By John Lord.
Perhaps the best known and most popular of heroines is Joan of Arc, called the Maid of Orleans. Certainly she is one of the most interesting characters in the history of France during the Middle Ages; hence I select her to illustrate heroic women. There are not many such who are known to fame; though heroic qualities are not uncommon in the gentler sex, and a certain degree of heroism enters into the character of all those noble and strongly marked women who have attracted attention and who have rendered great services. It marked many of the illustrious women of the Bible, of Grecian and Roman antiquity, and especially those whom chivalry produced in mediaeval Europe; and even in our modern times intrepidity and courage have made many a woman famous, like Florence Nightingale. In Jewish history we point to Deborah, who delivered Israel from the hands of Jabin; and to Jael, who slew Sisera, the captain of Jabin's hosts; and to Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes. It was heroism, which is ever allied with magnanimity, that prompted the daughter of Jephtha to the most remarkable self-sacrifice recorded in history. There was a lofty heroism in Abigail, when she prevented David from shedding innocent blood. And among the Pagan nations, who does not admire the heroism of such women as we have already noticed? Chivalry, too, produced illustrious heroines in every country of Europe. We read of a Countess of March, in the reign of Edward III., who defended Dunbar with uncommon courage against Montague and an English army; a Countess of Montfort shut herself up in the fortress of Hennebon, and successfully defied the whole power of Charles of Blois; Jane Hatchett repulsed in person a considerable body of Burgundian troops; Altrude, Countess of Bertinora, advanced with an army to the relief of Ancona; Bona Lombardi, with a body of troops, liberated her husband from captivity; Isabella of Lorraine raised an army for the rescue of her husband; Queen Philippa, during the absence of her husband in Scotland, stationed herself in the Castle of Bamborough and defied the threats of Douglas, and afterwards headed an army against David, King of Scotland, and took him prisoner, and shut him up in the Tower of London.
But these illustrious women of the Middle Ages who performed such feats of gallantry and courage belonged to the noble class; they were identified with aristocratic institutions; they lived in castles; they were the wives and daughters of feudal princes and nobles whose business was war, and who were rough and turbulent warriors, and sometimes no better than robbers, but who had the virtues of chivalry, which was at its height during the wars of Edward III. And yet neither the proud feudal nobles nor their courageous wives and daughters took any notice of the plebeian people, except to oppress and grind them down. No virtues were developed by feudalism among the people but submission, patience, and loyalty.
And thus it is extraordinary that such a person should appear in that chivalric age as Joan of Arc, who rose from the humblest class, who could neither read nor write,--a peasant girl without friends or influence, living among the Vosges mountains on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine. She was born in 1412, in the little obscure village of Domremy on the Meuse, on land belonging to the French crown. She lived in a fair and fertile valley on the line of the river, on the other side of which were the Burgundian territories. The Lorraine of the Vosges was a mountainous district covered with forests, which served for royal hunting parties. The village of Domremy itself was once a dependency of the abbey of St. Remy at Rheims. This district had suffered cruelly from the wars between the Burgundians and the adherents of the Armagnacs, one of the great feudal families of France in the Middle Ages.
Joan, or Jeanne, was the third daughter of one of the peasant laborers of Domremy. She was employed by her mother in spinning and sewing, while her sisters and brothers were set to watch cattle. Her mother could teach her neither to read nor write, but early imbued her mind with the sense of duty. Joan was naturally devout, and faultless in her morals; simple, natural, gentle, fond of attending the village church; devoting herself, when not wanted at home, to nursing the sick,--the best girl in the village; strong, healthy, and beautiful; a spirit lowly but poetic, superstitious but humane, and fond of romantic adventures. But her piety was one of her most marked peculiarities, and somehow or other she knew more than we can explain of Scripture heroes and heroines.
One of the legends of that age and place was that the marches of Lorraine were to give birth to a maid who was to save the realm,--founded on an old prophecy of Merlin. It seems that when only thirteen years old Joan saw visions, and heard celestial voices bidding her to be good and to trust in God; and as virginity was supposed to be a supernal virtue, she vowed to remain a virgin, but told no one of her vow or her visions. She seems to have been a girl of extraordinary good sense, which was as marked as her religious enthusiasm.
The most remarkable thing about this young peasant girl is that she claimed to have had visions and heard voices which are difficult to be distinguished from supernatural,--something like the daemon of Socrates. She affirmed that Saint Michael the Archangel appeared to her in glory, also Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, encouraging her in virtue, and indicating to her that a great mission was before her, that she was to deliver her king and country. Such claims have not been treated with incredulity or contempt by French historians, especially Barante and Michelet, in view of the wonderful work she was instrumental in accomplishing.
