Biography of Joan of Arc (Jehanne Darc)

written by Allen Williamson

"Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years."
- Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England during World War II; from his book "The Birth of Britain", 1956.1

Segment 1: Childhood

Anno Domini 1412
ON the night of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th)2 at the end of the medieval Christmas season, in the year 1412 during the final waning period of relative peace secured by the Truce of Leulinghen, a baby was born to Jacques Darc (or "d'Arc") and his wife Isabelle in the village of Domrémy. She was christened "Jehanne" ("Joan" or "Joanna"), apparently after her mother's sister Jehanne Lassois, or her godmothers Jehanne Royer, Jehanne de Viteau, and Jehanne "the wife of Mayor Aubéry".3 Lord Perceval de Boulainvilliers later claimed that the roosters of the village, "like heralds of a new joy", hailed her birth by crowing long before dawn,4 as if to announce a different type of dawn.
Her childhood was spent among the pastures and meadows of the Meuse River Valley, during a period in which events were already setting the stage for her later life and death. The throne at that time was occupied by the fourth king of the Valois dynasty, Charles VI (aka Charles "the Mad" or "the Well-Beloved"), whose frequent delusional periods rendered him unable to govern. For a number of years the monarchy had been administered by several members of the Royal family - Queen Isabelle and the Dukes of Orléans, Burgundy [Bourgogne], Berri, and Bourbon - who became embroiled in an internal war after Duke Louis of Orléans was assassinated on the orders of his cousin Duke Jean-sans-Peur of Burgundy in 1407. The French were henceforth divided between the Orléanist (or "Armagnac") faction and their Burgundian rivals, a division which would be a primary factor during Joan of Arc's campaigns, capture and trial.
The context for the latter was prefigured in these events, for the assassination divided the clergy along the same lines as the later dispute over Joan herself. Among the pro-Burgundian clergy who defended the assassination were her future judge (Pierre Cauchon), the English-backed Inquisitor who would authorize her trial (Jean Graverent), and tribunal members such as Jean Beaupère and Pierre Miget. Those condemning the assassination included clergy who would later support Joan of Arc: the prominent theologian and widely-presumed saint, Jean Gerson; Jacques Gelu (Archbishop of Tours and later of Embrun); and Pierre de Versailles (later Bishop of Meaux).5
When the clerical dispute over the assassination came to a head at the Council of Constance in 1415, Pierre Cauchon rehearsed for his later role as the English-appointed judge of Joan of Arc's case by receiving an alternate variety of secular commission: bribery of officials on behalf of his patron the Duke of Burgundy, via an order dated 26 July 1415.6

While these events were occurring at Constance, war with England was renewed after negotiators failed to extend the Truce of Leulinghen. Citing his family's old claim to the French throne, King Henry V of England invaded Normandy in August of that year, quickly gaining the port city of Harfleur and subsequently defeating the French Royal army, dominated by Armagnac leaders, near the little village of Agincourt on October 25th. In one of the more lopsided battles of the long war, the English were heavily outnumbered but lost no more than a few hundred men, whereas French casualties may have amounted to about a fourth of their army and included three Dukes, five Counts, 92 Barons, and hundreds of lesser lords. The event decimated a generation of French aristocrats, a factor which contributed to the youthful ages of so many of the commanders who would later serve in Joan of Arc's army.

Margin Note 1:
This long captivity ironically provided Charles the free time to write the vast volumes of innovative poetry for which he is best known today.
Among the many nobles captured during the battle was Duke Charles d'Orléans himself, natural leader of his father's faction, who would subsequently spend twenty-five years as a prisoner of war.mn1 Joan of Arc would take a special interest in this duke, explaining that her visions had told her he was especially beloved by God.
Among the immediate effects of the battle, word of the defeat appears to have triggered another episode of mental illness for Charles VI. As with so many other segments of the population, the members of a Parisian literary society called "La Cour Amoureuse" learned that many of their colleagues had fallen on the muddy field between Agincourt and Tramecourt that day.7 And the fifty-year-old Christine de Pisan, court writer and poet for the French Royal family, responded with a gloomy meditation called "Epistle on the Prison of Human Existence" and finally entered a convent three years later when Paris came under occupation. She would not emerge from obscurity to write her final poem until a certain farmer's daughter began to reverse the tide of the war.

