FAITH is the basis of all “miracles” and mysteries that cannot be analyzed by the rules of science
– “Think and grow rich”, chapter 3
It is the 29 April 1429.
English troops have been besieging Orléans, a city situated on the powerful Loire river in north-central France, for over six months.
The French royal army faces once more its main adversary in a gruesome and complicated conflict which is smoldering for several decades now (this long period of consecutive military campaigns will later be denominated as Hundred Years’ War1 by historians) and on the whole it appears that the English crown wins a further important battle of this war.
1 the war lasted more precisely 116 years, from 1337 – 1453
Despite the desolate military situation for France (or what is left of it at that point – its northern territories had been occupied, and the Duchy of Burgundy is an ally of England), a seventeen year old peasant girl from a small village in Lorraine is sailing downstream the Loire river with a small fleet, about to set her foot into the starving city.
Accompanied by her most loyal companions, she wants to join the fierce fight immediately.
And she does. Within a week, the tide has turned.
The royal army of the dauphin Charles (the heir apparent) smashes the siege troops and claims a major and entirely unexpected victory. It will be the turning point of this war.
Contemporaries as well as the posterity will ponder over the question: how was it possible?
Visiting North France
France is one of my favorite destinations for educational leave and recreation.
I visited Germany’s western neighbor probably more than a dozen times the recent years, especially the south, but the northern and central regions of France as well.
One of these journeys was a trip from Lorraine in eastern France to the Loire valley area.
The city of Orléans with its 110.000 inhabitants is located around one hundred kilometers south-west of Paris, with the river Loire, which is crossed by five prominent bridges, cutting the city in a northern and a southern part.
Orléans’s popularity is explained by its important role in the Hundred Years’ War, where the historic likeness of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) – today worshiped as a national heroine and Sainte Jeanne d’Arc (Saint Joan of Arc) by the Catholic Church – led the French to the cardinal victory.
She will be the main focus of this article.
For readers who are rather interested in sightseeing: during a stay in Orléans I can highly recommend visiting the Cathédrale Sainte-Croix (Orléans Cathedral), the Musée des Beaux-Arts (museum of the fine arts) and the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc (house of Joan of Arc).
Jeanne d’Arc was born around the year 1412 into a family of comparatively wealthy craftsmen.
Her birthplace was the small village Domrémy2 in Lorraine, about fifty kilometers south-west of Nancy.
2 to honor Jeanne, the town bears the name Domrémy-la-Pucelle today – la pucelle is the French phrase for “virgin” or “maid”
She had four siblings, with two of her three brothers belonging to her entourage during the campaigns in 1429 and 1430 (Pierre and Jean d’Arc).
Her education consisted solely of subjects relating to running a farming business, that is: feeding livestock, sowing and harvesting, spinning, and guarding sheep.
Jeanne was thirteen years old as she reported her first revelations – it was the same time as Burgundian troops (England’s allies in this devastating war that had been waged for ninety years at this point) raided villages in Lorraine, which bordered immediately on the enemy territory and was therefore an easy target.
The revelations ordered her not to accept her predetermined role as a peasant woman and to refuse marriage.
She was also ordered to keep her maidenhood (virginity) for the rest of her life.
During her whole adolescence she reported about celestial messages and visions (especially from Saint Catherine of Alexandria), giving her the divine mission to lift the siege of Orléans, to expel the English from French territory and to make the dauphin Charles king of France.
At the beginning of 1429 Jeanne headed to Vaucouleurs twenty kilometers northwards of Domremy, where capitaine Robert de Baudricourt, a supporter of the dauphin, was residing.
She told him about her holy mission, and her demeanor was of such confidence and full of belief that she got send to Charles at Chinon on 12 February 1429, where the firmness of her religious beliefs and her maidenhood was examined.
Well-equipped and obsessed about her assignment she made off to Orléans with her entourage at the end of April, where she gained massive momentum among the demoralized Frenchmen and eventually generated the force to lift the siege on May 8.
Following this outstanding military achievement, the dauphin was crowned on July 17 in the cathedral of Reims, as king Charles VII of France.
It was the peak of Jeanne’s military career. And the story could have ended here.
But the peasant girl wanted more, and marched northwards, towards Paris. She underestimated the strength of the enemy, lost gradually the faith of the soldiers (and the king) in her, but never the belief in herself.
The following excerpt from a French film (1994) depicts the last stages of Jeanne’s military career before she got captured by Burgundian soldiers in May 1430 on her unsuccessful last campaigns.
She was burnt at stake with nineteen for supposed witchcraft but had made her indelible entry in the history books at least.
My own interpretation
There is nothing more intoxicating than victory, and nothing more dangerous
– Robert Greene
Jeanne d’Arc may serve as proof that one needs no formal education or experience when one has strong beliefs in one’s capabilities and coincidence and circumstance are in one’s favor.
There is no doubt Jeanne d’Arc had a charismatic personality that spellbound the soldiers (the majority of them twice her age) in her entourage.
Without the desolate military situation for Charles, a devastating war for about ninety years, the deep-rooted religious beliefs in the middle ages and a popular prophecy that had announced the arrival of a holy maid there would have been no peasant girl with the chance to get a military command.
The dauphin was open to almost every suggestion to resolve the invidious military situation, however preposterous it may appear in the first place. And here she was, the perfect means of psychological warfare against the English troops.
But Jeanne’s reckless creed about the inevitable victory sadly turned out to be fatal – she was burnt at stake in Rouen at age nineteen, after been captured, sold (for a large sum), and condemned to death by a religious court3.
3 a retrial thirty years later proved the injustice of the verdict however, and she was eventually canonized in the 20th century by Pope Benedict XV
For me, Jeanne d’Arc is nonetheless an inspiration.
Regardless of your family background or your formal education, you can achieve stunning successes with a charismatic personality and bold action when you are at the right time at the right place.
But this story is also a cautionary tale. Bold acting must also be guided by reason and pragmatism, careful planning and – if you think in bigger terms – a large-scale strategy.
Something you cannot necessarily expect from an eighteen year old girl who just accomplished one of the greatest military feats in recorded history.
Sources and further reading
Domremy-la-Pucelle: Histoire et patrimoine, ISBN: 978-2-86088-087-9
Wikipedia – Siege of Orléans
Featured image: River Meuse in Domrémy-la-Pucelle, the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc