Joan of Arc on Trial: The Key to Understanding the Maid of Orléans

Joan of Arc means different things to different people. She’s taken on the characteristics of a national myth, a warrior, a saviour, a saint, and a witch, depending on who you ask. Moya Longstaffe’s new book Joan of Arc and ‘The Great Pity of the Land of France’ (out now from Amberley Publishing) returns to the primary sources to offer a sober new analysis of the Maid of Orléans, perhaps offering the key to really understanding how a peasant girl could become a martyr for Medieval France.

What sort of portrait do the earliest accounts of Joan of Arc paint? What can we say about her for certain?

The earliest accounts are from people who met her when she arrived aged 17, at the Dauphin’s court at Chinon (February 1429), or immediately after the relief of Orleans (8 May 1429).The young nobleman, Guy de Laval, for example, wrote a hugely enthusiastic letter to his mother and grandmother on 8 June 1429. He had met Joan dressed in full armour with her troops at Selles-en-Berry and she had warmly welcomed him: “There seemed to be something divine about her, both when you saw her and when you heard her.”

We have of course contemporary chroniclers, full of admiration for her on the French side, hostile on the Anglo-Burgundian side. Immediately after Orleans, she was famous throughout Europe. The Venetian nobleman, Pancrazio Giustiniani, for example, wrote an excited letter on 10 May 1429 to his father in Venice to tell him of the lifting of the siege of Orleans and all about Joan, in whose divine inspiration he clearly believed. Boulainvilliers, a councillor of Charles VII, wrote to the Duke of Milan, and remarked on Joan’s “dignity and style”.

He goes on to say, among other things:‘She is not effusive, but remarkably prudent in what she says and does. She has a soft feminine voice [-]. She has no taste for crowds and noisy company. She weeps easily and abundantly. Her face radiates joy. Her stamina is incredible…’.

During the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to Regensburg there was an exhibition in the town featuring ‘the picture of the Maid fighting in France’. The fullest information about her is of course in her own replies to the relentless and hostile interrogations during her trial in Rouen and in the depositions of the hundred and twenty witnesses called during the period of the later trial (1452-56), people who had known her and her family or had been her companions during her campaigns or present at the first trial. There is no young person of a modest background so well known before the modern period.

Were there any precedents for a young woman to play such a role on the field of battle in Medieval France?

From at least the 12th.century, the rare great lady, mounted and armed, had led men into battle. We know of cases of less exalted women also taking up arms and there were women in the French armies during the crusades. None of them claimed divine inspiration or appeared to have turned the tide of war. However Joan was indeed unique, not a great lady, not an adventuress in search of fortune and glory, but a simple country girl driven by her belief that she had a God-given mission.

Siege of Orléans in 1428 (Vigiles de Charles VII, 15th century).

At what stage in Joan’s story does she become a ‘soldier saint’, a religious figure in her own right?

Her piety was universally acknowledged on the French side from the outset. She did everything she could to dissuade the throngs who flocked to see her from treating her as a saint or miracle-worker. When she was accused, during her trial, of allowing people to kiss her hands or feet ( or even her horse!), she replied: “Many wanted to see me and I stopped them kissing my hands as best I could. But the poor liked to come to me because I brought them no trouble, but helped them as best I could”. Shortly after Orleans, while she was in Loches, a churchman warned her not to allow such idolatrous demonstrations, and she replied, ‘In truth, I am unable to protect myself against them, unless God protects me’. Today celebrities are protected by bodyguards, but Joan had no such firewall around her. A lady in whose house she had been lodged, testified in 1456, that when women came to the house bringing rosaries and medals for Joan to touch, “Joan laughed and said to me, ‘Touch them yourself. Your touch is every bit as good as mine!’.”

Conversely, when does she begin to emerge as a ‘witch ‘, and is it a reaction to the former image?

As soon as Joan appeared outside the walls of Orleans and called across the Loire to the English to depart, she was met with a volley of furious yells and insults, called a soldiers’ trollop and told she would be burned when caught. After Orleans, the ordinary English soldiers were terrified of her and believed she was a witch in league with the devil, (‘the English are very superstitious!’ said one witness in 1456). The problem of desertions from the army became very serious indeed. The Duke of Bedford, writing to the young Henry VI in 1434, attributed the English disasters to “lack of sound belief and to the unholy fear that they [the soldiers] had of a disciple and limb of Satan, called the Maid, who employed spells and sorcery”. Joan the Witch appears of course in Shakespeare’s Henry VI.

What role does the trial and the accounts of the trial play in the ‘legend’ of Joan of Arc?

