Was Joan of Arc a Peasant Girl? The Evidence Says No!
Questioning the tale of the Maid of Lorraine.
The story of a passionate, religiously devout nineteen year old woman saving France has long been a favorite of school girls (myself included), but how realistic is it?
As the story goes, Joan was born in 1412 in Domremy, France to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee who also had a number of other children. At age 13 she began to have visions of angels while tending the animals in the fields. These visions were of the saints, Michael, Marguerite and Catherine. They told her that she was the maid who would save France. These conversations went on for several years. The young girl spent a great deal of time in church talking with the priest and praying. When she heard church bells ringing Joan would drop to her knees where ever she happened to be. She told the voices, her “counselors” that she was just a girl and could not do as they demanded. She did not even know how to go about saving France.
In her late teens the voices rather aggressively insisted that Joan do as commanded, it was God’s wish. This was no easy task, but turned out to be much easier than it should have been for an illiterate peasant girl. She began by talking her cousin into escorting her to see Robert Baudricourt, captain of Vaulcoulers. At first Baudricourt blew Joan off and sent her back home insisting that she needed a good spanking. He finally relented after some months and took her to see the dauphin (prince) Charles. Placing Charles on the throne was the vehicle required by the voices for saving France.
The first clue that things were not quite as they seemed was the fact that Charles, instead of just officially meeting the girl, hid among his courtiers to see if she would recognize him. Recognize him? How would a peasant’s daughter know someone she had not seen or had any interest in before? This has been viewed as a miracle, proof that God guided her as Joan went right to him. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that perhaps Charles already knew Joan and her parentage and feared the consequences of the meeting. He also did not trust her until she told him a secret in private, which was probably what he wanted to hear-that Charles VI was his father. It must ever have occurred to him that maybe Isabeau was not his mother, even though they had formed no bond whatsoever.
Charles was eventually convinced of her mission with much influence from his guardian, Yolande of Aragon who was married to Louis II of Anjou, her father- in-law was Charles V of France and her son, Rene d’Anjou, who would ride with Joan throughout her military career. Joan was eventually given an army by the dauphin Charles and the opportunity to oust the English, so that he might be crowned.
Joan displayed an extraordinary ability to led men and an uncanny knowledge of artillery, not to mention that she could ride as well as any of the combat veterans. She often had her own methods of accomplishing military objectives as her voices disagreed with the strategies of the commanders. They were victorious and the dauphin Charles was crowned, but not in Paris as Joan had hoped. That great city was still held by the English.
This is the point where things begin to go wrong for the passionate young woman. Charles no longer wished to keep up military campaigns as they were expensive (and he was a bit of a sniveling wimp) and he was now King of France, Charles VII. Joan was becoming an inconvenience. If Joan had just gone back home she probably would have lived out her life uneventfully, but she truly believed in a united France and could not see that diplomacy would accomplish that goal. She continued the fight.
Joan was captured at Compiegne on May 30, 1430 when the town folk closed the draw bridge and would not let it down for fear of losing the city to the English. She was held prisoner and moved several times until her Condemnation trial. Joan’s ransom could have been paid by Charles VII, but instead she was sold to the English. The Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, went to great efforts to be appointed her judge even though the case was out of his jurisdiction. She was found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake May 31, 1431. Or perhaps it truly was Claude des Armois, the impostor who burned instead?
It was with Cauchon that the mother of Charles VII, Isabeau of Bavaria, drew up the Treaty of Troyes, which knocked him out of the line of succession, thus requiring the intervention of Joan of Arc in the first place. Her grandson, Henry VI of England would rule when old enough and until then his father, Henry V would rule as regent. The problem with this arrangement was that both Charles VI and Henry V died within a few months of each other leaving the infant Henry and Charles de Ponthieu to vie for the French throne.
Is it really such a mystery why Isabeau of Bavaria would team up with the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, in the Treaty of Troyes to side step the dauphin Charles when it became clear that he was not king material, and make her grandson, Henry VI the next heir to the French throne? Isabeau’s daughter was Catherine de Valois, queen of England. The power would have stayed in the family with young Henry on the throne. Isabeau has been painted in a very bad light thoughout history, perhaps without just cause.
There had always been rumors about the parentage of Charles VII; most gossip consisted of Charles being the illegitimate son of Isabeau of Bavaria and Louis II, his uncle. He was very self conscious and defensive of such ideas and the talk continued well after the Maid of Lorraine burned at the stake.