At this period France was afflicted with that cruel war which had at intervals been carried on for nearly a century between the English and French kings, and which had arisen from the claims of Edward I to the throne of France. The whole country was distracted, forlorn, and miserable; it was impoverished, overrun, and drained of fighting men. The war had exhausted the resources of England as well as those of France. The population of England at the close of this long series of wars was less than it was under Henry II. Those wars were more disastrous to the interests of both the rival kingdoms than even those of the Crusades, and they were marked by great changes and great calamities. The victories of Crécy, Poictiers, and Agincourt--which shed such lustre on the English nation--were followed by reverses, miseries, and defeats, which more than balanced the glories of Edward the Black Prince and Henry V. Provinces were gained and lost, yet no decisive results followed either victory or defeat. The French kings, driven hither and thither, with a decimated people, and with the loss of some of their finest provinces, still retained their sovereignty.
At one time, about the year 1347, Edward III. had seemed to have attained the supreme object of his ambition. France lay bleeding at his feet; he had won the greatest victory of his age; Normandy already belonged to him, Guienne was recovered, Aquitaine was ceded to him, Flanders was on his side, and the possession of Brittany seemed to open his way to Paris. But in fourteen years these conquests were lost; the plague scourged England, and popular discontents added to the perplexities of the once fortunate monarch. Moreover, the House of Commons had come to be a power and a check on royal ambition. The death of the Black Prince consummated his grief and distraction, and the heroic king gave himself up in his old age to a disgraceful profligacy, and died in the arms of Alice Pierce, in the year 1377.
Fifty years pass by, and Henry V. is king of England, and renews his claim to the French throne. The battle of Agincourt (1415) gives to Henry V. the same éclat that the victory of Crécy had bestowed on Edward III. Again the French realm is devastated by triumphant Englishmen. The King of France is a captive; his Queen is devoted to the cause of Henry, the Duke of Burgundy is his ally, and he only needs the formal recognition of the Estates to take possession of the French throne. But in the year 1422, in the midst of his successes, he died of a disease which baffled the skill of all his physicians, leaving his kingdom to a child only nine years old, and the prosecution of the French war to his brother the Duke of Bedford, who was scarcely inferior to himself in military genius.
At this time, when Charles VI. of France was insane, and his oldest son Louis dead, his second son Charles declared himself King of France, as Charles VII. But only southern France acknowledged Charles, who at this time was a boy of fifteen years. All the northern provinces, even Guienne and Gascony, acknowledged Henry VI., the infant son of Henry V. of England. Charles's affairs, therefore, were in a bad way, and there was every prospect of the complete conquest of France. Even Paris was the prey alternately of the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, the last of whom were the adherents of Charles the Dauphin,--the legitimate heir to the throne. He held his little court at Bourges, where he lived as gaily as he could, sometimes in want of the necessaries of life. His troops were chiefly Gascons, Lombards, and Scotch, who got no pay, and who lived by pillage. He was so hard pressed by the Duke of Bedford that he meditated a retreat into Dauphiné. It would seem that he was given to pleasures, and was unworthy of his kingdom, which he nearly lost by negligence and folly.
The Duke of Bedford, in order to drive Charles out of the central provinces, resolved to take Orleans, which was the key to the south,--a city on the north bank of the Loire, strongly fortified and well provisioned. This was in 1428. The probabilities were that this city would fall, for it was already besieged, and was beginning to suffer famine.
In this critical period for France, Joan of Arc appeared on the stage, being then a girl of sixteen (some say eighteen) years of age. Although Joan, as we have said, was uneducated, she yet clearly comprehended the critical condition of her country, and with the same confidence that David had in himself and in his God when he armed himself with a sling and a few pebbles to confront the full-armed giant of the Philistines, inspired by her heavenly visions she resolved to deliver France. She knew nothing of war; she had not been accustomed to equestrian exercises, like a woman of chivalry; she had no friends; she had never seen great people; she was poor and unimportant. To the eye of worldly wisdom her resolution was perfectly absurd.
It was with the greatest difficulty that Joan finally obtained an interview with Boudricourt, the governor of Vaucouleurs; and he laughed at her, and bade her uncle take her home and chastise her for her presumption. She returned to her humble home, but with resolutions unabated. The voices encouraged her, and the common people believed in her. Again, in the red coarse dress of a peasant girl, she sought the governor, claiming that God had sent her. There was something so strange, so persistent, so honest about her that he reported her case to the King. Meanwhile, the Duke of Lorraine heard of her, and sent her a safe-conduct, and the people of Vaucouleurs came forward and helped her. They gave her a horse and the dress of a soldier; and the governor, yielding to her urgency, furnished her with a sword and a letter to the King. She left without seeing her parents,--which was one of the subsequent charges against her,--and prosecuted her journey amid great perils and fatigues, travelling by night with her four armed attendants.
