I have just been surprised again by Joan of Arc. Some modern thinkers think she was insane, others that she was hungry for attention, and many still believe she was touched by God. But I would not be surprised if all or none of that were true, considering how many surprising things I know about her – beginning that her real name was not Joan of Arc. Her father was Jacque Darc, a farmer and a tax collector in the tiny northern French village of Domremey. Now, at the time, few people could read or write. So when Charles VII raised Joan's family into the nobility, it is probable the scribe who transcribed the family name for the first time, spelled it phonetically. And that is how Jehanne Romee Darc became Joan d'Arc. And that is half as surprising as the latest thing that has surprised me about her.
Catholic France in the 14th and 15th centuries closely resembled Islamic Syria in 21st, - a vacuum of anarchy, pestilence, war, famine, death and rape all made worse by religious fanaticism. The French inferno broke out in 1328, when 34 year old Charles IV died. The next King of France should have been Charles' nephew with his fourth wife, Edward, AKA Edward III,. King of England. However Philip Capet, the fourth son of Charles with his first wife thought the King of France should be more French. Like him. Over the next ninety years this disagreement split the French nobility into waring factions, and justified repeated English invasions. The Gallic nobility proceeded to die, mostly with arrows from English longbows in their chests. The English nobility mostly died from campaign diseases - dysentery, gonorrhea, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, smallpox, measles, malaria and food poisoning. And that was even before the Black Death surprised Europe in 1348 and killed half of the peasants in both France and England.
By 1429 the English and their French flunkies controlled the French coast from Normandy south to the Pyrenees mountains. They had captured Paris and most of the north, and everything in the interior down to the River Loire. They had laid siege to the only bridge over that river, at the town of Orleans. It seemed only a matter of time before Orleans fell and the English captured the current French, French King, Charles VII.
At 27, Charles was a beaten man. He had lost his self confidence when he was defeated by the English at Agencourt, and his self-respect when his own mother called him a bastard and disinherited him. He was now the timid, indecisive King of Bourges, the capital of the only part of France he still controlled. His most adventurous thoughts of late were of retreating to Spain. So desperate were Charles' supporters that their hopes for salvation centered an illiterate 17 year old religious fanatic who showed up at court in Chinon, talking about the voices which had been telling her for five years that she and Charles would save France.
They had smuggled Joan across English controlled territory by dressing her like a man. The story is that when she arrived at Chinon, in March of 1429, Charles had disguised himself, but Joan unhesitatingly pushed through a crowd, and from one knee greeted him, “God give you a happy life, sweet King.” It must have been a miracle, since no one at court, whose lives and wealth depended on the King, could have been trying to rebuild Charles' self confidence with a little theatrics. Joan was then sent off to restore the self confidence of the troops at Orleans.
She did not carry a sword. She did not lead any charges. She carried a banner. She shouted religious cheers from behind the lines. She took an arrow in the shoulder, but it was not a serious wound. She encouraged the soldiers as they broke the siege of Orleans in early May. The turn around started so quickly it must have been a miracle, or an operation prepared over the winter, before Joan had even arrived at Chinon.
And then somebody – it could have been Joan, or Charles or his generals or even Joan's voices– proposed the King's army surprise the English, and march around Paris, 150 miles. to Reims, in the dry and beggarly province of Champagne. Reims was where Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptized in the year 496. In its Cathedral every French King since had been crowned. And with Joan symbolically leading the way, Charles VII was crowned in the Reims Cathedral, in July of 1429.
This recaptured the momentum from the English and their French allies. And Joan got much of the credit for this surprising reversal of fortunes in the war. Maybe a little too much credit for her own good.
The next year, 1430, was also surprising, but unpleasantly. Charles' army tried to take Paris, but failed, and Joan was wounded again. In May Joan fell off her horse in a skirmish outside of Compiegne, and was captured by English supporting Frenchmen. By January of 1431 she had been sold to the English and was a prisoner in Rouen, in northern France. And that spring she was put on trial.
