Joan of Arc: Maiden, Warrior and myth

Virtually every movie you will see on the legendary French ‘freedom fighter’ Joan of Arc pits her against the scheming heartless brutal arch-villain and general nasty person John Duke of Bedford. Brother of Henry V and scourge of France. Bedford’s reputation seems to have been tarnished for posterity by the Hollywood myth-makers as the man who condemned the innocent virgin saint and saviour of France to burning at the stake.

It is he who is often depicted as the enemy of the French people and the embodiment of English ‘oppression’ of France in the 14th century, which stands in stark contrast to Joan, the personification of freedom, liberty, courage and national resistance. Of course the view of Joan peddled by movies is hardly trustworthy and is often a heavily biased and partisan interpretation of history, which is not uncommonly the reflection of the nationalistic sentiments and prejudices of the (usually American) film-makers.

The myth of Joan, however, transcends the big screen as the Maid of Orleans is almost universally recognised as one of the greatest heroes in French history , who is revered and admired across the world, and especially in the US and Canada. Likely this is because of her perceived role as the representing the ‘spirit’ of active resistance to aggressive ‘British’ Imperialism with which some Americans love to identify their own forbears.

Most people know that Joan first became widely known at the siege of Orleans in 1429, or more correctly Jehanne as seems to have been the correct French version of her name, Joan is simply an anglicised version. The details of Joan’s role in the siege are also widely publicised, as she is often singularly credited with having bought the siege to a victorious end for the French. It has even been claimed that the very presence of Joan scared the English garrison into desertion or surrender, such was the magic later accorded to her name.

It seems however that the siege or Orleans was bought to and end more by circumstances than the divinely inspired succour of a saint in the making.

From the outset the decision to try to take Orleans had been controversial and universally accepted. This was because the Duke of Orleans had been a prisoner in England since 1415 and attacking his lands was regarded as unchivalrous. John of Bedford himself had opposed the idea, and never gave it his backing even when it was approved.

Some weeks before Joan’s arrival the gifted The Earl of Salisbury who had been in charge of the siege had been fatally injured by cannon-shot, this man had been described as the most ingenious, expert and fortunate in arms of all English captain”. His death seems to have contributed to the loss of Orleans as much as Joan ever did.

What of the infamous desertion of English soldiers? It has been demonstrated that these troops had not been contracted to serve beyond the winter of 1428 so as the siege of Orleans dragged on into 1429 the soldiers were simply no longer required to stay. So it was perhaps simple logistics rather than the fear of God’s instrument Joan that caused some soldiers to abandon the siege. It also seems that the initial role of Joan on her ‘triumphal entry’ into Orleans on 29th April 1429 had been to lead a supply convoy into the town, rather than march in at the head on any army, and that her entry went unopposed because the English were simply too overstretched.

Whilst Orleans was an important propaganda coup which boosted the French morale and Joan’s reputation its strategic importance appears to have been somewhat exaggerated. The loss of Orleans was a blow to the English, but not a serious one. Far more important was the major English defeat at the Battle of Patay on the 18th June 1429 in which Joan played no role.

It is at another siege of the English held town of Jargeau that Joan and her colleagues were not always saintly, righteous or magnanimous in their tendencies or behaviour. The capture by siege of this town is well-known and widely publicised as French victory but often no mention is made of a controversial incident that is alleged to have taken place there, that of the slaughter of the English prisoners following the capture of the town after  the refusal of a negotiated surrender

Varying Depictions: Leelee Sobieski as pious innocent Joan fighting against evil English murdering tyrants .

Both were in defiance of chivalric convention and the rules of war, and the behaviour of Joan and her fellow commanders, such as their unconvincing claim that ‘nobody had heard’ the Earl of Suffolk’s request to parlay, show the acts that we would not regard as atrocities were committed by the French as well as the English, and that Joan’s conduct was not always above reproach.

It has been argued that Joan may have played some role in the refusal to negotiate at Jargeau, and that because she was a commoner she did not have so much of regard for chivalric customs and conventions of war. It has also been suggested that Joan may even have had something of an excessive desire to destroy her enemies utterly, and ‘finish the job’.

