Ibecame an adult in the eyes of the Catholic Church (while remaining 14 years old in the eyes of my parents) in 1978. At the initiation ceremony, known as Confirmation, the Church symbolically re-named me after a saint of my choosing. Having grown up in a family of outspoken feminists, I naturally chose the name Joan of Arc.
Who Was Joan?
Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domrémy, France, around the year 1412. Like other girls in her rural community, Joan was devoutly Catholic and worked hard at domestic and farm chores to help her family survive.
At the time, France was heading towards the climax of the Hundred Years’ War. There were three warring factions: English invaders, who controlled the Paris throne and most of the North; Burgundians, who were French allies of the English; and French Armagnacs, who supported Charles VII as rightful heir to the throne. Before him, Charles’ French-born father had once been king. Joan’s hometown of Domrémy was loyal to Charles, and while Joan was a child, the village was burned to the ground.
In 1425, Joan’s life took a strange and unlikely turn. At age 13, she was at her family’s farm when she experienced what she thought was a mystical vision. While in ecstasy, Joan saw Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, who gave her a message about the war. According to Joan’s testimony, the saints instructed her to confront the English invaders, drive them out of France, and lead Charles to his coronation.
A few years passed, but at age 17, Joan gained access to Charles VII at his exiled royal court in Chinon. The Armagnacs were losing the war, and Joan convinced Charles to provide her with a suit of armor so she could lead his army against his enemies. Incredibly, with young Joan guiding them, the Armagnacs won a critical battle at Orleans, and this turned the tide in favor of the French. Continued momentum emboldened Charles and his troops. They swept into Reims, the traditional site of French coronations, and crowned Charles king. But….
The English monarchy still controlled the Paris throne. Even worse for the Armagnacs, in 1430, the Burgundians captured Joan and handed her over to the English. She was tried by a court of anti-French clerics, found guilty on trumped-up charges of heresy, and burned at the stake in the town of Rouen. God had, apparently, switched sides.
Joan was 19 when she was put to death in 1431. But, 20 years later, Pope Callixtus III ordered a re-examination of her trial. In 1456, Joan’s guilty verdict was overturned, and she was declared a martyr.
And what became of Charles VII? He retained a legitimate claim to the throne. Then, following a series of English defeats, the war finally ground to a halt, 22 years after Joan’s death.
Looking back at this story, one question looms large: Why did Charles think it was a good idea to put a 17-year-old, unskilled peasant girl in charge of his army?
For starters, the French were desperate: they were losing the war. And, there was something else: throughout Europe at this time, political decisions relied heavily on superstition. Kings and their enemies believed wars and crowns were won through Heaven’s favor, and they looked for “signs” of God’s judgment. Conveniently, a popular prophecy was floating around France during this period: God would send a maiden to save the day. Charles and his followers decided Joan was that maid, and she proved it with her own “sign” in which she predicted the outcome of a battle at Rouvray.
Divine intervention aside, Joan was a pretty unusual girl for the 15th Century. She possessed a confident, courageous streak that was more typical of a man. For whatever reasons — spiritual or otherwise — Joan’s personal convictions drove her to accomplish an unlikely mission against nearly-impossible odds.
My Song for Joan
Just before my Catholic Confirmation at age 14, I prepared a handwritten essay about Joan. It’s the basis for my song Prayer to Saint Joan of Arc. ∗