortal few” whose lives are too great for history of biography and who stands for nothing offensive but only the “lowliest simplicity” and “human motherhood in action” (Blaetz, 42). Joan, the French heroine, has transcended through centuries throughout many countries and cultures, symbolizing nationalism, courage, patriotism, and determination.
Many depictions of Joan have been created, and all records of her, including trial records, and letters, were made mostly after her death. They cover every aspect of Joan, from her voices to her leadership. However, there is no record of Joan’s actual appearance. The color of her hair or her eyes, her height, her weight, her smile or her voice were not described until after her death, and one may argue about the validity of those descriptions. The only certain aspect of her physical being that emerges from the trial and her rehabilitation is that Joan of Arc was a virgin (Bloom, 27). Many authors and historians have discussed Joan’s virginity in their works. In the Middle Ages virgins were considered to be as powerful as men, and to lose one’s virginity would symbolize the loss of status for a woman by achieving womanhood and becoming more different from men. Joan testified at her trial that the first time she heard the voice of St. Michael, she vowed to preserve her virginity “as long as it should be pleasing to God” (Bloom, 26). When asked why she called herself Pucelle, she answered, “I can assure you that I am such, and if you don’t believe me, have me examined by women” (Gies, 156). Pucelle means “virgin” and is the equivalent of the Hebrew almah, used of both Virgin Mary and the dancing girls in Solomon’s harem in the Bible. It denotes a time of passage, not a permanent condition (Warner, 30). “With an instinct for seizing a central image of power, which Joan possessed to an extraordinarily developed degree, she picked a word for virginity that captured with doubled strength the magic of her state in her culture,” Warner wrote. Joan’s virginity expressed not only the purity of her body, but also prevented her from achieving full womanhood. Joan hoped men would refrain from thinking of her as a sexual object and would accept her as one of them. Joan even underwent an examination at her trial by the duchess of Bedford, sister of the duke of Burgundy. The examination proved Joan a virgin: “Nothing was ever said in the trial records about this examination or the proof that Joan was a virgin; but the court’s knowledge of it was signaled by the omission of any assertion to the contrary” (Warner, 156).
Joan’s masculine attire provoked comment and controversy, both before and during her trial. Joan refused to wear female clothing because she wanted to be thought of as a soldier, not as a defenseless woman. Through her male clothes, Joan was able to reject the destiny of womankind (subordination) and take on all the privileges of the male, namely his superiority. Even though Joan “put off and entirely abandoned woman’s clothes, with her hair cropped short and round in the fashion of young men, wearing shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together. . . breastplate, lance and other arms in the style of a man-at-arms,” she never denied herself to be a woman, for she called herself La Pucelle, the Maid (Warner, 147). Such self-representation promoted the seriousness of Joan’s cause. Through forfeiting the role of a domestic housewife, and promoting the image of a courageous soldier, Joan’s mode of dress became a symbol of her devotion to France. Joan stood as a true martyr for France, sacrificing herself and her role as a woman in society to a France without the oppression of the English.
A fifteenth-century manuscript dating from Joan’s time contains a proverb warning against masculine women: “A woman who talks like a man and a hen who crows like a cock are no good to have around” (Warner 148). A poem by an anonymous contemporary of Joan stated:
It is forbidden in the Bible
That a woman be so bold,
On pain of terrible torment,
To commit the idolatry
Of wearing on a single day of her life
The dress that belongs to a man.
Joan put on male clothing as a matter of convenience. As time went on, her mode of dress became very important to her, until during her trial when her attire became a symbol of her resistance to the judges. Joan refused to change into female attire at her trial because Joan’s male clothing prevented her from being raped by the soldiers guarding her in the dungeon. Should she put on a female dress, she would be transformed into a female in the eyes of men around her. Joan would no longer seem strong and tough, but rather she would seem fragile and feminine. Nevertheless, during the trial Joan complained to Cauchon and Warwick that the soldiers would harass her, despite her “tightly laced hose” (Bloom, 26).
Joan of Arc, a devoted saint of God, was burned at the stake in May of 1431 on charges of heresy, which meant that Joan espoused beliefs opposed to the official Church doctrines. After Joan’s capture in May 1430 by the Burgundians, the theological faculty of the University of Paris wrote to her captors to insist that Joan be turned over to the Inquisitor of France. This faculty was under the control of the English; thus the courts had every reason to be biased against Joan.
Joan’s trial was in no way just or fair. The trial began several weeks after her capture. During this time, Joan was locked up in the dungeon with soldiers keeping an eye on her every move. The reason the English wanted Joan imprisoned, and maybe even dead, was clear: she was their enemy – the reason why they lost many battles and territories to the French. Among them was the famous battle of Orleans. However, the reason why the French did not make any effort to rescue her or buy her freedom remains unclear. Perhaps Charles, already being King, had no more use for her, or perhaps Joan’s religious affiliation with God through her voices and visions were a threat to French relations with the Church.
