Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Joan of Arc Saves the French (and the English)

Joan of Arc Saves the French (and the English)

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]Then occurred a miracle, or the nearest thing to an attested miracle in recorded history.

—Historian Morris Bishop on the story of Joan of Arc[/quote]

She is the smallest person on this list and died the youngest. She was a teenage girl who altered the course of French history and, by consequence, English history, and, by consequence of that, world history as well. With no education or military experience, this farmer’s daughter turned the tide of a war that began over 70 years before she took her first breath. Since her execution, her unique legacy and iconic image inspired political leaders for centuries. If there are such things as miracles, then Joan of Arc was surely one.

Joan of Arc was born to Jacques Darc and Isabelle Romée in 1412. She was raised in Domrémy, a village in northeast France.{{1}} Like most late medieval Europeans, the Darcs were a peasant family, working 50 acres of land and hoping for little more than to outlast famines, wars, malnutrition, and plagues before getting into heaven after merciful death ended their short, brutal lives.{{2}}

Young Joan—a description that could be used for her entire life—helped in the fields, minding crops and herding animals. She spun and wove like a good girl. A formal education was impossible for a vast majority of medieval Europeans, to say nothing of a female peasant. She stayed illiterate except for memorizing the alien shapes that were the letters of her name.

Yet, somehow, this uneducated peasant girl would redirect the momentum of the interminable Hundred Years’ War. Before we get to the legendary voices in Joan’s head or the teenager’s miraculous leadership of the dwindled and demoralized French army, we must first establish just how poorly things were going for the Kingdom of France in the 1420s. They would not reach another point as low until the Nazis blitzkrieged into Paris over five centuries later. {{3}} Each of the other numerous and clichéd military blunders in its history are dwarfed by what remained of the kingdom on the eve of Joan’s heroics.

The term “Hundred Years’ War” is misleading in a couple ways, though it does lend an accurate portrayal of a miserable century. The beginning and end dates are actually 116 years apart. The war started in 1337 and ended in 1453, but it wasn’t one continuous war. There was the Edwardian War (1337-1360), the Caroline War (1369-1389), and the decisive Lancastrian War (1415-1453).{{4}} It began over competing inheritance claims for the French throne.{{5}} Ninety years later, long after the original competing claimants were dead and buried, and as a teenage girl from Domrémy heard saints’ voices, the battle for France’s crown raged on.

Though the length of the war shows it was not totally one-sided—indeed, it was a back and forth conflict for much the 116-year struggle—the overall trend for France was negative. In 1415, by Joan’s third birthday, nearly half of France was in enemy hands. The war, fought exclusively on French land, had taken over a million French lives. Among the many fallen French cities were the capital of Paris and the city of Reims, whose cathedral was the coronation site of French kings dating back to the late fifth century.{{6}}

War wasn’t the only scourge to visit the French people of the era. The virulent Black Death made itself right at home. Across the continent, it killed somewhere around a third of the population—the death toll likely eclipsed 100 million—with a city like Paris losing half its population of 100,000. Indeed, between plague and war, the population of France is thought to have fallen from 17 million before the war to half that by its end. Imagine it—losing half a population in in just over a century’s time.

[pullquote_right]If war and plague weren’t enough, the French government was in shambles.[/pullquote_right]

If war and plague weren’t enough, the French government was in utter shambles. Joan’s birth and first ten years came under the reign of Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). Bouts of madness and delusion mired Charles’s reign.{{7}} Toward the end of his rule, he was dubbed “Charles the Mad.”{{8}}

In 1415, the Battle of Agincourt in the north seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of France. King Henry V of England (of Shakespeare fame) spurred his army to overcome the French’s superior numbers to win the field. An estimated 40 percent of French nobility rallied to Agincourt’s cause and were among the thousands killed. Henry, whose outnumbered army captured thousands more, felt the prisoners were too numerous to control and ordered their deaths. He used the victory as a launching point to conquer most of northern France

The situation grew bleaker still. By 1419, Henry brokered an alliance with the rambunctious Duchy of Burgundy, which further encircled France to its east. Then, Henry married the French king’s daughter, Catherine.{{9}} He forced Charles to sign the Treaty of Troyes, which acknowledged that a future son of Henry and Catherine was heir to the French throne. However, when Charles and Henry coincidentally both died in 1422, many French ignored the treaty. Henry and Catherine’s son, Henry VI, was an infant at the time, and of course France still didn’t want to be ruled by an Englishman. Thus, many believed that Charles’s youngest and only surviving son, also named Charles, was the true heir, so there was confusion as to whom the crown legally belonged. The war thundered on.

