Wild Reddit Question Appears!
Why did anyone take Joan of Arc seriously?
She was a teenage girl saying she had a holy vision, not of noble heritage. How did she end up leading an army? Why was she taken seriously?
I feel that there is a lot to unpack in this question. I’ll do my best to untangle the many webs intertwined here and weave them as clearly as I can in a nice little pattern 🙂
The Question of Joan’s Heritage
You mention that “[Joan was] not of noble heritage.” You’re perfectly right! She was a proper nobody. Now, believe it or not but it posed troubles to many pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists. They couldn’t believe that Joan, having achieved what she achieved, wasn’t somehow of noble blood. They even came up with the crazy theory that Joan was of royal blood! I’ve already pinpointed the fallacies at the basis of that theory and I invite you to read it if you find the time 😉 It’s basically a Shakespearian fiction turned into a historical phony hypothesis. The fact is that Joan didn’t accomplish so much on her own for that matter. A lot of people were talking about her and granted her magical powers still. Most chroniclers of the time had an opinion on her or at least wrote about her.Joan and the French military hierarchy
Nevertheless, Joan faced a wall when she first met the men she’d fought alongside with. They wouldn’t believe in her. They wouldn’t listen to her. She was so relentless though that she carved herself a place among them. I wrote about it a little time ago. The fact that Joan actively searched to engage into battles and showed the greatest courage on the battlefield turned her into an inspiring figure. Also, it helped that she was always quick with a sharp reply. Some people in power, mostly Georges de La Trémoille, thought she’d make a nice figurehead. They didn’t actually believe in her. However, a few high ranked military leaders of the French army, such as Dunois (Bastard of Orléans) and the duke of Alençon, would years later report on Joan’s miracles at Orléans, on her second trial*.
*Joan was condemned as a heretic on her trial at Rouen. Many years later, her mother called to the king and the Church to undo this trial and clean her daughter’s name. That’s when many people who met Joan and fought alongside her witnessed in her favour.
Who Took Joan of Arc Seriously?
The better question is who took Joan seriously? Which brings me to an anecdote I’ve never reported in my various contributions up to this point. On September 3rd, 1430, two women had been arrested and were executed in Paris in front of the cathedral. They believed that Joan of Arc was good. One of them was called Piéronne and originated from Britanny. She declared that God himself had appeared to her, dressed with a red mantel over a white gown, which was considered as blasphemous (for God’s clothing was a white mantel over a red gown–he had fashion sense!)*.
At the meantime, when Joan died, a few captains that fought with her at Orléans tried to replace her with a random shepherd. Those two anecdotes go a long way in telling us how seriously she was taken and by whom. She contributed to a long standing superstitious culture in a world in which people believed in miracles and named miracles even the silliest things–even an unexpected colour for bread. Rational thinking was not the paradigm that most people followed. Sophie Page writes: “Since both magicians and saints claimed to possess supernatural powers, it was necessary for the ecclesiastical authorities to distinguish between the categories of magic and miracle**.”
* Colette Beaune (ed.), Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1990, p. 281-282.
** Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts. London: British Library, 2017, p. 16.
A Too Short of an Introduction to Medieval Magic
When Joan arrived at Chinon and met the king she was then sent to Poitiers to meet theologians who were charged to assess the holiness of her visions. As it happens Augustine had written about visions in his De Genesi ad litteram (book XII). He described three types of visions: the best were spiritual and touched the soul, some were carried by dreams, the last belonged to the physical realm. The people who judged Joan at Rouen determined that her visions belonged to the third and least noble kind. They took a very long time asking Joan how the Archangel Michael was dressed and tried to pinpoint inconsistencies in her narrative. “Was he naked when he came to you?” they asked. “Do you think he’d have nothing to wear?” she answered as if they were stupid. It was common in female saint biographies that they’d be tempted by the devil at some point in their journey. He would appear to them in the flesh and try to lay with them. Having sex with a demon was certainly a “physical” and devilish vision.
“In the medieval universe, angelic mediators carried prayers to God. Demons sought to divert the souls of men and women from heaven*.” Augustine wrote that angels existed for every living things, hence the concept of guardian angels developed in the Late Middle Ages. However, “theologians were naturally dubious of the human ability to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, as it was well known that demons could assume fairer forms to deceive mankind*.” This led to the writings of many more texts on visions, the meeting of angels and the conjuring of demons. A whole literature flourished on the subject. All Joan had to do was to convince people she had vision and that those visions were sent by God. She certainly had visions and she never denied them. Moreover, it belonged to the realm of the possible in those times to the less pragmatic of minds had no trouble to join in on the narrative. Once Orléans was delivered only a few days after she entered the city, Joan gained enough charisma that people believed in her.
Max Weber argued in his essay on authority and domination** that in times of great disorder and general unrest, people would easily turn to a charismatic figure to lead them. Someone who came from nothing. Someone who had no title nor experience but someone who actually showed up and led them to victory. This charismatic leader finds his/her authority rooted in his/her success. He/she has to safeguared his/her people. As soon as the charismatic leader faces a defeat or couldn’t translate his authority into another form of domination (feudal or bureaucratic, for example), he/she’s discarded. This pattern doesn’t only apply to Joan. Throughout history many figures became charismatic leaders according to that definition. Oliver Cromwell was one of them in my opinion. I find it particularily striking that he also hated that people took the name of the Lord in vain and that he promoted, as well as Joan, a very strict and religious discipline within the military. Joan is known for having chased allegded prostitutes with a sword. She broke her sword on the back of one of them and, according to Jean Chartier, a French chronicler and Valois partisan, that’s when she lost it. That’s the moment the magic stopped working and she went from incredible victories to repetitive defeats.
People took her seriously because they believed in magic and miracles. She was only human though, but that’s what makes her story even more fascinating.
* S. Page, Ibidem, p. 75, 78.
** Max Weber, La domination. Paris: La Découverte, 2013. Translated into French by Isabelle Kalinowski.