When Joan’s trial was finally opened, seventy counts appeared in the indictment. The readings of the Articles of the indictment and Joan’s replies to them occupied the court for two days. After this, the seventy charges were reduced to twelve articles, from which Joan’s replies were all omitted. These twelve articles were sent to the judges for their opinion and to the Faculty of the University of Paris, a body wholly dependent upon the English crown. The twelve articles mainly fell into three categories.
The first of these categories was that Joan used magic because she claimed to hear voices from St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine. These voices told Joan to dress as a boy and fight for the French in the Hundred Years War against the English. The charge against her stated that the voices were actually demons instead of saints. The Church accused Joan of being linked to the devil (1948 Joan of Arc). The second indictment proclaimed that she was headstrong in speaking out for her faith. This was seen as a crime because she acted inappropriately for a woman in her time. She dressed as a boy, and fought in war, which horrified the judges. The third set of accusations reflected Joan of Arc's pure obedience to God. The Church claimed ultimate infallibility; thus Joan’s direct relationship with the deity without intercession by the church presented the ultimate insult to the judges and the court. Joan further aggravated the judges by not submitting to the judgment of the Church when the Pope stated that the voices Joan heard were demons. The court and the judges were insulted that Joan argued against the people who supposedly were trying to help her.
Convicted of these charges, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, in the Old Market Place of Rouen, near the church of Saint-Sauveur. She was only 19 years old, and her death was a powerful witness to her commitment to God. When her sentence was to be carried out, she asked to face the cross from the church, and to hold a small wooden cross until she died. While her body was burning, she kept repeating the name of Jesus over and over to give her strength. Some witnesses claimed that Joan’s heart never burned.
An English solder who had hated Joan “was thunderstruck to see, as her spirit left her body, a white dove fly in the direction of France” (Gies, 225). This account, among others, reflected the emerging belief that Joan was a saint. John Tressart, one of Henry VI’s secretaries, left the scene of the execution weeping and groaning, “We are all lost, for we have burned a saint” (Gies, 225). Both the French and the English later came to see the mistake they made in burning Joan. Nevertheless, Jeanne la Pucelle, the Maid, was an example of what a brave spirit can accomplish in the brutal and unjust world. Joan of Arc lived on in the imagination of the world as a symbol of integrity and purpose that led people to die for what they believed.
In 1789, France was struck by yet another rebellion. A revolution emerged between the people and the monarchy in France. This revolution came to be known as the French Revolution, and resulted in the establishment first of a republic, and a dictatorship after 1799 under Napoleon. The powers in charge during the French Revolution were very cruel to Joan's memory. They canceled the May 8th celebration that had been held at Orleans continually since two years after Joan's death. They also destroyed statues and crosses that were set up to honor Joan and they burned her relics. For the next ten years Joan's memory faded, and it was not until 1803 when Napoleon once more made it proper to honor Joan. On January 30, 1803, Napoleon authorized the celebration of the 8 May feast at Orleans (suspended during the revolution) and set up a new monument to Joan, which read, “United, the French Nation has never been conquered” (Warner, 256). This sculpture showed Joan seizing a flag from an English soldier. Joan of Arc had become the representative of the idea that there is no miracle that cannot be accomplished by the French when the national independence is threatened. Joan was no stranger to the struggle for power in French history, and because Joan had fought the English, Napoleon made use of her to further his own campaign against them. Napoleon made Joan an official symbol of French patriotism and a national heroine. As a consequence, her popularity among the people grew. Until 1814, France was struggling against England in one way or another, and during this time, many works were written about Joan, reviving her as the forgotten hero of France by making her the center during political and nationalistic campaigns.
Given Joan’s growing role as a national hero, the Church was not blind to the popularity that Joan had achieved. On May 8, 1869, Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans, with the support of eleven other French bishops, petitioned Rome to begin the process of Joan’s canonization. Bishop Dupanloup declared, "Not only Orleans and France but also the whole world venerate God's actions through Joan of Arc, the piety and enthusiasm of this young girl, her purity and selflessness with which she always carried out the will of God” (Warner, 196).
Unfortunately, with the coming of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Bishop Dupanloup's request was put on hold. During this war France lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans, and the French politicians used Joan as a symbol for a crusade to regain these lands. In 1893, the French people elected a Socialist government to power. The Socialist party was a political party which argued that the means of production and distribution should be owned and controlled by the society, rather than private individuals. The Socialist Party was anti-clerical, and the only way Joan could be used as a model of national independence and nationalism in France, is if she is proclaimed a saint. This way, the Socialist Party could use Joan as a propaganda tool during the wars and rebellions in France.
On January 27, 1894, Pope Leo XIII, in hopes of improving relations between the Vatican (papal palace) and the French government, officially began the process of Joan's beatification. In doing so he proclaimed the Maid to have been the “venerable handmaiden of God” (Gies, 239). On December 13, 1908 Pope Pius X declared, "Joan has shone like a new star destined to be the glory not only of France but of the Universal Church as well” (Gies, 247). It was because of her heroic virtue that Joan was declared blessed on April 18, 1909. Joan was canonized in a grand and solemn ceremony in Saint Peter's Basilica on May 16, 1920. Her feast day is celebrated on May 30, the day of her death. On July 10, 1920, the French government officially made May 8th a national holiday, and Pope Benedict XV declared Joan of Arc a saint.