Margin Note 2:
Although the transcript of the Condemnation Trial is unfortunately more readily available in translation, and this trial itself is the focus of a great number of movies and popular books, it is the transcript of the Rehabilitation trial which has provided historians with most of the details of her life, told in the testimony of the people who knew her best. The plotlines of the biographies and movies are ultimately derived from this testimony, albeit usually indirectly through secondary sources which quote portions of the transcript.
Against this turbulent backdrop the members of the d'Arc family continued to farm their fifty acres of land near the Meuse. Historians have long commented about the surprising amount of detailed information available about Joan of Arc's childhood, information which was somewhat paradoxically provided for us by an event which took place over 20 years after her death. When the English were finally driven from the site of her trial, Rouen, in November of 1449, steps were taken to launch an appeal of her case, generally referred to as the Rehabilitation Trial.mn2 During the three stages of this appellate process, the Inquisitor-General and other clergy questioned a total of 124 witnesses, including twenty-two of the villagers who had known Joan during her early years. Some of them still referred to her by her childhood nickname, "Jhenette" ("little Joan" or "Joannie"). According to these witnesses, she had been a dutiful child who helped her parents with the chores along with her other siblings: her three older brothers Jacquemin, Jean, and Pierre, and her sister Catherine. One of her godfathers, a farmer named Jean Moreau from the nearby village of Greux, recalled that "she was such a good girl that almost everyone in Domrémy loved her".8 A group of her former childhood companions, or others of approximately the same age, also testified. These were: Hauviette [by then the wife of Gerardin de Syonne], Mengette [wife of Jean Joyart], Simonin Musnier, Isabelette d'Epinal, Michel Lebuin, Gerard Guillemette, Jean Jaquard, Jean Waterin, and someone listed in the transcript merely as "Colin, son of Jean Colin of Greux", who is believed to have married Catherine. These people remembered her as a "good, simple, sweet-natured girl"9 who "worked gladly"10 and "went to church gladly and often",11 especially to a chapel called Notre Dame de Bermont, to which she and Catherine would bring candles in honor of the Virgin Mary.12 "She was greatly committed to the service of God and the Blessed Mary," said Colin, "so that because of her devotion the other boys and I, who was young then, would laugh at her."13 Simonin Musnier remembered that "she helped those who were ill and gave alms to the poor, as I saw, because I was ill when I was a boy and Joan consoled me."14

In her testimony at her own trial, Joan would say: "It was from my mother that I learned the Pater Noster ["Our Father", aka "The Lord's Prayer"], the Ave Maria ["Hail Mary"], and the Credo [Apostles' Creed]",15 and "to sew linen fabrics and to spin wool, and when it comes to spinning and sewing I fear no woman...".16 Catherine le Royer remembered that "she loved to spin wool, and spun well".17 She also loved to listen to the ringing of the church bells: Dominique Jacob, a priest of a nearby parish, remembered that "sometimes when they rang the bells for Compline [around 9 pm] in the village church, she would go down on her knees; and it seemed to me that she said her prayers with devotion."18 Jean Waterin similarly recalled that "when she was in the fields and heard the bell tolling she would go down on her knees".19 She sometimes chased down Perrin Drappier, the churchwarden at Domrémy, if he was remiss in performing his duties: "when I did not ring the bell for Compline she scolded me, saying that this was badly done; and then she promised to give me pieces of wool [or possibly "flat cakes"]20 so that I would have the bells rung for Compline diligently".21

War darkened this childhood, however. Henry V had returned in 1417 and steadily gained important cities such as Caen and Rouen. The latter fell in 1419 only after a six-month siege during which half the population died of starvation and disease. Although most of these deaths were unintentional and Henry V tried to discourage his troops from wanton looting and destruction,22 the tide of war plunged portions of the countryside back into the miserable state which had characterized the previous century. In some parts of northern France, abandoned farms vacated by the terrified populace became overgrown with scrub and small trees. "The forests came back with the English" became a proverbial phrase.

