Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part I

I revisited my list of Influential Women the other day, when considering what books I might hunt at the library.  I already had a list of inter-war reading to pursue and I wouldn't necessary want to read a whole book about each and every woman, though I may do for some.  

Joan of Arc was ranked number 55.  She lived from 1412 to 1431 -- such a short life!  Everyone knows she was a peasant girl who claimed to have visions from God telling her to fight for France and she was apparently a good soldier.  That's about all I knew, other than she was burned at the stake as a witch but later canonised.  

At that time the King of France was Charles VI - AKA Charles the Beloved and the Mad.  Apparently he was schizophrenic and at times unable to rule.  Interesting how they decided he was mad, but she was a witch...pays to be rich and titled, huh?  Anyhow, two of his family members, a cousin and brother - and their respective followers -  fought over who would be regent and guardian of the king's children.  This was also in the time of the 100 Years War with England, about the English claim to the throne of France,  which included loads of burning and pillaging.  We can't forget the death and destruction of the Plague which had been around lately as well.  She definitely lived in interesting times.

Henry V of England took advantage of all this squabbling and grabbed a large chunk of northern France, including Paris, at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  Five years later, the Queen of France signed a treaty that gave her daughter in marriage to Henry and agreed that his heirs, not those of Charles the Mad would rule France.   As it happened, Henry V and Charles VI both died within a couple of months of one another in 1422, leaving an infant son/grandson, Henry VI to claim the throne, but he didn't get crowned in time.

Charles VII, the son who lost out when his mother did the deal with Henry V, sent Joan of Arc to war and she did pretty well.  At that time important parts of France were held by the English, and not just Paris; the city of Reims, the traditional place for the coronation of kings, was under control of the Burgundians (the cousin's gang), in alliance with the English.  

Joan was sent to the Siege of Orleans, where morale was at an all time low and all the rational (conservative) military efforts had thus far failed.  Though the military leaders did their best to ignore her, she inserted herself into the battle and either by raising morale or advising clever tactics, certainly bolder strategy than had gone before, she turned the tide and rescued Orleans.

She was then sent along to take back Reims from the Burgundians.  This was a daunting task as it was far away and deep in enemy territory.  Military leaders were more agreeable to taking her advice by now, and the short story is that within weeks Reims was freed and Charles VII was crowned King of France in 1429.   

She continued to fight for France.  Though he was grateful enough to grant Joan noble status following victory at  yet another siege, when she was captured in battle only seven months later, in May 1430, he did not help her.  It was customary for noble prisoners to be ransomed by their family, but hers was a peasant family with no money.  The English bought her from the Burgundians and sent her to trial for heresy, a political revenge for enabling the crown of France to be taken from the English.

Her imprisonment and trial broke both secular and ecclesiastical rules, but her appeals were denied.  As best as I can tell, her execution was on the grounds of wearing male clothing, part of what she had foresworn as part of her abjuration, signed under threat of immediate death.  Heresy was only a capital crime for a repeat offense.  When, after being molested "by a Great English Lord who entered her prison" she resumed male attire, this was apparently the grounds for being burned at the stake, because of Biblical clothing law.  (We have come a long way, baby.)

In 1452, the church held a 'nullification trial' in which the leading church authority at the time,  the man who had denied her appeals, (now dead) was implicated with heresy for executing an innocent girl in pursue of a secular vendetta (but of course he couldn't be punished then, could he?)  The church declared her innocent in 1459, hence her status as a martyr.

Whether she was mad or given divine inspiration has long been debated.  History recognizes that she was very intelligent, full of courage and that she altered the course of history. Not a bad record for a teenager.


James said...

The story of Joan of Arc always saddens me. It seems to be the quintessential story of man's inhumanity to man. Sadder still is that we haven't really changed all that much as a species , have we?

Shelley said...

I think, James, that this is the role of the 'bleeding heart liberals', trying to make us be nicer to one another, against our will, sometimes. Perhaps I shouldn't attempt to talk 'politics' though, as I hate the nasty arguments that always erupt.

In Joan of Arc's case, though, I do wonder what it would have cost Charles VII to have bailed her out; she seems to have been useful and quite loyal to France.

On a happier note, I was pleased to learn so much positive about her abilities, having previously dismissed her as a lunatic. I'm pleased she didn't volunteer to be a martyr, she just fought for something she felt strongly about. I find that inspiring.