After twelve days Joan reached Chinon, where the King was tarrying. But here new difficulties arose: she could not get an interview with the King; it was opposed by his most influential ministers and courtiers. "Why waste precious time," said they, "when Orleans is in the utmost peril, to give attention to a mad peasant-girl, who, if not mad, must be possessed with a devil: a sorceress to be avoided; what can she do for France?" The Archbishop of Rheims, the prime-minister of Charles, especially was against her. The learned doctors of the schools derided her claims. It would seem that her greatest enemies were in the Church and the universities. "Not many wise, not many mighty are called." The deliverers of nations in great exigencies rarely have the favor of the great. But the women of the court spoke warmly in Joan's favor, for her conduct was modest and irreproachable; and after two days she was admitted to the royal castle, the Count of Vendôme leading her to the royal presence. Charles stood among a crowd of nobles, all richly dressed; but in her visions this pure enthusiast had seen more glories than an earthly court, and she was undismayed. To the King she repeated the words which had thus far acted liked a charm: "I am Joan the Maid, sent by God to save France;" and she demanded troops. But the King was cautious; he sent two monks to her native village to inquire all about her, while nobles and ecclesiastics cross-questioned her. She was, however, treated courteously, and given in charge to the King's lieutenant, whose wife was a woman of virtue and piety. Many distinguished people visited her in the castle to which she was assigned, on whom she made a good impression by her modesty, good sense, and sublime enthusiasm. It was long debated in the royal council whether she should be received or rejected; but as affairs were in an exceedingly critical condition, and Orleans was on the point of surrender, it was concluded to listen to her voice.
It must be borne in mind that the age was exceedingly superstitious, and the statesmen of the distracted and apparently ruined country probably decided to make use of this girl, not from any cordial belief in her mission, but from her influence on the people. She might stimulate them to renewed efforts. She was an obscure and ignorant peasant-girl, it was true, but God might have chosen her as an instrument. In this way very humble people, with great claims, have often got the ear and the approval of the wise and powerful, as instruments of Almighty Providence. When Moody and Sankey first preached in London, it was the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief-Justice--who happened to be religious men--that, amid the cynicism of ordinary men of rank, gave them the most encouragement, and frequently attended their meetings.
And the voices which inspired the Maid of Orleans herself,--what were these? Who can tell? Who can explain such mysteries? I would not assert, nor would I deny, that they were the voices of inspiration. What is inspiration? It has often been communicated to men. Who can deny that the daemon of Socrates was something more than a fancied voice? When did supernatural voices first begin to utter the power of God? When will the voices of inspiration cease to be heard on earth? In view of the fact that she did accomplish her mission, the voices which inspired this illiterate peasant to deliver France are not to be derided. Who can sit in judgment on the ways in which Providence is seen to act? May He not choose such instruments as He pleases? Are not all His ways mysterious, never to be explained by the reason of man? Did not the occasion seem to warrant something extraordinary? Here was a great country apparently on the verge of ruin. To the eye of reason and experience it seemed that France was to be henceforth ruled, as a subjugated country, by a foreign power. Royal armies had failed to deliver her. Loyalty had failed to arouse the people. Feudal envies and enmities had converted vassals into foes. The Duke of Burgundy, the most powerful vassal of France, was in arms against his liege lord. The whole land was rent with divisions and treasons. And the legitimate king, who ought to have been a power, was himself feeble, frivolous, and pleasure-seeking amid all his perils. He could not save the country. Who could save it? There were no great generals. Universal despair hung over the land. The people were depressed. Military resources were insufficient. If France was to be preserved as an independent and powerful monarchy, something extraordinary must happen to save it. The hope in feudal armies had fled. In fact, only God could rescue the country in such perils and under such forlorn circumstances.
Joan of Arc believed in God,--that He could do what He pleased, that He was a power to be supplicated; and she prayed to Him to save France, since princes could not save the land, divided by their rivalries and jealousies and ambitions. And the conviction, after much prayer and fasting, was impressed upon her mind--no matter how, but it was impressed upon her--that God had chosen her as His instrument, that it was her mission to raise the siege of Orleans, and cause the young Dauphin to be crowned king at Rheims. This conviction gave her courage and faith and intrepidity. How could she, unacquainted with wars and sieges, show the necessary military skill and genius? She did not pretend to it. She claimed no other wisdom than that which was communicated to her by celestial voices. If she could direct a military movement in opposition to leaders of experience, it was only because this movement was what was indicated by an archangel. And so decided and imperative was she, that royal orders were given to obey her. One thing was probable, whether a supernatural wisdom and power were given her or not,--she yet might animate the courage of others, she might stimulate them to heroic action, and revive their hopes; for if God was with them, who could be against them? What she had to do was simply this,--to persuade princes and nobles that the Lord would deliver the nation. Let the conviction be planted in the minds of a religious people that God is with them, and in some way will come to their aid if they themselves will put forth their own energies, and they will be almost sure to rally. And here was an inspired woman, as they supposed, ready to lead them on to victory, not by her military skill, but by indicating to them the way as an interpreter of the Divine will. This was not more extraordinary than the repeated deliverances of the Hebrew nation under religious leaders.
The signal deliverance of the French at that gloomy period from the hands of the English, by Joan of Arc, was a religious movement. The Maid is to be viewed as a religious phenomenon; she rested her whole power and mission on the supposition that she was inspired to point out the way of deliverance. She claimed nothing for herself, was utterly without vanity, ambition, or pride, and had no worldly ends to gain. Her character was without a flaw. She was as near perfection as any mortal ever was: religious, fervent, unselfish, gentle, modest, chaste, patriotic, bent on one thing only,--to be of service to her country, without reward; and to be of service only by way of encouragement, and pointing out what seemed to her to be the direction of God.