As the French aristocracy - the traditional 'military caste' - was taking a beating and the Armagnacs and Burgundians were too busy with each other to halt the English, a popular French song of the era seems to parody the plight of those Norman farmers who might wish to take up their poor weapons and attempt to drive out the "Godons", as they called English soldiers:

Prenez chascun une houe
Pour mieulx les desraciner.
S'ils ne s'en veullent aller,
Au moins faictez leur la moue.
Ne craignez point à les battre,
Ces godons, panches à pois;
Car ung de nous en vault quatre,
Au moins en vault-il bien troys.
"Let everyone grab a hoe,
To better uproot them out.
If they aren't willing to go,
At least show them a pout.
Have no fear of fighting them,
These Godons with bellies as round as a pea,
For one of us is worth four of them,
Or certainly at least worth three."23

The French have enjoyed many eras of glory, but this was not one of them.

A new leader was emerging at this time. Charles de Ponthieu, the young Dauphin [claimant to the throne] who would later become King Charles VII with Joan of Arc's help, was allied with the Armagnacs by this point. His mother the Queen was linked with the Burgundians. French loyalties were divided between these two groups, Henry V, and various individual nobles who maintained their own policies or switched back and forth between the major factions. Sporadic fighting continued throughout France and beyond.

In 1419, according to the surviving records, Joan's father pooled his money with another farm family to rent the use of a nearby fortress on an island in the Meuse, called the "Château de l'Ile", to serve as a secure sanctuary for the villagers and their livestock.24 On the wider stage of European politics, the same year witnessed the assassination of Duke Jean-sans-Peur of Burgundy by the Armagnacs, leading his successor Philippe-le-Bon ["Philip the Good"] to enter into full alliance with the English. A branch of the French Royal family was now willing to offer the throne to their English relatives. It would be Philip's troops who would later capture Joan of Arc at Compiègne and transfer her to his allies.

In 1420, when Joan was eight, the Treaty of Troyes granted Henry V eventual title to the kingdom of France through marriage to Catherine de Valois, daughter of King Charles VI. Her brother the Dauphin Charles was disinherited, and France was divided between Henry V and the Duke of Burgundy. Among the men who helped negotiate the treaty was Pierre Cauchon, whose efforts were rewarded when his faction secured him the position as Bishop of Beauvais from which he would later prosecute Joan on behalf of the English. The appointment, as well as the later prosecution, was achieved with the help of his colleagues at the University of Paris, now filled with supporters of the Anglo-Burgundian faction after the others were expelled. The University's residual prestige as a theological authority would be put to use during Joan's trial.

Margin Note 3:
Some indication of the desperate nature of the situation can be gauged from a letter issued by the Dauphin Charles shortly after the disaster at Verneuil. The Dauphin tried to rally his supporters by pointing out that most of the casualties had merely been Scots and other foreign troops, who had been in the habit of pillaging the French populace; so the heavy losses at Verneuil weren't necessarily such a bad thing after all, he reasoned.
In 1422 Henry V and Charles VI died within two months of each other, leaving the infant Henry VI as the nominal ruler of both kingdoms. His regent in France, Duke John of Bedford, spent the next few years cementing alliances with the Dukes of Brittany and Burgundy and engaging Armagnac forces in the field. English military fortunes were enhanced by major victories at Cravant on 31 July 1423 and at Verneuil on August 17th of the following year, during which the Dauphin's Scottish allies were cut to pieces in a smaller-scale version of Agincourt. The Scots lost some of their enthusiasm for the war after that point.
In the wake of defeat and frustration, demoralization set in within the Armagnac faction.
mn3
Around that time, perhaps in the summer of 1424, the young farm girl from Domrémy said she began to experience visions. She would later explain: "I was in my thirteenth year when I heard a voice from God to help me guide my behavior. And the first time I was very much afraid. And this voice came about the hour of noon, in the summer time, in my father's garden..."23
A new chapter had begun for Joan of Arc and the various factions fighting for control of the Kingdom of France.

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Copyright © 1999 - 2011 Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.

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