With a degree in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
Who Was Joan of Arc?
Was Joan of Arc a hero, a lunatic, a witch, a leader, or all of these things? According to Marina Warner, the story of Joan of Arc lived on through history, because Joan was a real person who held the mark of a hero, which was sincerity.
A hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, achievements, or noble qualities. Such attributes, it was fair to surmise, Joan possessed. Idolization had embellished the historiography of Joan of Arc, however, and made her into a larger-than-life female role model and unbeatable champion.
The Maid of Orléans
A young woman, who from an early age heard what she believed was the voice of the saints. Born in 1412 in Domremy, France to poor tenant farmers, during a time when France was engaged in a war with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Conventionally, the war is said to have begun in 1337 and had been raging for several decades before Joan was even born. It began as a struggle between France and England over the legitimate heir to the French crown; to put matters simplistically.
Joan, known as the Maid of Orléans, spent her youth tending to domestic duties around her home. She cared for the animals and became skilled in sewing arts. She was never formally educated, but this did not mean she was simple-minded. She was unable to read but had a sharp mind, nevertheless. Joan grew up in the midst of a war. When Joan was only three years old, King Henry V of England invaded northern France, and defeated their forces. By 1420, Henry V was granted the French throne as regent for Charles VI who was considered to be insane. It was understood that Henry would have inherited the throne upon the death of Charles, yet both men died within mere months of one another. This thereby began more disagreement as Henry’s infant son was now heir, yet the French saw an opportunity to put Charles’ son, Charles VII, on the throne.
It was during this same time that Joan’s visions began which encouraged her to lead a pious life. However, the visions began to become more vivid as Joan grew older. Saint Michael and Saint Catherine both appeared to her as deemed her as the savior of France and encouraged her to seek out an audience with Charles-the rightful king of France. Her visions instructed her to ask Charles to allow her to expel the English and place him on the throne. As such, history had remembered Joan of Arc as a hero who fearlessly led men into battle single-handedly winning the war all while being a teenage girl who could not even read.
Sent into battle by a desperate king, men followed Joan believing her visions were divinely inspired: However, Joan wasn’t the hero that history had made her out to be, her reign was a series of fortunate coincidences, the assistance and interference of wiser commanders, and her pious self-image which inspired the French to rise up and fight.
The Hundred Years' War
The Hundred Years' War began in 1337, and although France had a bigger army, England was better trained and won one victory after the other against France. Experiencing decades of humiliating defeats, the military and civil leadership of France were both disheartened and humiliated. According to Stephen Richey, when the Dauphin Charles granted Joan's urgent request to be outfitted for battle and put at the head of his army, his decision must have been based on the knowledge that every traditional and rational option had already been tried and had failed. Only a system in the depths of desperation would pay any attention to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voices of saints were instructing her to take charge of her country's army and lead it to victory.
However, her visit would not have even been possible without the backing of Charles’s mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon, a woman who believed deeply in visions and visionaries. It had been thought that she was the driving force behind Joan being granted a troop of men to lead. It was she who personally assisted Joan in donning her armor as well. At this juncture, Charles was ready to try anything and tested Joan by sending her to Orléans to determine if she could indeed free the city from the English. Joan began by sending a letter to the English at Orléans and told them to, “Hand over to the Maiden, who is sent here by God the King of Heaven, the keys to all the towns which you have taken and violated in France.”
The city of Orléans was the bridge between northern and southern France and had been under siege by English forces from October 12, 1428 until May 1429. Duke Charles of Orléans, its ruler, had been imprisoned in England since 1415 and the command of the city was in the hands of his brother John, the Bastard of Orléans. The balance in the battle was tipped in favor of the English in the spring of 1429. It was at this point that a rumor began to be whispered, of a maiden who would restore the kingdom and reinstate Dauphin Charles by saving Orléans.
History had remembered Joan as the Victorian of the siege at Orléans and it was her divine presence that proved successful. However, the arrival of Joan of Arc at Orléans had coincided with a sudden change in the pattern of the siege that had nothing to do with her. During the five months prior to her arrival, the defenders had attempted only one offensive assault, which had ended in defeat. Furthermore, in April of 1429, Orléans had proposed an agreement which would have offered to surrender to Burgundy, a neutral party, with half the city’s taxes went to the English and the other half ransomed to the Duke of Orléans. However, the English, believed that Orléans was about to fall in their favor, declined the offer.
As a result, the Burgundian contingent withdrew mid-April and left the English with a very small army with which to proceed. This occurred mere days before Joan’s arrival to the battlefield which many tend to overlook. The absence of the Burgundians significantly weakened the English army and left the French a path to victory without Joan.
Joan participated in discussion of tactics with John of Dunois and the other French commanders. There had been several heated discussions over the week concerning military tactics between Joan and the Bastard of Orléans, who directed the city’s defense. Joan was famous for her aggressiveness and desire to meet the English in full offense. According to DeVries, Joan led the charge while aristocratic generals tried to keep up with her.