So Joan fearlessly stood before kings and nobles and generals, yet in the modest gentleness of conscious virtue, to direct them what to do, as a sort of messenger of Heaven. What was rank or learning to her? If she was sent by a voice that spoke to her soul, and that voice was from God, what was human greatness to her? It paled before the greatness which commissioned her. In the discharge of her mission all men were alike in her eyes; the distinctions of rank faded away in the mighty issues which she wished to bring about, even the rescue of France from foreign enemies, and which she fully believed she could effect with God's aid, and in the way that He should indicate.
Whether the ruling powers fully believed in her or not, they at last complied with her wishes and prayers, though not until she had been subjected to many insults from learned priests and powerful nobles, whom she finally won by her modest and wise replies. Said one of them mockingly: "If it be God's will that the English shall quit France, there is no need for men-at-arms." To whom she replied: "The men-at-arms must fight, and God shall give the victory." She saw no other deliverance than through fighting, and fighting bravely, and heroically, as the means of success. She was commissioned, she said, to stimulate the men to fight,--not to pray, but to fight. She promised no rescue by supernatural means, but only through natural forces. France was not to despond, but to take courage, and fight. There was no imposture about her, only zeal and good sense, to impress upon the country the necessity of bravery and renewed exertions.
The Maid set out for the deliverance of the besieged city in a man's attire, deeming it more modest under her circumstances, and exposing her to fewer annoyances. She was arrayed in a suit of beautiful armor, with a banner after her own device,--white, embroidered with lilies,--and a sword which had been long buried behind the altar of a church. Under her inspiring influence an army of six thousand men was soon collected, commanded by the ablest and most faithful generals who remained to the King, and accompanied by the Archbishop of Rheims, who, though he had no great faith in her claims, yet saw in her a fitting instrument to arouse the people from despair. Before setting out from Blois she dictated a letter to the English captains before the besieged city, which to them must have seemed arrogant, insulting, and absurd, in which she commanded them in God's name to return to their own country, assuring them that they fought not merely against the French, but against Him, and hence would be defeated.
The French captains had orders to obey their youthful leader, but not seeing the wisdom of her directions to march to Orleans on the north side of the Loire, they preferred to keep the river between them and the forts of the English. Not daring to disobey her, they misled her as to the position of Orleans, and advanced by the south bank, which proved a mistake, and called forth her indignation, since she did not profess to be governed by military rules, but by divine direction. The city had been defended by a series of forts and other fortifications of great strength, all of which had fallen into the hands of the besiegers; only the walls of the city remained. Joan succeeded in effecting an entrance for herself on a white charger through one of the gates, and the people thronged to meet her as an angel of deliverance, with the wildest demonstrations of joy. Her first act was to repair to the cathedral and offer up thanks to God; her next was to summon the enemy to retire. In the course of a few days the French troops entered the city with supplies. They then issued from the gates to retake the fortifications, which were well defended, cheered and encouraged by the heroic Maid, who stimulated them to daring deeds. The French were successful in their first assault, which seemed a miracle to the English yeomen, who now felt that they were attacked by unseen forces. Then other forts were assailed with equal success, Joan seeming like an inspired heroine, with her eyes flashing, and her charmed standard waving on to victory. The feats of valor which the French performed were almost incredible. Joan herself did not fight, but stimulated the heroism of her troops. The captains led the assault; the Maid directed their movements. After most of the forts were retaken, the troops wished to rest. Joan knew no rest, nor fear, nor sense of danger. She would hear of no cessation from bloody strife until all the fortifications were regained. At the assault on the last fort she herself was wounded; but she was as insensible to pain as she was to fear. As soon as her wound was dressed she hurried to the ramparts, and encouraged the troops, who were disposed to retire. By evening the last fort or bastile was taken, and the English retired, baffled and full of vengeance. The city was delivered. The siege was raised. Not an Englishman survived south of the Loire.
But only part of the mission of this heroic woman was fulfilled. She had delivered Orleans and saved the southern provinces. She had now the more difficult work to perform of crowning the King in the consecrated city, which was in the hands of the enemy, as well as the whole country between Orleans and Rheims. This task seemed to the King and his court to be absolutely impossible. So was the raising of the siege of Orleans, according to all rules of war. Although priests, nobles, and scholars had praised the courage and intrepidity of Joan, and exhorted the nation to trust her, since God seemed to help her, yet to capture a series of fortified cities which were in possession of superior forces seemed an absurdity. Only the common people had full faith in her, for as she was supposed to be specially aided by God, nothing seemed to them an impossibility. They looked upon her as raised up to do most wonderful things,--as one directly inspired. This faith in a girl of eighteen would not have been possible but for her exalted character. Amid the most searching cross-examinations from the learned, she commanded respect by the wisdom of her replies. Every inquiry had been made as to her rural life and character, and nothing could be said against her, but much in her favor; especially her absorbing piety, gentleness, deeds of benevolence, and utter unselfishness.
There was, therefore, a great admiration and respect for this girl, leading to the kindest and most honorable treatment of her from both prelates and nobles. But it was not a chivalric admiration; she did not belong to a noble family, nor did she defend an institution. She was regarded as a second Deborah, commissioned to deliver a people. Nor could a saint have done her work. Bernard could kindle a crusade by his eloquence, but he could not have delivered Orleans; it required some one who could excite idolatrous homage. Only a woman, in that age, was likely to be deified by the people,--some immaculate virgin. Our remote German ancestors had in their native forests a peculiar reverence for woman. The priestesses of Germanic forests had often incited to battle. Their warnings or encouragements were regarded as voices from Heaven. Perhaps the deification and worship of the Virgin Mary--so hearty and poetical in the Middle Ages--may have indirectly aided the mission of the Maid of Orleans. The common people saw one of their own order arise and do marvellous things, bringing kings and nobles to her cause. How could she thus triumph over all the inequalities of feudalism unless divinely commissioned? How could she work what seemed to be almost miracles if she had not a supernatural power to assist her? Like the regina angelorum, she was virgo castissima. And if she was unlike common mortals, perhaps an inspired woman, what she promised would be fulfilled. In consequence of such a feeling an unbounded enthusiasm was excited among the people. They were ready to do her bidding, whether reasonable or unreasonable to them, for there was a sacred mystery about her,--a reverence that extorted obedience. Worldly-wise statesmen and prelates had not this unbounded admiration, although they doubtless regarded her as a moral phenomenon which they could not understand. Her advice seemed to set aside all human prudence. Nothing seemed more rash or unreasonable than to undertake the conquest of so many fortified cities with such feeble means. It was one thing to animate starving troops to a desperate effort for their deliverance; it was another to assault fortified cities held by the powerful forces which had nearly completed the conquest of France.
The King came to meet the Maid at Tours, and would have bestowed upon her royal honors, for she had rendered a great service. But it was not honors she wanted. She seemed to be indifferent to all personal rewards, and even praises. She wanted only one thing,--an immediate march to Rheims. She even pleaded like a sensible general. She entreated Charles to avail himself of the panic which the raising of the siege of Orleans had produced, before the English could recover from it and bring reinforcements. But the royal council hesitated. It would imperil the King's person to march through a country guarded by hostile troops; and even if he could reach Rheims, it would be more difficult to take the city than to defend Orleans. The King had no money to pay for an army. The enterprise was not only hazardous but impossible, the royal counsellors argued. But to this earnest and impassioned woman, seeing only one point, there was no such thing as impossibility. The thing must be done. The council gave reasons; she brushed them away as cobwebs. What is impossible for God to do? Then they asked her if she heard the voices. She answered, Yes; that she had prayed in secret, complaining of unbelief, and that the voice came to her, which said, "Daughter of God, go on, go on! I will be thy help!" Her whole face glowed and shone like the face of an angel.
The King, half persuaded, agreed to go to Rheims, but not until the English had been driven from the Loire. An army was assembled under the command of the Duke of Alençon, with orders to do nothing without the Maid's advice. Joan went to Selles to prepare for the campaign, and rejoined the army mounted on a black charger, while a page carried her furled banner. The first success was against Jargeau, a strongly fortified town, where she was wounded; but she was up in a moment, and the place was carried, and Joan and Alençon returned in triumph to Orleans. They then advanced against Baugé, another strong place, not merely defended by the late besiegers of Orleans, but a powerful army under Sir John Falstaff and Talbot was advancing to relieve it. Yet Baugé capitulated, the English being panic-stricken, before the city could be relieved. Then the French and English forces encountered each other in the open field: victory sided with the French; and Falstaff himself fled, with the loss of three thousand men. The whole district then turned against the English, who retreated towards Paris; while a boundless enthusiasm animated the whole French army.
Soldiers and leaders now were equally eager for the march to Rheims; yet the King ingloriously held back, and the coronation seemed to be as distant as ever. But Joan with unexampled persistency insisted on an immediate advance, and the King reluctantly set out for Rheims with twelve thousand men. The first great impediment was the important city of Troyes, which was well garrisoned. After five days were spent before it, and famine began to be felt in the camp, the military leaders wished to raise the siege and return to the south. The Maid implored them to persevere, promising the capture of the city within three days. "We would wait six," said the Archbishop of Rheims, the chancellor and chief adviser of the King, "if we were certain we could take it." Joan mounted her horse, made preparations for the assault, cheered the soldiers, working far into the night; and the next day the city surrendered, and Charles, attended by Joan and his nobles, triumphantly entered the city.
The prestige of the Maid carried the day. The English soldiers dared not contend with one who seemed to be a favorite of Heaven. They had heard of Orleans and Jargeau. Chalons followed the example of Troyes. Then Rheims, when the English learned of the surrender of Troyes and Chalons, made no resistance; and in less than a month after the march had begun, the King entered the city, and was immediately crowned by the Archbishop, Joan standing by his side holding her sacred banner. This coronation was a matter of great political importance. Charles had a rival in the youthful King of England. The succession was disputed. Whoever should first be crowned in the city where the ancient kings were consecrated was likely to be acknowledged by the nation.
The mission of Joan was now accomplished. She had done what she promised, amid incredible difficulties. And now, kneeling before her anointed sovereign, she said, "Gracious King, now is fulfilled the pleasure of God!" And as she spoke she wept. She had given a king to France; and she had given France to her king. Not by might, not by power had she done this, but by the Spirit of the Lord. She asked no other reward for her magnificent service than that her native village should be forever exempt from taxation. Feeling that the work for which she was raised up was done, she would willingly have retired to the seclusion of her mountain home, but the leaders of France, seeing how much she was adored by the people, were not disposed to part with so great an instrument of success.
And Joan, too, entered with zeal upon those military movements which were to drive away forever the English from the soil of France. Her career had thus far been one of success and boundless enthusiasm; but now the tide turned, and her subsequent life was one of signal failure. Her only strength was in the voices which had bidden her to deliver Orleans and to crown the King. She had no genius for war. Though still brave and dauntless, though still preserving her innocence and her piety, she now made mistakes. She was also thwarted in her plans. She became, perhaps, self-assured and self-confident, and assumed prerogatives that only belonged to the King and his ministers, which had the effect of alienating them. They never secretly admired her, nor fully trusted her. Charles made a truce with the great Duke of Burgundy, who was in alliance with the English. Joan vehemently denounced the truce, and urged immediate and uncompromising action; but timidity, or policy, or political intrigues, defeated her counsels. The King wished to regain Paris by negotiation; all his movements were dilatory. At last his forces approached the capital, and occupied St. Denis. It was determined to attack the city. One corps was led by Joan; but in the attack she was wounded, and her troops, in spite of her, were forced to retreat. Notwithstanding the retreat and her wound, however, she persevered, though now all to no purpose. The King himself retired, and the attack became a failure. Still Joan desired to march upon Paris for a renewed attack; but the King would not hear of it, and she was sent with troops badly equipped to besiege La Charité, where she again failed. For four weary months she remained inactive. She grew desperate; the voices neither encouraged nor discouraged her. She was now full of sad forebodings, yet her activity continued. She repaired to Compiègne, a city already besieged by the enemy, which she wished to relieve. In a sortie she was outnumbered, and was defeated and taken prisoner by John of Luxemburg, a vassal of the Duke of Burgundy.
The news of this capture produced great exhilaration among the English and Burgundians. Had a great victory been won, the effect could not have been greater. It broke the spell. The Maid was human, like other women; and her late successes were attributed not to her inspiration, but to demoniacal enchantments. She was looked upon as a witch or as a sorceress, and was now guarded with especial care for fear of a rescue, and sent to a strong castle belonging to John of Luxemburg. In Paris, on receipt of the news, the Duke of Bedford caused Te Deums to be sung in all the churches, and the University and the Vicar of the Inquisition demanded of the Duke of Burgundy that she should be delivered to ecclesiastical justice.
The remarkable thing connected with the capture of the Maid was that so little effort was made to rescue her. She had rendered to Charles an inestimable service, and yet he seems to have deserted her; neither he nor his courtiers appeared to regret her captivity,--probably because they were jealous of her. Gratitude was not one of the virtues of feudal kings. What sympathy could feudal barons have with a low-born peasant girl? They had used her; but when she could be useful no longer, they forgot her. Out of sight she was out of mind; and if remembered at all, she was regarded as one who could no longer provoke jealousy. Jealousy is a devouring passion, especially among nobles. The generals of Charles VII. could not bear to have it said that the rescue of France was effected, not by their abilities, but by the inspired enthusiasm of a peasant girl. She had scorned intrigues and baseness, and these marked all the great actors on the stage of history in that age. So they said it was a judgment of Heaven upon her because she would not hear counsel. "No offer for her ransom, no threats of vengeance came from beyond the Loire." But the English, who had suffered most from the loss of Orleans, were eager to get possession of her person, and were willing even to pay extravagant rewards for her delivery into their hands. They had their vengeance to gratify. They also wished it to appear that Charles VII. was aided by the Devil; that his cause was not the true one; that Henry VI. was the true sovereign of France. The more they could throw discredit and obloquy upon the Maid of Orleans, the better their cause would seem. It was not as a prisoner of war that the English wanted her, but as a victim, whose sorceries could only be punished by death. But they could not try her and condemn her until they could get possession of her; and they could not get possession of her unless they bought her. The needy John of Luxemburg sold her to the English for ten thousand livres, and the Duke of Burgundy received political favors.
The agent employed by the English in this nefarious business was Couchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, who had been driven out of his city by Joan,--an able and learned man, who aspired to the archbishopric of Rouen. He set to work to inflame the University of Paris and the Inquisition against her. The Duke of Bedford did not venture to bring his prize to Paris, but determined to try her in Rouen; and the trial was intrusted to the Bishop of Beauvais, who conducted it after the forms of the Inquisition. It was simply a trial for heresy.
