She has been callled a saint. A heretic. “A diamond among pebbles.” Who was this illiterate French peasant girl, who in fifteen months changed the history of western Europe and became “the most widely known of all medieval women?”

Supernatural Voices

Joan’s father was the most prosperous farmer in the small French village of Domrémy. She spun wool and gathered the harvest, a typical life interrupted only by occasional encounters with soldiers from the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the lingering conflict between France and England. Once English soldiers burned the village church; two other times Joan herded the livestock to safety from their marauding invasions.

One summer when Joan was about 13, she was working in her father’s garden at noon. Suddenly she saw a bright light and heard a voice. The voice called her “Joan the Maid” and told her to live a virtuous life. Voices came more often and gave instructions: Joan was to save France and help the dauphin (France’s rightful heir) be crowned. Frank-spoken Joan questioned how she could possibly accomplish these astounding feats. The voices said God would be with her.

Was she halluccinating, or hearing the voice of God? Joan later identified the voices as belonging to archangel Michael and the saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria. Her attributions were mistaken: these saints, though widely believed on in the medieval world, were probably not historical. Yet Joan’s voices impelled her to attempt unthinkable tasks. She died rather than deny them.

How Would She Do It?

With her cousin’s help, Joan gained access to Robert de Baudricourt, the local lord. He flatly told her cousin “to give her a good slapping and take her back to her father.” Joan would not relent and ...

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