Much of France fell to the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. Throughout the 1420s, they pushed southward from the English Channel, taking Paris and Reims in the process. Unfortunately—and importantly in the story of Joan—young Charles was not yet officially King of France, for he was not able to be crowned at Reims while the enemy controlled it. He was known, then, merely as Charles the Dauphin, or heir apparent to the throne. Thus, for the bulk of the decade, the French were not only on the run, they were without a king.

By decade’s end, the English came across the city of Orléans, a sizeable French town on the banks of the strategic Loire River, which extended from the Atlantic, through the heart of France, where Orléans sat, and down to the southeast part of the country. The English could not get inside its defenses, so they lay siege to the city for six months, waiting for starvation, knowing that with its fall, the rest of France might quickly fall with it. Orléans became the last bastion and hope of the French people. Indeed, historian Régine Pernoud argues that, “On the fate of Orléans hung that of the entire kingdom.”

[pullquote_left]An illiterate peasant girl saved Orléans and the rest of France from its demise.[/pullquote_left]

Naturally, an illiterate peasant girl from Domrémy saved Orléans and the rest of France from its demise. And thus we arrive back to Joan. During the English domination of the 1420s, she began to hear and see visions of the saints Michael, Margaret, Catherine.{{10}} They had a mission for her. They told her to break the siege of Orléans, drive the English out of France, and get Charles the Dauphin crowned king at Reims. Joan, a pious girl who took monthly communion, obeyed the voices.

In 1428, at 16 years of age, Joan ran from home to visit a fortress captain near her town. She told him everything. He sent her home. She returned in early 1429 and insisted on an audience with the Dauphin, who stayed safe in the town of Chinon. She was said to be so insistent and convincing that the captain acquiesced and sent her and two guards to see Charles. The Dauphin, warned of her arrival, attempted to avoid her, but Joan was nothing if not persistent. She found him and told him her tale.

Suspecting witchcraft or insanity, Charles had her examined. A doctor and two noble women confirmed not only her sanity, but her virginity as well.{{11}} Charles was won over. He gave her a suit of armor, a lance, and a horse. A delighted teenage Joan rode out to a nearby field to play, slaying imaginary Englishmen with her new toys. Morris Bishop writes that this was probably the only fun she had in her short, grim life.

With little to lose, Charles allowed her to travel to Orléans to try and lift the six-month siege.{{12}} Joan and about 500 soldiers marched to the city, though ten times that many English awaited them. As per the plan, most of the French troops distracted the English enough for Joan and the remaining soldiers to sneak into the city with some supplies. For the next few days, she toured the city streets, giving out food and raising morale. She soon convinced many people of her story. Within ten days, a revitalized Orléans, who now knew that France had not given up on them—and perhaps, even better, that God has sent their savior in the form of this girl—concentrated their efforts and broke the English siege. Thousands of Englishmen lay dead, their surviving comrades retreating. It was the first substantial French victory since the disastrous events at Agincourt nearly 15 years earlier.

In the following months, Joan “led” battle after victorious battle.{{13}} The English hurried Paris-stationed reinforcements to meet and defeat Joan’s resurrection, but not only did they also fail, their commanders were captured. Joan then turned her sights on Reims and cut a swath to it. On July 17, 1429, at the Reims Cathedral, Charles the Dauphin became King Charles VII. Beaming by his side was 17-year-old heroine Joan of Arc.

On the face of it, such a turn of events makes little sense. France was beaten. England had every ounce of momentum. How can one explain this reversal of fortune without surrendering to Joan’s account of divine guidance? Was this truly one of history’s miracles?

Perhaps. however, it is worth noting that Joan’s ignorance of the situation was possibly her greatest asset. A reeling France had been fighting a purely defensive war since Agincourt. As such, they only tried to slow the incessant English attack. For example, before Joan’s arrival, only once in six months did they attempt to break the siege at all-important Orléans. Contrarily, Joan, consumed by hope and confidence rather than defeatism and despair, took the fight directly to the English. Once France realized that they could win a few battles—and that, perhaps, God was intervening through this young woman—a revitalized people swelled the French ranks. Joan snatched away England’s momentum, and France never gave it back, winning the war in 1453.