Twenty-five years after Joan’s death a Rehabilitation Trial was ordered by Charles VII, which determined that the first trial was unfair and the reputation of Joan the Maid was restored. There was a great effort made to establish her roots in Lorraine as the daughter of the two lower class residents of Domremy, Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee.
This is a very condensed version of the life of Joan of Arc, but will allow us to examine a few of the alleged “facts” of the case.
When I first began writing my novel, Rennes le Chateau: The Road to Sion, I didn’t really believe that Joan was illegitimate aristocracy or that she could have escaped the stake, however, I began to look at her story like the law student that I was then and asked what I considered obvious questions. I also found surprising, but entirely logical answers.
In villages like Domremy it was unlikely that a family would have lived so exposed with marauding, unemployed knights running about raping, pillaging and setting people on fire. As the story goes, the inhabitants of Domremy would run to the fortified town of Greux for safety. Such a scenario is not very reasonable. There simply would have not been enough time or warning for entire families, which would have included the elderly and infants, to even run the short distance to Greux. Villages like Domremy were most likely occupied by healthy male farm laborers who could have defended themselves. Families lived in more secure walled towns.
There are other problems with the Joan growing up in Domremy story. The first being, which town called Domremy was it? In the fifteenth century there were four other villages on the Meuse River called Domremy and others called Greux. If it were indeed the village now in the department of the Vosges, there is a question about the house reputed to have belonged to her parents, Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee. The house now shown to tourists was built in 1481, long after she allegedly died in 1431, by the son of Charles VII, Louis XI.
Even the identity of Jacques is questionable as I point out in the book,
“The man who was supposed to be Joan’s father had several names throughout the time period; Jacques Tart, Jakes Delarch and Jacques d’Arc, so his identity is questionable. There was a man named Arc who was the tax collector for the Duke of Lorraine, but he did not live in Domremy.”
The fact that people attacked Isabelle Romee at the beginning of the Rehabilitation Trial is perhaps a good sign that people knew that she was not Joan’s mother. The Rehabilitation Trial is amazing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is used to declare that the life of Joan of Arc is the most well documented of all medieval historical figures.
Indeed, there were a great many witnesses claiming to know her and at first this is impressive, until you consider that we are talking about fifteenth century France when a person was considered old at age 40 and lucky to see age 50. Twenty-five years later, we have nearly everyone who knew Joan as a girl still alive and their memories crystal clear. Not just clear, they also tell the exact same stories with the same details and this should catch the attention of any first year law student.
So who was Joan of Arc really? In a nutshell, since it took an entire book to develop this theory, she was the legitimate daughter of Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria. Charles was indeed the illegitimate one and he knew it. Why would the king and queen of France wish to switch babies? The first motive would the most obvious in that they wanted a male heir. The Salic Laws prevented females from inheriting titles, thus putting France at the mercy of whomever Joan married.
When Joan began hearing voices and dropping to her knees at the sound of church bells, her parents would have thought their fears justified that Joan had inherited the same mental illness as her father, Charles VI. The political risk of Joan being queen of France would have been enormous since Isabeau had to often take the reins of the kingdom when the king would gallop down the palace halls howling like dog. The political landscape of fifteenth century France was volatile and fractured at best. France could not afford another weak ruler.
A thorough reading of the Condemnation Trial transcript sheds a different light on the questions asked of Joan and her responses when you consider that she was royalty. It would also explain why a nineteen year old woman (though she was probably closer to age 24) would speak to men as equals or inferiors and order nobility around without a second thought. A royal upbringing would also explain why Joan seemed to know so much about military strategy, particularly artillery, and her excellent horsemanship skills. If Joan were really the true queen of France, it would explain the hatred displayed by some of the English and the obsessive need of Charles VII to use the whole Maid of Lorraine story to convince people she was a disillusioned nobody.
The real truth of the Joan of Arc story will probably never be known, but it is not the set in stone tale that historians declare it to be. There are far too many unanswered questions and more than enough reasonable doubt that Joan was not an ignorant peasant girl.
Copyright 2009 by D.A. Chadwick
The photograph is of a statue in Orleans, France, labeled "Saint Maurice." It is said that the artist was a contemporary of Joan's who used her as a model. The reason for misnaming the work is simple. Anyone convicted of heresy would have all traces of their existence erased except for church documents regarding their guilt. There are probably more misnamed images of Joan still in existence.