No one knows exactly when she was born, but we do know that May 8, 1429 was probably the greatest day of Jeanne d’Arc’s (or Joan of Arc’s) short and fantastical life. She was about 12 in 1424 when she first reported seeing visions of saints telling her to drive the English out of France and bring the Dauphin, Charles VII (prince and heir to throne) to Rheims for his coronation. Joan lived about 350 miles from where the Dauphin was in residence in Chinon and she would have to pass through the lands of the Duke of Burgundy who was hostile to the Charles VII’s claim to the crown. She repeatedly petitioned for an armed escort and for help obtaining an audience with the prince. Her petition was only granted after she successfully and mysteriously predicted the outcome of a battle.
Once she made it made it to Chinon, Jeanne identified the prince correctly in the crowded audience chamber, even though he had deliberately switched clothes with a courtier to try to throw off the girl who claimed to have a message from God. The fact that he agreed to place an illiterate farm girl at the head of his army shows how badly off Charles VII was. Still, he was reluctant to believe that she was God’s messenger. He put her claims to a test – if she could lift the siege of Orléans, then she was the real deal. The siege had been underway for six months, but it collapsed on May 8, nine days after Jeanne arrived. She advocated a much more aggressive stance than the Duke d’Orléans had been pursuing. Although the Duke had no confidence in Jeanne and actively tried to shut her out of counsels, she did ride out at the head of the army. Despite an arrow to the neck, she led the army to victory in the final charge.
Based on this victory, Charles agreed to Jeanne’s plan to fight the 140 miles to Reims so that he could be crowned. All French kings were crowned in the huge cathedral north of Paris. He couldn’t just pop into the local wedding chapel and ask to be anointed, so it was Reims or bust. After French victories during several pitched battles, town after town surrendered to the advancing army. The coronation took place on July 17, 1429 but the war continued to rage. The following year, Jeanne was taken hostage by the Duke of Burgundy’s army. She had no family to pay her ransom and, astonishingly, now that he was king, Charles VII did nothing for her. The Duke sold Jeanne to the English.
Her trial as a heretic in English-occupied Rouen was politically motivated. If she was shown to be a witch, it would undermine the legitimacy of Charles VII in favor of the rival English candidate to the throne. There were any number of flaws in the trial procedure, including the fact that she was denied legal counsel. She was about 19 at the time of the trial, and yet she showed herself to be the equal in subtlety of the ecclesiastics examining her. For example, when she was asked if she was in God’s grace, she responded, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” Playwright George Bernard Shaw was so taken with her trial testimony that he used it verbatim in his Saint Joan. The illiterate peasant signed a confession she couldn’t read under threat of immediate execution. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 and her ashes were scattered on the Seine to keep them from being collected as relics. The theological reason for her death sentence was the fact that she wore men’s clothes.
In 1455, there was an extensive retrial and Jeanne was exonerated and declared a martyr. She was picked up as a hero by the Catholic League in the 16th century and she was declared a saint in 1920. Were her visions divinely inspired? It’s impossible to prove or disprove her assertions. She showed no signs of mental illness, was brave in battle, and cogent during her trial. She’s fascinating.
Today’s expression, c’est une sainte-nitouche (set oon sante-kneetoush) is our equivalent of “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” used for a goody-goody hypocrite. The term was popularized by Rabelais in the 16th century. The etymology of “nitouche” is “n’y touche pas” or “don’t touch it.” So a sainte-nitouche is someone who gives the appearance that she won’t touch a thing, but it’s just an appearance. Jeanne d’Arc may appear to be a saint, a heroine, or a lunatic depending on one’s point of view. The jury is still out over 550 years later.