Upon approaching Orléans, Joan insisted the English should be attacked from the north as that was where their greatest numbers lay. However, the commanders, who were against this strategy feeling it was potentially disastrous, took the group on a different route without telling Joan. Joan was infuriated that they had deceived her and demanded an immediate attack against the nearest English forces located on the south bank. However, the commanders urged her to wait and allow the city to be resupplied with rations to which she begrudgingly agreed. While they waited, Joan paraded through Orléans with a banner and distributing food to the citizens.
According to Warner, Joan’s presence in Orléans so boosted the morale of the people that she drove them to victory. It is often overlooked, however, that when the attack did happen, Joan napped and nearly missed the entire battle. As the English contingent was so dwindled by the time Joan had arrived at Orléans, Roger Caratini, author of Joan of Arc: from Domrémy to Orléans, claimed that ultimately, Joan did not liberate Orléans as there was not a siege at that point.
Joan’s friend and “comrade in arms” the Duke of Alencon, testified that “In everything that she did, apart from the conduct of the war, Joan was young and simple; but in the conduct of war she was most skillful, both in carrying the lance herself, in drawing up the army in battle order, and in placing the artillery.” Yet, due to Joan’s rash actions and reckless decisions, which often proved to be dangerous for the soldiers, it was common for the commanders to withhold information from her.
Further, as stated in The Life of Joan of Arc by Anatole France, “She was ignorant alike of the enemy's position, of the outworks of the besiegers, and of the defenses of the besieged.” Besides the previously mentioned battle in which Joan all but slept through it, the assault on the Augustines was another example of the necessity to hide information from Joan and counteract her recklessness. May 5 was Ascension Day, and Joan had urged the French to attack the largest English outwork, the bastille of St. Laurent to the west. However, the French captains, knowing its strength and that their men needed rest, urged Joan to allow them to honor the feast-day in peace, just as they had convinced her to allow Orléans to be resupplied. During the night, in a war council, it was decided that the best course of action was to clear the English bastions on the south bank, where the English were weakest rather than where Joan had demanded they attack, to the west.
A Terrible Mistake
On the day of the battle, before the French had properly disembarked on the south bank, Joan reportedly launched a swift attack on the strongpoint of the Boulevart. When the young warrior acted of her own accord and tried to attack the stronghold of Boulevart, she narrowly escaped disaster and had to be dragged off the field amid mass panic. This action nearly turned into a disaster.
The assault exposed their flanks to English fire from the Augustines. The assault broke off when there were cries that the English garrison of the bastille of St. Privé further west was rushed upriver to reinforce Glasdale and cut them off. Panic set in more, and the French assaulters retreated from the Boulevart back to the landing grounds and dragged the bewildered Joan back with them. After this she was asked to sit out on the assault the next day, a request she ignored.
Bernard Montgomery, in A History of Warfare, in response to Joan’s alleged military ability, stated that he never determined "whether Joan had any God-given military ability herself or whether she was merely a tool in the hands of the French generals." By "tool," Montgomery meant that Joan acted as a mascot and inspired men to fight while she contributed little else. It is true that Joan inspired men to fight. In most of her engagements, she carried a white banner that depicted Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and two angels further cementing her role as a divinely guided champion of France thereby rousing a deeply religious citizenship to action.
It must also be considered that Joan never actually fought in battle or killed an opponent. Instead, she had accompanied her men as a sort of inspirational symbol and brandished her banner instead of a weapon. She also took it upon herself to propose diplomatic solutions to the English. For example, in another letter to the English in 1429, Joan wrote, “My Lord commands you to go back to your own land; for it is his will, or otherwise I will cause such a disaster for you.” While the Duke of Alençon, who was present for most of her battles, affirmed that she was a simple girl, but "in the conduct of war she was most skillful", it did not mean that she was an active participant in battle. The Duke considered "conduct of war" to mean carrying a lance, directing armies, and placing artillery, of which he claimed that she "acquitted herself magnificently." It is agreed upon that Joan was charismatic and the people looked up to her, thus it is natural that her men would follow her.
Not a Hero, But a Compassionate Soul
Joan of Arc was not the hero that history has made her out to be—her reign was a series of fortunate coincidences, the assistance and interference of wiser commanders, and her pious self-image which inspired the French to rise up and fight. She was little more than a mascot for the French people. Whether she really heard the voices of the saints or was directed by the divine was not relevant.
Joan was a brash and headstrong girl who believed wholeheartedly in restoring Charles to the throne, and like many impetuous teens, she also believed that she had the right to take control because she knew best. Her appearance and victory at Orleans occurred after the English were left with fewer men and the French used new tactics in battle, not Joan’s “power”. Despite what her friends, such as the Duke of Alencon, thought of her military abilities, Joan’s recklessness had to be kept in check by wiser commanders lest she caused collateral damage.
Joan’s real heroism laid in her ability to rouse the people and inspired them to take up arms and fight. This fact cannot be denied. She cared for her country, its future, and its people. This is what shined through and touched those who encountered her. Joan of Arc should not be remembered as a hero, but as a compassionate soul who inspired generations.
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- Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.