Joan tried for heresy! On that ground there was never a more innocent person tried by the Inquisition. Her whole life was notoriously virtuous. She had been obedient to the Church; she had advanced no doctrines which were not orthodox. She was too ignorant to be a heretic; she had accepted whatever her spiritual teacher had taught her; in fact, she was a Catholic saint. She lived in the ecstasies of religious faith like a Saint Theresa. She spent her time in prayer and religious exercises; she regularly confessed, and partook of the sacraments of the Church. She did not even have a single sceptical doubt; she simply affirmed that she obeyed voices that came from God.
Nothing could be more cruel than the treatment of this heroic girl, and all under the forms of ecclesiastical courts. It was the diabolical design of her enemies to make it appear that she had acted under the influence of the Devil; that she was a heretic and a sorceress. Nothing could be more forlorn than her condition. No efforts had been made to ransom her. She was alone, and unsupported by friends, having not a single friendly counsellor. She was carried to the castle of Rouen and put in an iron cage, and chained to its bars; she was guarded by brutal soldiers, was mocked by those who came to see her, and finally was summoned before her judges predetermined on her death. They went through the forms of trial, hoping to extort from the Maid some damaging confessions, or to entangle her with their sophistical and artful questions. Nothing perhaps on our earth has ever been done more diabolically than under the forms of ecclesiastical law; nothing can be more atrocious than the hypocrisies and acts of inquisitors. The judges of Joan extorted from her that she had revelations, but she refused to reveal what these had been. She was asked whether she was in a state of grace. If she said she was not, she would be condemned as an outcast from divine favor; if she said she was, she would be condemned for spiritual pride. All such traps were set for this innocent girl. But she acquitted herself wonderfully well, and showed extraordinary good sense. She warded off their cunning and puerile questions. They tried every means to entrap her. They asked her in what shape Saint Michael had appeared to her; whether or no he was naked; whether he had hair; whether she understood the feelings of those who had once kissed her feet; whether she had not cursed God in her attempt to escape at Beauvoir; whether it was for her merit that God sent His angel; whether God hated the English; whether her victory was founded on her banner or on herself; when had she learned to ride a horse.
The judges framed seventy accusations against her, mostly frivolous, and some unjust,--to the effect that she had received no religious training; that she had worn mandrake; that she dressed in man's attire; that she had bewitched her banner and her ring; that she believed her apparitions were saints and angels; that she had blasphemed; and other charges equally absurd. Under her rigid trials she fell sick; but they restored her, reserving her for a more cruel fate. All the accusations and replies were sent to Paris, and the learned doctors decreed, under English influence, that Joan was a heretic and a sorceress.
After another series of insulting questions, she was taken to the market-place of Rouen to receive sentence, and then returned to her gloomy prison, where they mercifully allowed her to confess and receive the sacrament. She was then taken in a cart, under guard of eight hundred soldiers, to the place of execution; rudely dragged to the funeral pile, fastened to a stake, and fire set to the faggots. She expired, exclaiming, "Jesus, Jesus! My voices, my voices!"
Thus was sacrificed one of the purest and noblest women in the whole history of the world,--a woman who had been instrumental in delivering her country, but without receiving either honor or gratitude from those for whom she had fought and conquered. She died a martyr to the cause of patriotism,--not for religion, but for her country. She died among enemies, unsupported by friends or by those whom she had so greatly benefited, and with as few religious consolations as it was possible to give. Never was there greater cruelty and injustice inflicted on an innocent and noble woman. The utmost ingenuity of vindictive priests never extorted from her a word which criminated her, though they subjected her to inquisitorial examinations for days and weeks. Burned as an infidel, her last words recognized the Saviour in whom she believed; burned as a witch, she never confessed to anything but the voices of God. Her heroism, even at the stake, should have called out pity and admiration; but her tormentors were insensible to both. She was burned really from vengeance, because she had turned the tide of conquest. "The Jews," says Michelet, "never exhibited the rage against Jesus that the English did against the Pucelle," in whom purity, sweetness, and heroic goodness dwelt. Never was her life stained by a single cruel act. In the midst of her torments she did not reproach her tormentors. In the midst of her victories she wept for the souls of those who were killed; and while she incited others to combat, she herself did not use her sword. In man's attire she showed a woman's soul. Pity and gentleness were as marked as courage and self-confidence.
It is one of the most insolvable questions in history why so little effort was made by the French to save the Maid's life. It is strange that the University of Paris should have decided against her, after she had rendered such transcendent services. Why should the priests of that age have treated her as a witch, when she showed all the traits of an angel? Why should not the most unquestioning faith have preserved her from the charge of heresy? Alas! she was only a peasant girl, and the great could not bear to feel that the country had been saved by a peasant. Even chivalry, which worshipped women, did not come to Joan's aid. How great must have been feudal distinctions when such a heroic woman was left to perish! How deep the ingratitude of the King and his court, to have made no effort to save her!
