Note: I wrote this paper back in 2018. I haven’t edited it since then.
When studying specific people in medieval history, we rarely hear about the lives of the Average Joe. Instead we tend to focus on the lives of the upper class, royalty especially. It is not hard to see why. Due to their wealth and power, the upper class had the ability to influence the outcome of history as well as the contemporary writings of their day. However, there are exceptions. One such exception was Joan of Arc, or Joan the Maid as she called herself. If it had not been for her courage and determination she would have been lost to history. Instead, Joan of Arc, a mere French teenage peasant, went from watching her father’s livestock in the fields to meeting the dauphine of France and helping him become king, as well as leading the French army against the English.
The reason Joan of Arc was determined to meet and help the dauphine, Charles VII, was due to the voices she heard and interacted with starting in the summer of 1425. However, “at first the voice simply advised her…to be good and go to church” and it was only later on that the voice ordered her to ‘“go to France”’ (Gies 23) and to help Charles VII become king. Now, according to Joan, at first she was not exactly thrilled with this plan. Apparently “she pleaded that she was ‘only a poor girl who knew nothing of riding or of leading in war’ but the voices insisted” (Gies 30). Needless to say, in the end Joan listened to the voices.
It should be noted that hearing voices in the fifteenth century was not exactly unusual. However, it was necessary to figure out if the voices a person heard were divine or demonic (Castor 5). For Joan of Arc, her voices came from saints, specifically St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Because Joan of Arc was not the only medieval woman to hear voices from divine sources, what made her voices special? For one, when other “female visionaries…had experienced their revelations…they were already under the care of a spiritual advisor” and these spiritual advisors “could testify…the nature of their claims” (Castor 95). Joan, however, did not have a spiritual advisor. Instead she “had appeared alone, apart from her escort of armed men” (Castor 95). Joan’s voices were also exceptional because of what the voices were telling her. Unlike other “mystical theologians”, Joan of Arc was not told “sublime truths” (Wilson-Smith 213) like religious doctrine or the upcoming apocalypse (Wilson-Smith 12). Instead, she was told “simply what to do or not to do, and what would happen” (Wilson-Smith 213). And Joan was told to go save France (Wilson-Smith 12) and she would do just that.
However, Joan of Arc was correct to be concerned when the voices told her to go to France, “raise the siege of Orléans” (Warner 146) and make sure that the dauphine was crowned king. After all, she was a teenage peasant girl with no experience in warfare and at this point she could not even read or sign her own name. She knew that no one was going to take her seriously. However, the voices told her to “go to Vaucouleurs and find Robert de Baudricourt, who would give her men to accompany her” (Warner 146). After all, if she had supporters she would look more creditable. Unfortunately for Joan, Baudricourt did not take her seriously either. But due to the fact Joan refused to go away until she got what she wanted (Castor 89) and that Baudricourt started to realize Joan was not mentally ill (Castor 91), he eventually obliged and gave her men so she could go to the royal court. It also helped Joan’s case considerably that she was able to “correctly [predict] the outcome of the Battle of Rouvroy well before any messenger could have conveyed the news” (Margolis 259) to Baudricourt to convince him that she really was sent from God.
Another way Joan of Arc was exceptional was how she dressed. Now, while she certainly was not the only holy woman to have dressed in men’s clothes, the way she dressed was quite different. Instead of dressing “like her models, that of a monk” (Warner 144), Joan dressed as a knight. This is significant for several reasons. The first reason is because she was dressing above her station. It was extremely expensive to be a knight and Joan “had nothing to her name” (Warner 146). Luckily for Joan, the wealthy and influential people she told her plan to believed in her so much that they donated the items she would need to fulfill her role as one of the leaders of the French army. Wearing armor and men’s clothes also gave her creditability when she led the army in battle. This is especially true when you take into consideration the idea that “clothes were capital” and that “apparel signified social position” (Warner 156). Joan of Arc was dressing for the social status she needed, not the social status she had.
Joan of Arc was also exceptional in terms of her military prowess. She had no experience, but she still excelled in battle. After all, it was God’s will, so why would she fail? This reasoning convinced others as well. And the fact there were several old prophecies that applied to Joan did not work against her cause either. One prophecy reported “that France would be ruined through a woman, and afterward restored by a virgin” (Gies 31). Another prophecy reported “that a Maid” would put on armor “and deliver the kingdom of France from its enemies” (Gies 31). The third prophecy, which dated back to “King Arthur’s Merlin” said that “from the oak forest in the marches of Lorraine a virgin would come who would perform marvelous acts and save France” (Gies 31). Even though there were several prophecies, the main theme was always the same: “a virgin would save the kingdom” (Wilson-Smith 31). However, the dauphin was not about to let a teenage peasant girl lead his army without solid evidence she could actually do it, prophecies or no prophecies. After passing many tests, including one to make sure she was a virgin (Castor 94) and another one where the dauphine pretended that he was not actually the dauphine (Quintal & Rankin 18), it was eventually decided that if Joan could raise the siege of Orléans, then she had actually been sent from God. After all, the English already captured Orléans and if Joan failed, the French had nothing to lose (Castor 96).