It has been argued that Joan herself may have had some part in the decision to kill the garrison, and may even have ordered it. As a commoner Joan perhaps did not have the same regard for chivalrous convention as her Noble comrades. Perhaps significantly it is known that two of William De La Pole, Earl of Suffolk’s brothers were killed at Jargeau and third seems to have died shortly afterwards.

One other common (mis)conception about Joan is that she personally persuaded Philip ‘The Good’ Duke of Orleans to abandon his alliance with England and fight for France instead. Many movies depict this incident, and even William Shakespeare mentioned it in Henry VI Part 1, but it is nothing more than a creative fiction.  Duke Philip did not actually switch sides until 1435 some 4 years after Joan’s execution, and after his brother-in-law John of Bedford was dying.

What of the widely held belief that Joan’s demise and capture was caused by betrayal? This seems unlikely, especially as Joan herself never claims to have been betrayed into the hands of her enemies. It appears rather that she was simply caught between two opposing armies, and was unable to reach safety with her forces.

It is here that John of Bedford becomes a major player on the stage, at according to tradition, for it is he who if often said to have ‘ordered’ Joan’s execution. Whilst he certainly wanted her ‘out of the way’ and may well have approved this course of action, it seems unlikely that he actually played ant direct role in her conviction and ultimate fate. He simply had more important matters to deal with.

It is also noteworthy that, contrary to what some movies have claimed Joan was not tried before an ‘English’ court under ‘English’ law, buy by an Ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, in which only 8 of the judges out of well over 100 were English, all the other were ‘Burgundian partisans’. Civil authorities had no jurisdiction over the religious crime of heresy and the proceedings of Joan’s court do not seem to have been out-of the ordinary.

Some claim that Joan was burned simply because she wore men’s clothing, and that because this could be theologically justified her conviction was a sham and a farce designed so suit the purposes of the wicked English. This again seems to be a myth, as the charges levelled against her had more to do with her claims to have been in direct contact with, and directly inspired by God and the saints, in her public “recantation” these were mentioned, alongside the wearing of male clothing and bearing of arms. It seems to have been the former, however, that were or far more import than the Latter.

Varying Depictions: Milla Jocovitch as a darker and more disturbed Joan with hints of Mental illness fighting more evil murdering English fiends, but these are extra nasty

The Late Medieval church appears to have regarded the notion of direct revelation and communion with Saints or Christ as dubious in itself, and those who claimed it often came under suspicion. There is also some suggestion that Joan may have been associated with a moderately deviant sect who had mystical tendencies. Mysticism was also often looked upon unfavourably by the church at this time. Perhaps it is a brutal irony that the very ‘voices’ which Joan claimed had inspired her to her mission in the first place, and which made her so famous may have been one of the very reasons why she was condemned as a ‘heretic’.

Though initially Joan was not condemned to death, but to life imprisonment when she agreed to recant, it was only when she denounced her recantation that the sentence of burning was passed. Her execution always had a political dimension, poor Joan had simply outlived her usefulness, and her military career had never been especially successful, and certainly not the extent that is widely believed. As a commoner (though she was granted a noble Title by the King of France) Joan was dispensable, and because she was not an astute political player or even a politician, nor an exceptionally skilled commander she lacked abilities necessary for her to survive.

Yet for centuries the blame for Joan’s execution or ‘murder’ as some would have it has been laid squarely at the feet of the English, despite the complexities of her trial and execution and the obvious complicity of French political and religious authorities. Some of these were fully or partially exonerated at Joan’s posthumous retrial, a few years after her death, by which time Joan’s reputation and fame had increased and the tide of the war had begun to change. This was not perhaps because one side was guilty and the other not but because nobody in France seemingly wanted to be seen as being responsible for the demise of the celebrity and Holy Woman that Joan was coming to be regarded as , and possibly it was simpler to shift the blame.

At a later time , after years of myth-making and finger-pointing the official version of Joan’s story seems to have become became the accepted version, especially when it seemed relevant or useful to certain groups or individuals.Thus is often a part of the enduring legacy of heroic myths.

12 thoughts on “Joan of Arc: Maiden, Warrior and myth

  1. I just want to say that ur initial bias towards Joan as having no important role in history is untrue. The French was lacking in spirit, so yeah Salisbury was killed, but then there was Talbot who was the “English Achilles”. Joan was like a divine angel sent down to rescue them and they rallies around her with fanatic zeal. She is credited with turning a petty dynastic squabble into a patriotic campaign for freedom. Joan gave the French their fighting spirit back after generations of oppression and defeat. Also, who to say Bedford was not cold and evil? He only wanted what is best for England and was mercilessly ruthless to get what he want. And your point about Joan being “dispensable” cannot be farther from the truth! Believe it or not, but Joan spent time in the Royal Court, therefore she was exposed to the politics and whatnot. She knew about the political stage of France and used that knowledge to her full advantage. For example, Joan clearly saw that the only way the French masses will see Charles VII as their true King is if he is officially crowned in Rheims, the sacred site of French coronations. That done, then it would have dealt a massively fatal blow to the English efforts in France.Plus, the people loved and adored her as their divine savior so without her, the people would have withdrew their vital support. Joan was also a very effective commander, not just as an inspiring mascot but also brilliant strategist. Her comrades in their testimonies described her as “a skillful tactician and gifted strategist”. It’s hard to argue with testimonies and witnesses like Duke Alencon or Count Dunois of Orleans. They also praised her for her uncanny genius with artillery. Joan might have been a peasant, but she’s a fast learner. Joan’s audaciously bold style of conduct was still used by the French long after her death, which now brings us to the matter of her trial. Firstly, it was the English who had the most motive to get rid of her. She was a thorn in their side, an inspiration to their French enemies. So what better way than to put her to death as a witch and heretic. The English dragged the Church into this but refused to acknowledge the Pope, who would have stopped the whack trial in it’s tracks. True, that most of Joan’s judges were pro-English French, which sort of makes sense since they are in France. But most of them simply wanted no part in the trial, and were bullied and threatened into it. Even the inquisition official from Rome was appalled, that he rarely ever attended the trials and when he did, said nothing but of ill-will to the English who were the real conductors of the trials. Even though Joan defended herself tactfully and skillfully, the English interfered and declared her guilty. It was coming either way.
    I am sorry if I offended you in any way.That is just my perspective of what really happened in the years 1428-1431. Honestly, I think that you gave Joan much less credit than she deserves.


    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not expert on Joan of Arc, but from what I have read.

      I think Joan was just as ruthless as Bedford, or any other politician of the age, for instance, there is an incident which is not well publicized in which the English Garrison at Jargeau were killed, despite having offered to surrender, and it is argued that Joan was behind this action, as it mentioned above. She was ‘mercilessly ruthless’ in pursuit of her ends, one could say.
      Furthermore, contemporary sources spoke well of John as an honourable and just man, even those written by or for his political rivals. If even his rivals spoke well of him, its hard to argue that he was entirely evil and lacking in scruple.

      The notion that she was somehow without iniquity, or incapable of any morally questionable action, or did not possess any undesirable character traits is absurd. This I think was part of the point of my post- Joan was not the sinless saint of popular imagination.

      Finally, if the French had really wanted to save Joan, I think they could have done so. She had friends in very high places, who were not forbidden from acting independently, the fact they did not says a lot. Such opinions as those in the previous comment I believe are more due to later hindsight, tradition, and propaganda.


      1. Yes you could say that Joan was betrayed. But it was mainly the Dauphin Charles who decided against rescuing her. Still, I don’t believe it was his fault. Charlie’s life was partly dominated by his two ‘best’ advisors, by the name of Georges la Tremoille and Renault de Chartres. Look them up for background info. Those two were her most dangerous enemies within the French court. They were jealous of Joan for her success against the English, whilst they failed to accomplish anything. Mostly they were double-crossing, power-hungry wolves who would do anything to for their own advance, which included secretly cohorsing with the enemy. Charles always needed advice, so they used their prestigious influence to convince him against rescuing Joan, saying she wasn’t worth it. If that is not considered brainwashing, I don’t know what is. The only other people who would have been capable, would have been her fellow commanders. The closest was a man named La Hire, who was very friendly with Joan. He captured a town near Rouen and was planning to attack the town and rescue her. But before he could, the town he occupied was retaken by the enemy and he was captured.