Joan made one mistake: after the coronation of Charles VII. she should have retired from the field of war, for her work was done. Such a transcendent heroism could not have sunk into obscurity. But this was not to be; she was to die as a martyr to her cause.
After her death the English carried on war with new spirit for a time, and Henry VI. of England was crowned in Paris, at Notre Dame. He was crowned, however, by an English, not by a French prelate. None of the great French nobles even were present. The coronation was a failure. Gradually all France was won over to the side of Charles. He was a contemptible monarch, but he was the legitimate King of France. All classes desired peace; all parties were weary of war. The Treaty of Arras, in 1435, restored peace between Charles and Philip of Burgundy; and in the same year the Duke of Bedford died. In 1436 Charles took possession of Paris. In 1445 Henry VI. married Margaret of Anjou, a kinswoman of Charles VII. In 1448 Charles invaded Normandy, and expelled the English from the duchy which for four hundred years had belonged to the kings of England. Soon after Guienne fell. In 1453 Calais alone remained to England, after a war of one hundred years.
At last a tardy justice was done to the memory of her who had turned the tide of conquest. The King, ungrateful as he had been, now ennobled her family and their descendants, even in the female line, and bestowed upon them pensions and offices. In 1452, twenty years after the martyrdom, the Pope commissioned the Archbishop of Rheims and two other prelates, aided by an inquisitor, to inquire into the trial of Joan of Arc. They met in Notre Dame. Messengers were sent into the country where she was born, to inquire into her history; and all testified--priests and peasants--to the moral beauty of her character, to her innocent and blameless life, her heroism in battle, and her good sense in counsel. And the decision of the prelates was that her visions came from God; that the purity of her motives and the good she did to her country justified her in leaving her parents and wearing a man's dress. They pronounced the trial at Rouen to have been polluted with wrong and calumny, and freed her name from every shadow of disgrace. The people of Orleans instituted an annual religious festival to her honor. The Duke of Orleans gave a grant of land to her brothers, who were ennobled. The people of Rouen raised a stone cross to her memory in the market-place where she was burned. In later times, the Duchess of Orleans, wife of the son and heir of Louis Philippe, modelled with her own hands an exquisite statue of Joan of Arc. But the most beautiful and impressive tribute which has ever been paid to her name and memory was a fête of three days' continuance, in 1856, on the anniversary of the deliverance of Orleans, when the celebrated Bishop Dupanloup pronounced one of the most eloquent eulogies ever offered to the memory of a heroine or benefactor. That ancient city never saw so brilliant a spectacle as that which took place in honor of its immortal deliverer, who was executed so cruelly under the superintendence of a Christian bishop,--one of those iniquities in the name of justice which have so often been perpetrated on this earth. It was a powerful nation which killed her, and one equally powerful which abandoned her.
But the martyrdom of Joan of Arc is an additional confirmation of the
truth that it is only by self-sacrifice that great deliverances have
been effected. Nothing in the moral government of God is more mysterious
than the fate which usually falls to the lot of great benefactors. To us
it seems sad and unjust; and nothing can reconcile us to the same but
the rewards of a future and higher life. And yet amid the flames there
arise the voices which save nations. Joan of Arc bequeathed to her
country, especially to the common people, some great lessons; namely,
not to despair amid great national calamities; to believe in God as the
true deliverer from impending miseries, who, however, works through
natural causes, demanding personal heroism as well as faith. There was
great grandeur in that peasant girl,--in her exalted faith at Domremy,
in her heroism at Orleans, in her triumph at Rheims, in her trial and
martyrdom at Rouen. But unless she had suffered, nothing would have
remained of this grandeur in the eyes of posterity. The injustice and
meanness with which she was treated have created a lasting sympathy for
her in the hearts of her nation. She was great because she died for her
country, serene and uncomplaining amid injustice, cruelty, and
ingratitude,--the injustice of an ecclesiastical court presided over by
a learned bishop; the cruelty of the English generals and nobles; the
ingratitude of her own sovereign, who made no effort to redeem her. She
was sold by one potentate to another as if she were merchandise,--as if
she were a slave. And those graces and illuminations which under other
circumstances would have exalted her into a catholic saint, like an
Elizabeth of Hungary or a Catherine of Sienna, were turned against her,
by diabolical executioners, as a proof of heresy and sorcery. We repeat
again, never was enacted on this earth a greater injustice. Never did a
martyr perish with more triumphant trust in the God whose aid she had so
uniformly invoked. And it was this triumphant Christian faith as she
ascended the funeral pyre which has consecrated the visions and the
voices under whose inspiration the Maid led a despairing nation to
victory and a glorious future.
Monstrelets' Chronicles; Cousinot's Chronique de la Pucelle; Histoire et Discours du Siège, published by the city of Orleans in 1576; Sismondi's Histoire des Français; De Barante's Histoire des Dues de Bourgogne; Michelet and Henri Martin's Histories of France; Vallet de Viriville's Histoire de Charles VII.; Henri Wallon; Janet Tuckey's Life of Joan of Arc, published by Putnam, 1880.
Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved