• Nov 15, 2019

Sacred or Profane

by Laura Brueckner

Domrémy, France was quiet in the autumn of 1428. The tiny village was home to about 200 people, mostly farmers and their families, managing flocks and fields. The bells of the Catholic church of St. Rémy could be heard for long distances, ringing the traditional hours of prayer, marking a routine unchanged since the 6th century A.D. Surrounding that cycle, of course, was an older cycle relied upon by farmers: the wheel of the year. Planting-time led to harvest-time; winter's dark led to spring's light. Rhythm was the key to salvation and sustenance; routine was a blessing to be cherished.

The region had endured its share of disruption, all of it deadly. As early as 1300, a climactic event now known as the “Little Ice Age” led temperatures to plunge across the globe, destroying less-hardy crops, livestock, and people. Beginning in 1337, France, England, and Burgundy became locked in the seemingly unending bloodbath historians would later call “The Hundred Years’ War.” In 1347, the Black Plague reached Europe. Within a year, the populations of Paris, Bordeaux, and Lyons were decimated; within five years, one-third of Europe's people would be dead.

These violent interruptions to the natural and social order spawned terror in a populace that had no grasp of climate science or disease transmission. Against this chaotic backdrop, to quell the rising panic - and shore up its own authority in the face of these unpredictable, unabating calamities - the Catholic Church enforced submission and conformity. It prescribed repetitive ritual prayers to people “guilty” of even slight deviations from orthodox thought or deed, and punished individuals suspected of religious deviance with torture and execution. Ecclesiastical courts condemned men and women (overwhelmingly, women) of heresy and witchcraft on the slimmest evidence; proof of occult activity could range from a wart or other physical irregularity, to mild mental ailments, to mere rumor. In Medieval Europe, standing out could be fatal. 

This is the world that greeted the birth of Jehanne, or Joan, - daughter of her mother, Isabelle, and father, Jacques Arc. Serious, proud, and insolent, Joan never stood a chance of blending in. Even as a young girl, she was noted in the village for preferring prayer over games with friends her age; at 13, she experienced her first “voice from God,” telling her to “be good and go to church often.” She soon began to hear it “once or twice a week,” and became convinced it was “the voice of an angel.” At the height of her contact with the divine, Joan was receiving visits and instruction from St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret, and the Archangel Michael (Heaven’s commander in the war against Lucifer) several times daily. 

Holy visitations, by themselves, did not make Joan unique. The tumult of the past hundred years had yielded a number of female mystics in Europe - such as Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Margery Kempe - who became renowned for the extreme purity of their faith and for their spiritual visions. Nor was thecontentof Joan’s holy conversations novel enough to be dangerous. Historian Daniel Hobbins, inThe Trial of Joan of Arc, notes that several prophetesses had already paved the way for Joan’s messages: Constance of Rabastens (c.1384), Marie Robine (d. 1399), and Jeanne-Marie de Maillé (d. 1414) had all received saintly visitations offering urgent instructions - including military action - for the salvation of France, and all three succeeded in securing interviews with royalty to deliver these instructions.

Whatwasdangerous for Joan - as she, her family, and the Church fathers would find out - was her unswerving confidence in her own truth, even when it collided against Church edicts regarding submission and conformity. As a young woman, Joan refused her parents’ attempts to marry her off to a local man, and swore to remain a virgin until God should notify her otherwise. As a military leader, she refused to obey the orders of the men beneath her, and visited humiliating defeats on the men opposing her. As a prisoner, she refused to wear women’s clothing, even though her attire was one of the main obsessions of her judges. Throughout her life, Joan repeatedly refused to acknowledge any authority save God, his angels and saints, as she alone heard them.

We know this about Joan because her words were written down in the records of her trial, several years later, as she stood accused of heresy. These records, while not an exact transcript in the modern sense, nevertheless capture the voice of a singular person whose faith in God and His saints was unshakable, bearing up even in the face of imprisonment, possible torture, and seemingly endless questioning delivered by the most subtle theologians the international Church had. It is easy to see how her fiery certainty inspired armies to follow her on what became, under her leadership, a holy mission. While her star was rising, and her labors served the interests of the Dauphin whom she made king of France, she was sacred, the hopes of a nation made flesh.

The same certainty, however, proved her undoing once the crown was safely on Charles' head. Historians differ on what made King Charles abandon Joan, but it seems likely that he faced a nearly empty treasury, and chose to negotiate for a peace that would allow him to shore up his gains. What is clear is that the same attributes that made Joan stand out as a specially chosen sacred leader were now leveraged against her as proof of profane religious crimes. Accused of heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, and modern scholars marvel at Joan’s self-possession during her trial, preserved in her commands to her judges to “pass onto the next question” and her protestations, as when asked on the second day to again swear to tell the truth: “I swore yesterday; that should be quite enough. You overburden me.” Her humiliation of the English, and her absolute inability to accept the Church’s authority over the truth of her visions now set her apart in the most tragic way possible.

We know how Joan’s story ends. Her burning at the stake has been depicted in countless works of art, including devastatingly beautiful films, likeThe Passion of Joan of Arc(Dreyer, 1928). Her story has been fashioned and refashioned by those seeking a hero, even in her own lifetime; later supporters have included the Church (eventually) and those who rail against it; the French during WWII (both Vichy and Free); feminists and other activists fighting entrenched power structures; populists and Royalists. Now, centuries later, she still provides a link - complex and contradictory - to the truths the world rejects that we cannot abandon.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

The Passion of Joan of Arc. Silent film. Carl Dreyer, 1928. Available online.
The Trial of Joan of Arc. Book. Daniel Hobbins, 2005. 
History and Popular Memory: The Power of Story in Moments of Crisis. Book. Paul A. Cohen, 2014.