The end of Joan’s story is a famous and sad one. In 1430, Joan, now 18, was captured by the Burgundians.{{14}} The English then purchased her. In January 1431, a trial ensued in the English-occupied French town of Rouen. The trial was politically motivated—understandable, considering she was instrumental in crowning a rival claimant to the French throne, a throne over which the entire war was fought—but was instead tried under the guise of sorcery. After all, she heard voices and saw visions. She was charged with witchcraft, magic, impiety, and wearing men’s clothes. For months she was interrogated until she final crumbled and admitted witchcraft. A later retraction could not save her, and the 19-year-old Joan was pronounced guilty in May. She was brought to Rouen’s marketplace for burning. Her final request was for a cross, so an English soldier fashioned one out of two sticks. She kissed it, held it to her chest, and called to her lord and savior no less than six times as she was burned alive.

Her effects on the war and world are enormous. England never regained its momentum. Just over two decades after Joan’s execution, France won the war, regaining all of its lost land from England and then some. England, which held dominion over about a third of French lands in 1429, lost all of it but the northern port city of Calais, which they kept until 1558.

The effect of this land loss cannot be overstated. England held large chunks of French land dating back to William the Conqueror’s 1066 Norman Invasion.{{15}} Losing it all was, perhaps, the best thing to ever happen to them. With the loss of mainland European land, England was relegated to an island nation. As an island, England shed its European aspirations and developed a laser focus on naval development, alongside which a thriving seafaring class boomed. While Portugal and Spain dominated the oceans as England licked its wounds, by the end of the following century it was England who claimed supremacy over the seas.{{16}} The Union Jack eventually circled the globe and the British claimed land on every continent, becoming the strongest power the world had ever seen. At its height, one-quarter of Earth’s land and population were part of the British Empire, on which the sun was said to have never set.

Britain used its naval might to remain the foremost global power until the early twentieth century, guiding the world’s affairs and exporting English culture and rule of law to all corners of the globe. Its numerous colonies, though not without their fair share of conflicts with the crown, benefitted from the lessons and infrastructure which Britain provided.{{17}} Without Joan of Arc leading the French to victory, the English would have spent so much of its energy on maintaining their European empire that they would have neither the resources nor the inclination to set sail and affect the civilized world in a way not seen since Rome.

France, meanwhile, survived as a nation. Without Joan of Arc, it is likely France would have ceased to exist as a sovereign state. The last five centuries without France yield a world without the influential Bourbon Dynasty, French colonization, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe and his modernizing Napoleonic Code.{{18}} A world without France has no strong ally for the American colonists in their revolution against the British. A world without France cannot birth the the enormously important Franco-English alliance of the last century that twice fought against expansionist German empires.{{19}}

Much more difficult to assess are Joan’s indirect effects, though they are still substantial. She has served as a symbol of inspiration and propaganda for centuries after her death.{{20}} Still, in a very real way, this small, young, peasant girl altered the course of French, English, and world history. For these reasons, Joan of Arc is the 27th most influential person in Western history.

[[1]]Joan of Arc was not from a place called Arc. Arc, in fact, was not a place at all. The family name was probably Darc, as the apostrophes in French surnames did not yet exist. Instead of in imaginary Arc, the Darcs lived in Domrémy, which has since been renamed to Domremy-la-Pucelle in honor of Joan and her nickname, la Pucelle d’Orléans—“the Maid of Orléans.” And as long as we’re talking about shaky names, Joan’s name was Jehanne, but the English Anglicized the name to their closest female approximation to John.[[1]]

[[2]]Good times.[[2]]

[[3]]Historian Kelly DeVries said of Joan’s story, “If anything could have discouraged her, the state of France in 1429 should have.”[[3]]

[[4]]See? There was only 81 years of active war. That’s barely a skirmish![[4]]

[[5]]The controversy was the end of the Capetian line after the sons of Philip IV (#29 in our countdown) died without heirs. England’s King Edward III claimed the throne on account of being Philip IV’s grandson. True enough, Philip’s daughter, Isabella, had married the English king Edward II in 1308. Their child, Edward III, was therefore one-half Capetian through his mother, and, since there were no full Capetians remaining, he claimed the throne. The French nobility staunchly opposed being ruled by an Englishman and hurriedly appointed Philip IV’s nephew, Charles of Valois, as the next king, thus beginning the Valois Dynasty.[[5]]