So on March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc dictated a furious letter to the English forces including Henry VI, who I will note was about six or seven years old at the time. In the letter Joan warns that she has “been sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you out of all France, body for body” (C. Taylor 75). The rest of the letter can be summed up as ‘get out of France or I will slaughter you all. You are not only fighting against me, but God himself.’ Naturally the English did not take this letter, or Joan, seriously. However they would regret dismissing her. Joan of Arc might not have had any military experience, but “after six months of siege [at Orléans], and with the kingdom of Bourges in disarray, Joan the Maid had freed Orléans in just four days…of fighting” (Castor 112). Joan of Arc was able to do ‘“something that 5000 men could not have done”’ (Wood 142) as Christine de Pizan would later write. Not only did Joan raise the siege, she also led the French army in other assaults against the English. Even if the French did not win all of these conflicts, she caused enough damage that the English thought she really was sent from God (Castor 112) and consequently were frightened of her.
In hindsight, it was probably a good thing Joan had no prior military experience. She “attacked when and where she could, without concern for the ‘rules’ that had often hampered and defeated French armies in times past” (L. J. Taylor 221). Because she ignored the rules of war, the English and their allies no longer knew what to expect. And when your enemy is doing the unexpected, you cannot prepare properly. However, because she disregarded the rules, that meant she also disregarded the wishes of “the king, his counselors, and some of her fellow captains” (L. J. Taylor 221). This would be the cause of her downfall when the English captured her. Charles VII made no effort to rescue her, “claiming himself too destitute” while in reality he was “jealous of her popularity” and was “convinced by scheming courtiers that she had outgrown her usefulness to him” (Margolis 263).
Needless to say, Joan of Arc was an incredible woman who turned the Hundred Year War in France’s favor. However, the most exceptional thing she did was after her death: influencing other women, including queens and other female politicians, to get their hands dirty and fight for the things they believe in, even if it was dangerous and they were not likely to win. While Joan of Arc certainly was not the first “woman who bravely takes armed action against her people’s enemy—a woman with blood on her hands” (Warren 103), the women she inspired were likely to reference her while they went into action themselves. One such woman was Margaret of Anjou, who “compared herself to Joan in a speech to her troops” (Warren 66). According to reports she said ‘“You who once followed a peasant girl, follow now a queen”’ (Warren 66). Needless to say, Joan of Arc set a precedent for other women, especially when they were about to do something considered traditionally masculine. Joan of Arc is an obvious example for why representation is important. It shows that if one person can do it, why not others?
Nancy Bradley Warren argues that, “during her lifetime and afterwards, Joan of Arc challenged…gender identity and national identity” (58). This is especially true regarding gender identity. Over the course of her short career, Joan of Arc proved that the traditional ideas of gender can and will be broken, or at the very least bent into a semi-recognizable shape. She also proved that one’s social class does not determine what you can accomplish. As previously stated, Joan was a peasant, but when given the chance she was able to succeed and do things that were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Joan of Arc is exceptional because she is the poster child for not judging a book by its cover and that everyone, no matter their age, gender, race, social status, etc., should be given a chance to learn and succeed.
Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. Faber and Faber. 2014.
Gies, Francis. Joan of Arc: The Legend and The Reality. Harper and Row. 1981.
Margolis, Nadia. “Joan of Arc.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. edited by Carolyn Dinshaw. 2003, pp. 256-266.
Quintal, Claire & Rankin, Daniel, translators. The First Biography of Joan of Arc. University of Pittsburg Press. 1964.
Taylor, Craig. “The Life of Joan of Arc.” Joan of Arc: La Pucelle. Manchester University Press. 2006, pp. 68-136.
Taylor, Larissa Juliet. “Joan of Arc, The Church, and The Papacy, 1429-1920.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 2, April 2012, pp. 217-240.
Warner, Marina. “Knight.” Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Oxford University Press. 2013, pp. 144-167.
Warren, Nancy Bradley. Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005.
Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History. Sutton. 2006.
Wood, Charles T.. “Joan of Arc”. Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints and Government in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press. 1988, pp. 125-151.