        Also, I doubt that Joan would have ordered her men to slaughter those who have surrendered. From what I’ve known through the years, Joan was always merciful and kind to the enemy. Of course Joan could be stubborn at times, but not ruthless. She hated bloodshed and violence, but had to obey God and help her country. Joan always turned to fighting as a last resort, bidding the enemy to surrender peacefully and if not….then you know. She never killed anybody willingly, but could still defend her ground. I know that her eagerness for action would make her seem bloodthirsty to the untrained eye, but she knew she had a deadline. She knew that she only had so much time to serve France, so she tried to make the most of her efforts.

        I’m not saying that Joan is perfect, though.During my research, I sometimes came across episodes that show her to be too naive and stubborn almost to the point of irrationality. Her only act of questionable morale that I could find, is her fond liking for rich and fancy attire, which even among her own people made her seem worldly and vain. But overall, I think that she is one of the most fascinating, yet mysterious and complex historical figure there ever was. I suggest you do some further reading and research.

        Thank you for replying unexpectedly to my comment. It was a pleasure to engage in conversation with you.


      2. Oh and about the Joan being condemned for wearing men’s clothes, that was actually revelant. You see, they originally charged her with heresy by saying that the Devil possessed her. The problem was that Joan was a virgin and it’s commonly believed the Devil cannot possess a virgin. They had some respected ladies to examined her, and their conviction was positive. Meaning, Joan is an absolute virgin, therefore heresy had to be dropped. As for mysticism, the English couldn’t real impose that one either since Joan barely revealed anything about her voices.

        The only chance they had left was by going against her male clothing. When you think about it though, it was pretty practical for her to make that choice. I was useful for diverting unwanted attention from her soldiers and preventing rape, especially during her dark period of captivity. Also, God sent her to fight in war so adopting the necessary attire was only logical. Plus, Joan was already granted permission to do so by the theological court of Poitiers, where Charles sent her to be tried and validated. The English made her sign a document, taking advantage of her illiteracy, stating that she would be given life sentence in a prison guarded by nuns if she lose the male attire. She signed it and they just dragged her back to her old prison with nasty English soldiers. She only recanted because either the guards hid her dress or there was an attempt of rape.

        The trial itself was a sham for many reasons. For starters, the Pope, who Joan pleaded many times to see, wasn’t consulted as he should have been. If so, then he would have certainly stopped the whole trial in it’s tracks. Also, Joan was suppose to be tried fairly by a bishop from her own diocese of Lorraine. Instead, all she got was the sinister schemer Pierre Coucon who was in league with the English. Also, the English trial was trying to overturn a conviction made during the previous trial in Poitiers, which had a higher degree of authority. Joan was also supposed to have a comfortable cell guarded by nuns as was tradition with religious prisoners.


      3. You’ve clearly done a lot of research, and I am no expert on Joan of Arc, but this notion that the ‘English’ had been ‘oppressing’ France for centuries seems to owe some to Hollywood myth than fact. The English claim to France came from what? William the Conqueror, Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Duke of Anjou. All the rulers of England from 1066-1199 were more French than English (Richard I could reportedly hardly even speak English), and their wars in France seem to me to have been little more than territorial squabbles by Frenchmen against the French King,

        Furthermore, I think it can be hard to draw a clear distinction between ‘French’ and ‘English’ even in later centuries.
        The people of Gascony for instance, seem to have been more loyal to the duke of Gascony, who was also King of England, than the King of France. Edward II’s notorious favorite Piers Gaveston, for instance was a Gascon Knight.

        Indeed, its been argued that is there had been no Hastings, there may not have been a Hundred Years War at all!


