Joan of Arc


St. Joan of Arc was born the daughter of Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée in Domrémy, a village which was then in the duchy of Bar. At a trial in Joan's later life, she said she was about 19 at the time, so she must have been born around the year 1412.  Joan's parents owned about 50 acres of land and her father supplemented his farming work with a minor position as a village official, collecting taxes and heading the local watch. They lived in an isolated patch of eastern France that remained loyal to the French crown despite being surrounded by Burgundian lands. Several local raids occurred during her childhood and on one occasion her village was burned.

At the age of 16, she asked a kinsman to bring her to nearby Vaucouleurs where she petitioned the garrison commander, Count Robert de Baudricourt, for permission to visit the royal French court at Chinon. Baudricourt's sarcastic response did not deter her. She returned the following January and gained support from two men of standing: Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy. Under their auspices, she gained a second meeting where she made a remarkable prediction about a military reversal near Orléans.

After accepting the surrender of the city of Troyes and other towns, the army escorted Charles to the city of Rheims for his coronation on July 17. An unsuccessful attack was made on Paris on September 8th, followed by the successful capture of St-Pierre-le-Moutier on November 4. As a reward for her service, Charles VII granted her noble status along with her family on December 29th 1429. She returned to the field the following year, despite predicting her own defeat. 

After a minor action at La-Charité-sur-Loire in November and December, Joan traveled to Compiègne the following April to help defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. A skirmish on May 23rd, 1430 led to her capture, when her force attempted to attack the Burgundian's camp at Margny. When she ordered a retreat into the nearby fortifications of Compiègne after the advance of an additional force of 6,000 Burgundians, she assumed the place of honor as the last to leave the field. Burgundians surrounded the rear guard, and she was unhorsed by an archer and initially refused to surrender despite proving just to be a delay of the inevitable.

Joan of Arc was then transferred to the English, she was placed on trial in Rouen by a selected group of pro-English clergy, many of whom nevertheless had to be coerced into voting for a guilty verdict. It was customary for a captive's family to ransom a prisoner of war. Joan was in an unusual circumstance. Many historians condemn King Charles VII for failing to intervene. She attempted several escapes, on one occasion jumping from her 70 foot tower in Vermandois to the soft earth of a dry moat, after which she was moved to the Burgundian town of Arras. The English government eventually purchased her from Duke Philip of Burgundy. Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, an English partisan, assumed a prominent role in these negotiations and her later trial. The presiding Inquisitor, Jean Bréhal, ruled that the original trial had been tainted by fraud, illegal procedures, and intimidation of both the defendant and many of the clergy who had taken part in the trial. 

Heresy was a capital crime only for a repeat offense. Joan agreed to wear feminine clothing when she abjured. A few days later she told a tribunal member that "a great English lord had entered her prison and tried to take her by force." She resumed male attire either as a defense against molestation or, in the testimony of Jean Massieu, because her dress had been stolen and she was left with nothing else to wear.In terms of doctrine, she had been safe to disguise herself as a page during her journey through enemy territory and she was safe to wear armor during battle. The Chronique de la Pucelle states that it deterred molestation while she was camped in the field. Clergy who later testified at the posthumous rehabilitation trial affirmed that she continued to wear male clothing in prison to deter molestation and rape. Preservation of chastity was another justifiable reason for cross-dressing: her apparel would have slowed an assailant, and men would be less likely to think of her as a sex object in any case. She also kept her hair cut short through her military campaigns and while in prison. Nonetheless, at the trial in 1431 she was condemned and sentenced to die.

Eyewitnesses described the scene of the execution by burning on May 30th, 1431. Tied to a tall pillar in the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy, Fr Martin Ladvenu and Fr Isambart de la Pierre, to hold a crucifix before her. A peasant also constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she expired, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics. They cast her remains into the Seine. The executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later stated that he "...greatly feared to be damned."

The Inquisitor described Joan's death as a "martyrdom" in his final analysis of the case. In the 16th century the Catholic League used her as one of its symbols, although as with a significant percentage of other declared saints, Joan of Arc's formal canonization process was not initiated until a few centuries later. She was beatified on April 11th, 1909 and canonized as a saint on May 16th, 1920.

A posthumous retrial opened after the war ended. Pope Callixtus III authorized this proceeding, also known as the "nullification trial", at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal and Joan's mother Isabelle Romée. The aim of the trial was to investigate whether the trial of condemnation and its verdict had been handled justly and according to canon law. Investigations started with an inquest by a priest, Guillaume Bouille. Brehal conducted an investigation in 1452. A formal appeal followed in November 1455. The appellate process involved clergy from throughout Europe and observed standard court procedure. A panel of theologians analyzed testimony from 115 witnesses. Brehal drew up his final summary in June 1456, which describes Joan as a martyr and implicated the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. The technical reason for her execution had been a Biblical clothing law. The nullification trial reversed the conviction in part because the condemnation proceeding had failed to consider the doctrinal exceptions to that stricture. The appellate court declared her innocent on July 7th, 1456.

Joan had testified that she experienced her first vision around 1424 at the age of 12 years, when she was out alone in a field and saw visions of figures she identified as Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, who told her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Rheims for his coronation. She said she cried when they left, as they were so beautiful.


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