The English did not want to kill Joan. They wanted to disgrace Charles VII. And if they could get Joan to confess to being a liar or a sorceress, that would mean Charles was either a fraud or a fool. So they charged Joan with wearing men's clothing and claiming she was communicating directly with God.
It should have been easy for the well educated ruling class clergy, politicians and soldiers to control a simple French maid, especially one being confined for months in a dank, dark cell and kept on a starvation diet. But surprisingly it didn't quite work out that way
Obviously God had communicated directly with some people – Noah, Moses, the saints, Kings and the Pope. But to claim direct contact with God without Catholic Church endorsement was heresy, and punishable by death.
Joan avoided this trap by refusing to discuss anything her voices had said, including who the voices said they were. The maiden of Orleans was no dummy, as she showed again while avoiding the next trap which her judges threw at her.
She was asked, “Do you know whether or not you are in God's grace?” The questioner must have thought himself clever. If she said yes, Joan was guilty of the sin of arrogance, meaning she was not in a state of grace. If she said no, then Joan was admitting to being in a state of sin. Either response would condemn her to death. But Joan left the elite judges “stupefied”.
She said, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.” Joan of Arc was no simple French maid. Or perhaps, surprisingly to the ruling classes, few maids in France were as simple as their “betters” wanted to believe.
Condemned to be “burned at the stake”, Joan changed her plea. But when Joan learned she was to live the rest of her life in an English prison on bread and water, she recanted her recantation.
Her jailors responded by probably having her rapped, certainly having her beaten and tortured, trying to force yet another confession from her. Surprisingly to many, the torture did not work. Joan was convicted as a relapsed heretic , and again sentenced to be burned alive at the stake. But surprisingly, that was not what happened.
At nine in the morning of 30 May 1431, the now 19 year old Jehanne Romee Darc, dressed in a simple white linen shift, was lead into the old market square of Rouen, France. She knelt in front of her enemies for thirty minutes and prayed for her soul and theirs. And then she mounted the steps to the platform, and was led through an opening in the circular pile of wood.
In the center, she was bound to a large post. The opening was closed and the wood set afire. And then - and this is the surprising thing I have recently learned - Joan did not burn to death. No witnesses reported her screaming or writhing against her ropes. We know she could still breath because, until almost the end, she kept repeating the name “Jesus”. In truth, Joan d'Arc died of heat stroke.
A wood fire burns at 800 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The bundles of wood piled around Joan were mostly air. Once the wood was ignited, the air in between the branches quickly expanded and rushed out, drawing more air in from all sides, and then up and out at the center post, where Joan was standing. While the flame was still barely a few inches high on the distant perimeter of the fire, the air temperature around Joan started climbing. The already badly dehydrated girl began to sweat, which was quickly soaked up by her linen shift, which then prevented evaporation from cooling her body.
Her terror caused her heart to beat faster until she went into tachycardia, with a heart rate above 170 beats per minute. That caused her blood pressure to plummet. That caused the blood to pool in her feet, legs and abdomen. She became light headed and faint.
Witnesses said she repeated the name “Jesus” just seven times before her head fell forward, meaning she fell unconscious within two minutes of the fire starting. It would take another eighteen minutes for the air around her to reach 300 degrees, when flesh starts to burn. Long before then her brain had been starved of oxygen for so long, she was already dead.
Using a sickle, the binding ropes were cut and her executioners pulled the corpse out of the fire. The crowd confirmed that the body was indeed Joan's, that she was indeed a young woman, and that she was dead – all of which meant she had not yet been extensively burned. So they pushed her body back into the fire, and burned it to ash and bone. Under guard, more wood was stacked atop the chard bones, and they were burned again, until the they cracked and shattered, ensuring there was nothing left of la Pucelle – the Maiden - but ash. Then the ashes were swept up and dumped in the river Seine, which ran right outside the city walls.