      4. Also, I think you are wrongfully, applying modern standards to Joan. I would say it was almost impossible to be a Medieval warrior and hate violence at the same time, and Medieval theories of just war created little difficulty in reconciling Christian teaching with violence.

        Really, I think its silly to make out Joan to have been a pacifist at heart, incapable of committing supposedly ‘ruthless’ acts- for then she would have totally out touch with the realities of the period, and probably not taken seriously. I think Juliet Barker, who was my main source, made a fairly good case for Joan’s her wish to destroy her enemies entirely as the basis for what happened at Jargeau. Its not hard to imagine she saw those who opposed her as the enemies of her supposedly divine mission, and hence deserving of her wrath and punishment.

        Also, not sure about the ‘consultation of the Pope’ as necessary to heresy trials, as I’m pretty sure churchmen wielded power to hold these independently in their own countries. It may also be worth remembering that sometime after Joan’s death the French basically engaged in a bit of historical revisionism to acquit her, and themselves, Its easy, with hundsight, once the ‘old guard’ had all died off to turn around and vilify them to make yourself look good.

        Finally. it took 22 years after Joan’s death to win the war, and there were many other factors involved, not just her.


  2. Yes while Joan was in fact a medieval warrior, she was still a teenage girl at heart. She is only human, as I understand you’ve been trying to point out, despite her being elevated throughout the ages. I’m fully aware that when it comes down to the basics, she is just a regular person who managed to accomplish above average feats. It’s just part of human nature I guess, as some individuals are destined for greatness. Though sometimes we do tend to overlook their faults which is being overshadowed by their shroud of glory.

    Joan believed that her purpose in life is to obey God and be a good Christian. Part of that notion is to be merciful to even those that she supposedly hates. I don’t think Joan hated the English as much as you imply, as they were indeed fellow followers of her faith. Though she did despise them to some degree, she wouldn’t have wanted to destroy them entirely but only wanted them to leave France. If they didn’t come to terms, then she would of course turn to fighting.

    Joan personally shunned violence, but was no stranger to it as the war sometimes came very close to her home. Meaning that her village was attacked by the enemy at least twice. God sent her to lead a war and she knew that future battles are unavoidable. Right from the beginning, she turned it into a sort of Holy war so to speak. She wanted anyone that surrendered to be spared and that enemies should be given a chance to leave in peace before attacking. However, she did not lose sight of her mission to rid France of the English. She was aware that force might be needed to accomplish that. So she personally engaged in battles, but chose not to kill anyone unless attacked. That was just her way, always wanting to see the good in others. Her way of battle was by bold assaults in contrast to previous senior commanders,who favored caution above all.

    Yes it’s true that the French managed to win the war on their own, but Joan I think was the one who actually got the wheel running.


    1. Sorry if this sounds- disrespectful, but you’re speaking as though you almost knew her personally. Is there any evidence that she held to any of this sentiments, or are they from people who were ‘starstruck’ by her supposed ‘saintliness’ or the interpolations of later, Protestant commentators.
      To me, it does not ring true that he hated killing, especially considering that she considered herself to be waging a ‘Holy War’.
      Besides this, the notion that the ‘English’ were evil imperialists who wanted to take over France because they were greedy is not wholly correct,

      They Kings of England had a good ancestral claims to places like Normandy and Aquitaine, considering their descent from the ancient rulers of those areas, and had ruled them for centuries. Indeed, I believe that some areas had never directly acknowledged the King of France was their ruler. The claim to the French crown was an entirely different matter of course.

      Furthermore, and as I said previously, I think it was hard to draw such a clear distinction between ‘French’ and ‘English’ even in Joan’s day. The eminent historian Christopher Allmand pointed out that, at least in Normandy, many ‘English’ soldiers in garrisons had married French women and had children who were Anglo-French, it would have been a cruelty to expect them to just up sticks and leave
      Henry V’s intention had not been to wipe out the French, but effectively to win them over and accept the rule of him and his descendants, effectively to re-establish the realm ruled by men like Henry II.