[[6]]In 496, Clovis, King of the Franks—the Frankish Empire later evolved into France just as Clovis’s name later evolved into the first “Louis”—became the first of all the barbaric kings to convert to Catholicism, and he did so at Reims through a baptism by its archbishop. His kingdom converted with him, which would have been a historical blip if it weren’t for a later Frank by the name of Charlemagne spreading Catholicism throughout Western Europe, ingraining the denomination into European culture. To say that Catholicism would not be the world’s largest denomination without Clovis’s conversion is not an unreasonable argument. (And yet, he doesn’t make my Top 30. And I even have two Franks! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this list was not easy.)[[6]]

[[7]]Examples: he thought he was made of glass, he denied the existence of his wife and children, he randomly attacked servants, and once he ran until he collapsed in a heap of not-so-regal exhaustion.[[7]]

[[8]]What’s more, in an effort to right the sinking ship, Charles’s younger brother, Louis of Orléans, wrested some power away to manage the kingdom. In 1407, however, he was assassinated on the orders of cousin John the Fearless, who himself had dreams of the throne. John, too, became embroiled in French government, scandal, and the Hundred Years’ War before also falling victim to assassination in 1419. I’m telling you, the country was a mess.[[8]]

[[9]]That’s what historians call a “kick in the balls.”[[9]]

[[10]]So beautiful were these visions, she recounted, that she cried when they left her.[[10]]

[[11]]Joan’s story was aided by a medieval prophecy which predicted that France, in its worst of times, would be saved by a virgin girl Joan fit the description nicely.[[11]]

[[12]]Historian Stephen W. Richey’s analysis of his questionable decision explains Charles’s desperate situation: “After years of one humiliating defeat after another, both the military and civil leadership of France were demoralized and discredited. When the Dauphin Charles granted Joan’s urgent request to be equipped for war and placed at the head of his army, his decision must have been based in large part on the knowledge that every orthodox, every rational option had been tried and had failed. Only a regime in the final straits of desperation would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory.”[[12]]

[[13]]Joan, who became known as “The Main of Orléans” after the victory, was clearly a wondrous inspirer of a shattered people, but she had a lot to learn about war campaigns. After breaking the siege, she met with Charles and insisted on a direct line to Reims to crown him. Military advisers disagreed and vetoed the child, wisely opting to instead take back the Loire River. Still, Joan was pivotal in securing enough volunteers to bolster French forces. She may not have been a true warrior or military genius, but there was no better standard-bearer. By the end of June, the river was French again.[[13]]

[[14]]She had ordered a retreat in a battle but insisted on being the last to leave. The Burgundians took advantage of her chivalry.[[14]]

[[15]]When William, the Duke of Normandy, took the English throne, he did not cede his Norman lands. The following century, English King Henry II engineered quite the coup when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the ex-wife of the French King Louis VII, who brought her enormous territory in southwest France. England would lose these lands and gain some back over the centuries, but after the Hundred Years’ War, they lost them for good.[[15]]

[[16]]England’s victory in the 1588 Battle of the Spanish Armada serves as the symbolic transition from the Spanish era to the era of England.[[16]]

[[17]]Of all former European colonies throughout the world, those once occupied by the British have since been, as a general rule, far more successful than their counterparts. Think about it.[[17]]

[[18]]More about which in a later entry.[[18]]

[[19]]Most frightening, a world without France is a world without jokes about France.[[19]]

[[20]]During the French Revolution, French monarchists used her as symbol of defending the king, while radicals used her as an icon of the French masses. In World War One, the British used her as propaganda, trying to get women to buy war bonds. When Germany occupied France during World War Two, German propaganda used her to remind the French of her corrupt English trial, while French resistance fighters of course used her as a symbol of struggling against foreign occupation. Clerics have promoted her relationship with the saints, while state officials preferred her rallying to the king’s cause. Suffragettes on both sides of the Atlantic, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, appropriated her image to champion female capacity in the face of a male-dominated world. Indira Gandhi is on the record as citing Joan of Arc as her reason for getting into politics. She’s been a character in a Shakespearean play and one by George Bernard Shaw. Voltaire wrote a poem about her. Tchaikovsky wrote an opera about her. Verdi, too. Even Leonard Cohen paid tribute. (That’s when you know you’re big.)[[20]]