Straight from Valhalla
part 2 of 3
Jeanne d’Arc, a 15th century illiterate peasant girl of northeastern France, had religious visions. These started in 1424 when she was 12 years old. These “visions”, which she mostly heard as voices in her head but claimed to have seen on a few occasions, visited her irregularly up until about 1428.
Unlike the future French religious icon Bernadette Soubirous, Jeanne’s visions gave her advice on secular matters and not religious ones. Her first vision was of the archangel Michael. Later, he was joined by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch (from the 4th and 5th centuries respectively).Credit: public domain
In Biblical myth, Michael was captain of the heavenly hosts. Early Christians invoked him as a protector and avenger against the perceived “heathen”. In Christian tradition he is also thought to Credit: Guido Reni; public domainescort souls into the presence of the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh, at the time of death. Artists most often depict him as an avenging warrior, trammeling some unfortunate underfoot, sword raised in battle.
War raged between the English and the French in what became known as The Hundred Years’ War (1337 -1435). France was torn by internal conflict among two agitating factions: the Burgundians (who sided with the English invaders and recognized the infant Henry VI as heir to the French throne) and the Armagnacs (who held out hope of restoring a French heir, Charles VII, to the throne).
In Jeanne d’Arc’s warring world the “appearance” of such a fierce figure as Michael was no surprise, regardless of why she saw and heard him. He clearly represented the strife to which she was exposed.
There can be many rational and likely reasons for Jeanne’s visions. One proffered explanation is migraines (which in some sufferers can cause visual, or “dancing”, light “hallucinations”). Jeanne’s visions were more complex, though.
Another cause might be perhaps she suffered from schizophrenia. Although schizophrenics experience audio and visual hallucinations, this is probably not the case with Jeanne. Simply put, schizophrenia can’t be cured, certainly not with the medical knowledge of her day; once she began her odyssey and left her home village, she never experienced another vision. Thus, any organic brain disease can be ruled out. [Although she would later report “hearing” the voice of God in her head before battles or during times of crises when she needed him to answer questions or provide guidance. This was probably just introspection, not divine intervention.]
This leads one to reasonably conclude that Jeanne’s catalyst was temporal. Medieval European peasantry consumed rye as a cereal grain as later civilizations would consume wheat. Rye is subject to contamination, called “ergot”, caused by a fungus. Ergot is the source for the powerful hallucinogenic LSD. Ergot derivatives are also used medically to control postpartum hemorrhage and in the treatment of migraines.
It is the hallucinogenic effect of consuming ergot that tends to point toward the cause of Jeanne’s visions. This was a devout peasant girl, whose Catholic Church rearing would have been ingrained from early in her life. Since the Church was the center of medieval village life, there can be no doubt, despite Jeanne’s illiteracy, she did not absorb stories about the archangel Michael or of Sts. Catherine and Margaret. [Though both were extremely popular in medieval times there is no historic basis to believe these women ever walked the earth.]
In Jeanne’s time, the only properties of ergot poisoning or overdosing known was that it could make one sick, or it could kill. Overdosing by ingestion (meaning eating too much milled flour from tainted rye) caused “ergotism” (also called St. Anthony's Fire) in both people and livestock. Mild cases of ergotism can cause convulsions in anyone; miscarriages in women are common. Another by-product of ergot’s toxic effects is “dry gangrene”, a necrotizing of the tissues. Death can occur as well.
Jeanne’s diet in this poor part of France would have included rye breads, most certainly some of which had been tainted by ergot – it was unavoidable. She perhaps experienced her hallucinations as a result of ingesting the substance unknowingly. Her brain (knowing of France’s social and political ills and with her knowledge of the saints) supplied her with the characters for spurring her to action. [And it is ergotism that is now believed to have been the primary catalyst of the Salem Witch hysteria in 1692 in New England.]
Regardless of why Jeanne d’Arc had her “visions” (organic brain disease or hallucinogenic drug ingestion) is irrelevant. Just like the future visionary Saint Bernadette, Jeanne believed what she saw and acted upon what she was told to do. Michael and the female saints had advised her of France’s ills, and gave her a plan. She was to enlist the aid of whoever could get her in to see the royals in exile and tell the dauphin, Charles VII, that France would be liberated. France’s revolutionary savior according to her visions, interestingly enough, was the teenage Jeanne d’Arc.