Napoleon established a precedent for future countries to employ Joan for their political purposes. America, too, during World War I used Joan in propaganda campaigns to depict the First War as a fight between good and evil. In 1914, the New York Times referred to the United States as a “Great, helpless, unprepared nation” (Blaetz, 36). For this reason, when the war actually broke out in Europe in July 1914, the United States claimed neutrality. It was only with the sinking of the Lusitania, “killing one hundred American civilians, that the declaration of war became inevitable” (Blaetz, 36). The propaganda of World War I tried to avoid portraying the horror of soldiers dying, and instead emphasized the rewards that come with nationalism, patriotism, and freedom. Consequently, Joan of Arc was an ideal propaganda tool, because the heroine embodied the principles of justice and noble sacrifice during her fight in the Hundred Years War. Moreover, the French were allies to the United States, and in a speech given by the French ambassador to the United States in 1915, he stated: “The saints who have watched over France in all these centuries are still with her. The nation has become one in a single purpose. She can fight, and will win the fight. . . . And so it was--so it has been” (Blaetz, 37).
The French also donated a Joan of Arc statue to New York, making the connection between the past and the present even stronger: “Joan was essential during and after the war as a figural connection that linked the deaths of millions of young warriors to an abstract notion of eternal greatness” (Blaetz, 39). In conceptualizing the soldiers of this conflict as “radiant, gallant warriors,” propaganda for the war attracted over a million volunteers (Blaetz, 36). A parallel was made between Joan of Arc and the American soldiers in the war. An essay by A. Evelyn Newman, in the Ladies Home Journal begins with the lyrics of one of the most popular songs of World War I, “Joan of Arc, They Are Calling You,” which had been published in 1917. The essay ends with a series of connections: between the soldiers and their “medieval sister”; between the “Christianity” for which Joan died and “the New Democracy – justice, and the right and freedom and love of God”; and between Joan’s death at nineteen and the deaths of so many young Americans (Blaetz, 37). Many soldiers did not know the precise history of Joan of Arc, but her greatness, courage, and prowess appealed to them.
In addition to being exploited by American politicians during what was often called the “European War,” Joan of Arc was also used as a unifying figure in the recruitment and control of immigrants in America. The war propaganda authorities were able to convey notions of unity to people of all classes in the America through their allegiance to the United States– a country that was sympathetic to them, sheltered them, and treated them favorably. Joan was an outsider who originated the concept of France as a nation free of the English. Her life without personal indulgences and comforts made her a model heroine in the eyes of many immigrants. They, like Joan, were outsiders, hoping to be accepted. Thus, soldiers fought for a country that offered them some hope of acceptance. Immigrants wanted to feel American, and by joining native American in war fulfilled their civic duty. Joan fought for France, and France was an American ally in World War I. Joan was portrayed as the “Goddess of Liberty” who engaged in war to restore order (Blaetz, 42). If Joan could lead her country to victory, then so could the American soldiers.
A medieval icon such as Joan produced favorable results as a propaganda tool during World War I. It is no surprise that between 1939 and 1945, Joan’s symbol was used yet again, during World War II. On August 21, 1944, the New York Times ran a large photograph on the front page depicting the monumental equestrian statue of Joan in the center of Orleans, with the caption, “ Americans pause in Orleans beneath the statue of Joan of Arc, the base of which had been damaged by shellfire” (Blaetz, 95). Such a reference to Joan was part of the propaganda to recruit women during the war. However, the image of Joan of Arc was becoming too powerful to be widely used in propaganda tactics of the Second World War for the fear of projecting all too well how powerful a woman is, and can become. For this reason Joan of Arc was not used during World War II to recruit women as soldiers: “The fear that women would take their economic and social power to heart if inspired by as uncompromising a figure as Joan made the heroine too risky to use” (Blaetz, 119). Rather than be in combat, women in World War II were nurses in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Women, through Joan, were made to be self-sacrificing by giving up their domestic roles for their country: “These were the New Women of the 1940s – responsible, proud, straightforward, and feminine without being too seductive” (Blaetz, 101). Joan of Arc was not only seen as a mother of France, but a woman whose soul and heart lived on through many generations, even though Joan died at 19 and had no children of her own.
Joan’s figure aroused strong and contradictory images of a woman: the good girl among peasants in her hometown of Domremy, the curious and naïve girl at court, the darling of the army, the prophet, the magical virgin, the heretic, the martyr, the female who learned to act and talk like a man, the saint, and the witch. When in his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw had Joan say, “I shall be remembered when men have forgotten where Rouen stood” (Shaw, 156), he was articulating more than her reputation for pride. Shaw’s speech indicates that Joan had transcended political history. While leaving her mark on the political events of her century more firmly than any other woman, Joan had become a folk hero as the woman who saved France. In her death, Joan had become the symbol of the French nation.