The proceedings of the two trials are fully minuted and fill several volumes. The French regarded her as a saint, and indeed all the required boxes for piety and charity could be ticked in her case. Heinrich von Gorkum, vice-chancellor of the University of Cologne, contributed to the debate in 1429, saying that it was accepted that “she lives chastely, soberly and with moderation. She is devout, she forbids murder, rape and other such violence to all who wish to follow her.’ She was canonised in 1920. The “witch” idea faded away in England when belief in witches faded out.

Maude Adams (1872–1953) as Joan of Arc by Alphonese Mucha, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How much of a taboo was Joan’s adoption of male dress and how does that manifest in the sources?

No-one condemned Joan for dressing as a soldier until she was captured. Hildegard von Bingen in the twelfth century, Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth, had already affirmed that the rules concerning male and female clothing could be overridden in certain circumstances involving necessity. Joan’s circumstances made male costume essential. It enabled her to ride and take command in battle, to protect herself against sexual violence (even more urgent when she was kept in a cell with “soldiers of the roughest sort” as her guards!), and to persuade her comrades-in-arms to think of her not as a woman, but as one of themselves.. She had been cleared on this score by the commission at Poitiers before she was allowed to set out. The most eminent theologian of the day, Gerson (formerly Chancellor of the University of Paris) had pointed out, in his short treatise, that Deuteronomy simply prohibits indecent costume, the indecency or otherwise depending on circumstances. The court at Rouen, presided over by Bishop Cauchon (insignificant as a theologian) seized on the question of male clothing as a means of condemning her and in fact she was burned in the end for clinging to it.

Can you explain a bit more about your new book? What do you bring to such a well-trodden topic?

The facts of Joan of Arc’s life are (and always have been)  well known, established beyond dispute. Her life and death are fully documented from childhood to her very public execution in Rouen, both in the chronicles of the time and above all in the verbatim proceedings of the two trials, the first of which (1431, Rouen) condemned her and the second (1452-56, essentially appeal proceedings, with hearings held in Rouen, Domrémy, Orleans and Paris) which annulled the verdict of Rouen. I devote three chapters of the book specifically to the first trial and examine the second trial in the final chapter (there are 21 chapters in total).

What challenges our understanding is the transformation of this quiet, obedient and pious child into the young girl who, overcoming all opposition and barriers, determinedly made her way to the king and persuaded him to let her lead an army to lift the siege of Orleans and next, again despite all opposition, led him through hostile territory to his coronation at Rheims. What was the nature of her inspiration? What did she tell the king in that first famous interview that left him radiant with joy? I can only present the evidence and leave the reader to ponder it. Throughout her trial, Joan stubbornly refused to divulge the secret she had revealed to Charles VII.

No startling new facts about Joan are likely to be unearthed. We would like to have a contemporary portrait, but none has come down to us, although one at least did exist and she mentions it during her trial. One important document is missing: the proceedings of the commission which examined her at Poitiers. before she was allowed to set out for Orleans. The panel, numbering about twenty members, was composed of several bishops and senior clergy, mostly qualified in law or theology. No-one knows what happened to this document, we only have a summary of the findings. Quicherat, the editor of the five great volumes of the two trials (1841-1849), writes, Posterity will forever mourn the loss of the minutes of Poitiers, the finest document, I have no hesitation in saying, that we could ever possess on Joan of Arc, since that immortal young woman showed herself there in all her freshness and inspiration, full of gaiety, vigour, enthusiasm, replying spontaneously to unbiased judges that she was sure to win over”. A copy must have been sent to Rome, but so far all searches in the Vatican archives have yielded nothing.

The social, political and military history of the quarrel between France and England from the turn of the fifteenth century until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 is of course presented and examined in all its complexity. In France that covers the reigns of Charles VI and Charles VII, in England that of Henry IV and Henry V, ending during the reign of the unfortunate Henry VI. In Burgundy it covers the reigns of the devious Duke John the Fearless and that of his son, Philip the Good, the magnificent Duke of the Western World, with his three wives (not all at the same time!), twenty-four mistresses and eighteen illegitimate offspring,

Above all,  I wanted to bring to life Joan, as we hear her describe her childhood and adolescence and her career in her own words, recorded in the minutes of the first trial, and as we meet her again in the testimony of childhood friends, neighbours, comrades–in-arms, and various persons who had observed her or played a more active role during the Rouen trial. The second trial is a very important source of evidence, often unfairly overlooked or decried (pace George Bernard Shaw, that wicked old tease).But of course, we can understand her properly only in her time and it was equally important to bring to life the people of France, from the nobles at court and in the army to the terrible distress of the poor ordinary inhabitants of besieged towns, of the countryside and villages, suffering all the ills of war, from famine to the utter destruction of homes and fields and the rampaging of mercenaries on the loose.  I hope that the overall picture I have painted is full and fair.

Joan of Arc and ‘The Great Pity of the Land of France’ by Moya Longstaffe is out now from Amberley Publishing. For more Medieval warriors and warfare, subscribe to All About History for as little as £26.