Terrified of failure, with no resources, and lacking confidence she tentatively took the first steps toward saving her country in late 1428. The 16-year-old asked an uncle to chaperone her to nearby Vaucouleurs. There she conferred with the garrison governor, Robert de Baudricourt. She asked for permission to see the dauphin (in exile in Chinon, south of the Loire River, about 100 miles south of her village). She explained her visions, and she pleaded her case with him. Baudricourt, understandably, was skeptical; he refused to write her a pass or to give her material aid for a trip to Chinon.
Jeanne dejectedly went home. But she did convince a couple of local men of great influence of her urgent message for Charles VII. These men took her back to see Baudricourt in January 1429. Jeanne issued a prediction to him as proof of her spectral knowledge; she advised of a reversal of fortune for the military engaged at the beleaguered city of Orléans. The city was over a hundred miles west of the garrison – Jeanne would have no way of gaining such rapid intelligence. Baudricourt sent out feelers for information.
When he finally received a response from the battle front, Jeanne’s prediction had come true. He believed. Baudricourt gave her a two-man escort and an introductory visa (letter) for the dauphin. She and her chaperones set out for Chinon on February 23, 1429. They were to travel through hostile Burgundian territory before arriving at the exiled court.
For the purposes of the trip, Jeanne donned male clothing. As she was completely unknown outside the village of her birth, one can only conclude her disguise was to prevent her from being targeted for rape by passing ruffians on the road.
On March 6, 1429, Jeanne and her little party arrived in Chinon. A message was forwarded for an audience with Charles VII. He deliberated, apparently unconvinced, before allowing her to meet with him on March 8. He heard her story, and although his war efforts were not going well for France, he was hesitant to engage Jeanne and her non-existent army (she believed her cause was so noble that fighting men would flock to join her).
Jeanne’s arrival in Chinon changed the war’s purpose from one of simple politics into a religious one. She had angels and saints telling her France’s victory was what Heaven wanted. Instead of immediately outfitting her for war, however, Charles packed her off to Poitiers (about another 100 miles west of Chinon) for an intense examination by learned clergy.
She arrived there in mid April. She was interrogated, tested, and examined by churchmen. Her virginity was confirmed at this time as part of a “routine” physical inspection. Anyone making such claims as Jeanne could have been a witch. Witches had telltale marks on their bodies, called the “witch’s teat”. This “teat” was used by the witch to suckle her animal familiar (usually, but not always, a black cat). As such, people who unfortunately had the genetic anomaly of a third nipple, or even a suspicious looking wart or lesion, were often put to death as witches.
Another simple reason for the inquisitor’s interest in Jeanne’s physical body had to be purely prurient. Although only a badly rendered mid 15th century copy of a portrait painting of her exists (painted from memory of another portrait she did pose for) Jeanne d’Arc was, by contemporary accounts, an attractive, ripe, teenage girl. Inspection of her nude form was probably a pleasure for her examiners (and as proof of her attractiveness, attempts were made to rape her later when she was in English custody, despite the fact such assaults were not part of normal war-time hostage handling then).
Jeanne’s discussions with the Poitiers clergy passed muster. The orthodoxy of her visions was validated. This meant Charles VII could comfortably send her off in his name and not be embarrassed for having dispatched a lunatic or worse, a heretic, out to fight for God and France.
Charles’ mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, had financed a relief effort to aid the beleaguered Orléans, occupied and battered by the English. Jeanne asked to join this troop. She also asked to wear a knight’s armor.
One might ask why Charles VII would send such an unlikely mercenary to do battle on behalf of France. The simplest explanation is that he was out of options – France was still recovering from a devastating plague of Black Death, the war had turned badly, and the country was being laid to waste by the English and Burgundians.
Agreeing to place Jeanne d’Arc, age 17, at the head of his army was an act of pure desperation. Charles had failed with every orthodox and rational military effort; his dire straits led him to accept the illiterate, enigmatic farm girl who claimed that the voice of God told her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory.Credit: Joan of Arc Museum, Albuquerque, NM
In Poitiers, Jeanne was rigged with armor, given weaponry, and a horse. She was also presented with a custom battle standard. Her standard high, Jeanne rode out from Poitiers and changed history
Rage of an Angel
She and her entourage arrived outside the city of Orléans on April 29, 1429. The English occupied the town’s keep and from there were destroying the environs. The defenders outside had only made one attempt Credit: public domainto storm the keep; it had ended badly for them. They were repulsed with many losses, and they had not tried again.
Jeanne arrived when French morale was at its lowest. Her reputation had preceded her – “The Maid” (“la Pucelle” as she was called) had arrived! Her mere presence could have only been miraculously uplifting for these men – all by then had heard of her visions, and the fact that God was on the side of the French was heartening.
Despite opposition from the local Duc du Orléans who felt this girl from God was no military man, she managed to work with the fighting men anyway. She wasted no time in rallying the troopsCredit: public domain.
Furthermore, she was no saddle-bound commander – she jumped into the fray herself with gusto, receiving an arrow wound to the neck for her pains. Her leadership and charisma led to a victorious overrunning of the English; Orléans reverted back into French control, the foreigners killed, taken as prisoners, or escaping where they could.
This victory was both surprising and sudden (though Jeanne had led successful, smaller raids on nearby English strongholds in the days before regaining Orléans). On May 8, 1429, the city belonged again to France. With the spirit upon them, the French elected to make some pre-emptive strikes for a change.
Flush with victory, Jeanne convinced Charles VII to make her co-commander of the army (with Duke John II of Alençon). She received his blessing for that posting, and she got his permission to recapture the English-held bridges along the Loire River. This would clear a path for Charles to return to Reims and the throne.
This was a bold proposal; Reims was deep within English northern territory and clearing the Loire River of invaders and English sympathizers would be difficult. Jeanne and her army managed to do this, however, and the area was swept of Burgundians and English.
Long Live the King
On July 16, 1429, Jeanne d’Arc led the victorious French dauphin into Reims. Almost all the Burgundian towns on Jeanne’s route to Reims had fallen or surrendered, and were once again French. On July 17 (or July 18; both dates are recorded) Jeanne d’Arc, the peasant girl from the French backwater of Domrémy stood by Charles VII’s side with her battle pennant as he received the crown.
With perhaps an over-inflated sense of accomplishment, Jeanne and her army then struck out for the countryside to fight more English. In September 1429, Jeanne’s army failed miserably to retake Paris. Almost everything she did after that was similarly a failure. She and her army were repulsed at several other strongholds. It seemed as if perhaps God had abandoned Jeanne d’Arc.Credit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, Â© 2011
Compiègne was besieged by the Burgundians; Jeanne and her men arrived as reinforcements in May 1430. Skirmishing resulted with little change in the situation.
Then, on May 23, 1429, while Jeanne was out on a sortie, she was captured by Burgundian forces. Her army was forced to retreat when 6,000 fresh Burgundians arrived to take over.Credit: public domain Her men headed off toward a fortification to safety; Jeanne was purposefully one of the last to leave the field of battle. A group of Burgundian soldiers surrounded her from the rear. She was unhorsed by an archer, but refused to surrender outright. She was taken into custody by force, a prisoner of war. The commander of the Burgundian army, John of Luxembourg, ordered her secured.
Normal procedure under such circumstances would have been to ransom her back into the care of her family. Her people were in no position to meet any ransom demands, however. Surprisingly, Charles VII did not intercede to secure her freedom, either. She was locked in a tower in Vermandois.
Jeanne did not take to captivity well, and she made several escape attempts. In the last one, she jumped from the 70’-tall (over 21 m) tower of her prison, and landed in the soft muck of the dry moat at the tower’s foot. She was immediately caught and moved to a more remote and secure holding place in Arras, deeper and more northerly into Burgundian territory.
Help for Jeanne was not forthcoming from the French throne. She had been abandoned.
Some negotiations commenced between the English and the Burgundian Duke Philip. The intermediary was an Anglican sympathizer, a church official, Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais (a town near where Jeanne was captured). The result of these negotiations led to one of history’s more unusual political moves: Jeanne d’Arc was sold to the English.
[End of Part 2]
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