      So it was not simply a black and white matter of ‘English’ versus ‘French’ or ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’. History rarely is….


  3. Disrespectful? No, not all trust me. I’m fourteen years old so this was a um…pleasant and educational little experience for me.

    While I might not have known Joan personally, it’s still a known fact that Joan disliked killing and bloodshed, as it was only in her nature. There are many accounts of Joan weeping for the dead. Her mother taught her to be kind and caring towards others through the teachings of the Church and to love all God’s creatures. The English were no exception.

    I’m just saying that Joan didn’t kill herself, but didn’t stop her soldiers from doing so in battle. If she was that much of a pacifest, then the French would have rarely engaged in battles at all.

    It’s true that she was waging a Holy War, but it’s not like she’s fighting against heretics and heathens. She did not want to spill much Christian blood, as she thought it would upset God. Well he was the one who wanted her to go out fighting in the first place, but it didn’t necessarily meant through the sword. While waging a Holy War, Joan upheld her tradional policy of mercy and compassion. Part of Christian medieval warfare was to offer your enemy a chance to reconcile, and if they don’t then you may commence with business. If the English left peacefully, then that would still be considered as a success for Joan’s mission. So she had options.

    Finally, I think that there is actually no “correct” or “accurate” portrayal of Joan. Even at this age, she is still undefined to some degree. There is no way of pin-pointing the exact personal structure of this person, who the previous generations tried to make into everything and anything. Her legacy since her death have been tossed around, pulled back and forth, and even stretched. I don’t think anyone really knew Joan to the fullest. Therefore, perhaps that is why she still fascinates us today, at the same time that she is puzzling and strange to us.

    Trust me, if I had a time machine I would use it. I might even take you along how does that sound? Well that’s just the childish dreamer in me.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and you have made some strong points on the matter. So let’s end here an never speak of this again. Though it’s still hard for me to imagine a slender teenage girl rushing into battle and cutting down men in cold blood.


    1. “Finally, I think that there is actually no “correct” or “accurate” portrayal of Joan. Even at this age, she is still undefined to some degree. There is no way of pin-pointing the exact personal structure of this person, who the previous generations tried to make into everything and anything. Her legacy since her death have been tossed around, pulled back and forth, and even stretched.”

      You’re probably right in that sense: but I would ask, if that is the case, how can you be so certain about the accuracy of the details you previously mentioned about Joan’s upbringing and childhood? How do you know what her mother did, or did not teach her? Did she mention it during her trail? Or was that just a result of later mythologizing?

      Medieval Christianity did not necessarily prohibit its adherents from engaging in acts of violence, even against other Christians. There was a long and ongoing theological debate about Just War, and its well known that clerics, even Saints, engaged in warfare: alongside various Biblical figures.

      Hence, Joan did not need to have any kind of ideological opposition, or inherent aversion to violence. I suspect the idea that she did results from modern conceptions of piety and sanctity. There is evidence that Joan expressed a desire to go on Crusade, possibly against the Hussite ‘heretics’ in Bohemia.
      Such actions were also not irreconcilable with the Medieval Catholic concept of sanctity or piety.


  4. Hello, I have a lot of interest in Joan of Arc, and so read this now, and may i ask some questions about Joan of Arc?
    Her act was useless or she wasn’t a heroine? is she marginal in history?
    have ever she directed personally to her soldiers that plundering civilians, towns, cities and massacre prisoners of and civilians?(I have heard that Joan is a good girl so she did prohibit plundering and she comfort a wounded english soldier. it were false?) and have ever she killed someone by her hands?(Joan said that “I have never killed anyone”) do you think she was a bad and evil person and have she an objective sin?
    can we see her as a real witch or heretic in objectively? Margaret Murray insisted it already, do you think it is right?
    what do you think of Her trial’s legitimacy ? the trial was fair or unfair?
    in modern viewpoints, is she a warcriminal?
    Do you think she have never deserve to called a Saint and her canonization is not right?

    sorry, I am not good at english. but I really would to hear your opninion about Joan of Arc.
    Cheers. (:


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