Despite all odds, an illiterate French woman born more than 500 years ago redefined bravery and contributed to the rise of King Charles. Jehanne, or, as she is now known, Joan of Arc, radically impacted European history and has inspired men, women, and children for generations.
For her first 13 years, Joan’s life followed a traditional path. She grew up in the Catholic church, helped her parents and siblings on their farm, and became proficient in the domestic arts. But as the Hundred Years’ War dragged on and England inched closer to annexing her southern neighbor, the ordinary nature of Joan’s life was forever altered.*
One afternoon when she was alone in her family garden, Joan was surrounded by a great light and heard “a revelation from God by a voice.” This voice told Joan to “be devout, to pray, to frequent the sacraments, and to rely on the Lord for help.” Over the next four years, these voices continued, culminating in a call to protect France’s sovereignty by making it possible for Charles, the heir to the throne, to be crowned King of France.
Embracing the Call
Joan had few examples of radical, female leadership to aid her crusade. During this time, women who wanted to follow Christ typically joined a cloister and devoted themselves to the humble and largely unseen work of prayer and service. This would not be Joan’s trajectory. As her calling became clearer, she seemed to understand that it would require a life of utter abandon to and dependence upon God. She made a vow of chastity, “as long as it should be pleasing to God,” and began to refer to herself as la Pucelle, or the Maid.
When English troops attacked and laid waste to her village of Domrémy in 1428, Joan felt spurred to action. With an entourage of six men, she set off on a 350-mile journey to gain an audience with Charles. When they arrived, the heir to the throne was plainly dressed and stood among hundreds of courtiers in the great hall. She approached him without hesitation and boldly stated, “I have come, sent by God, to bring help to you and to the kingdom.”
Joan was subject to days of scrutiny from religious authorities. (They even did an exam to validate her claims of virginity!) Her integrity, piety, and determination convinced those in power that she was indeed on a God-inspired mission.
Joan’s confidence in her call translated to bold leadership in a society typically ruled by men. Though French morale was low, she inspired troops to see their efforts as a battle for justice, believing that justice and France’s sovereignty were “indissolubly linked.” She also encouraged the men to confess their sins and take communion, and in an attempt to both elevate women and keep her troops focused, she forbade camp prostitution.
The Maid’s call was not simply to serve as a cheerleader from a safe distance. Joan donned 60 pounds of armor, mounted her horse, and led her troops into battle. The first week, she was shot in the shoulder with a well-placed arrow but was back on her horse several hours later. Within 9 days, her small army ended a 200 days siege. This victory marked a turning point in the Hundred Year’s War that, according to historians, was “a milestone in the development of national consciousness in western Europe.”
The Legacy and Liability of Bravery
Joan’s desire to defeat the English was not motivated by a need for fame or a love for war. Rather, she believed that individual nations mattered to God. With regard to France, that meant a safe route to Reims had to be secured so that Charles could rightfully claim the crown. In part due to her efforts, the coronation occurred a mere six months after Joan left Domrémy. In that short time Joan won the allegiance of many because of her fierce loyalty to France, unparalleled courage, and devotion to God.
But, despite her scruples and miraculous success, Joan also had some powerful opponents. Insecure, power-hungry men felt threatened by her. Elaborate charges were trumped up against Joan including heresy, witchcraft, and the wearing of men’s clothing. On May 23, 1430, she was taken as prisoner and spent the remainder of her too-short life confined to a cell, deprived of adequate nutrition, companionship, and the sacraments.
During her trial, Joan had no advocates and was denied a lawyer. It became a match of wits and a contest of “faith vs. institution.” In response to her accusers’ question about whether she was in a state of grace, she brilliantly responded, “If I am not in the state of grace, may God put me there—and if I am, may he keep me there.”
In the end, though they were unable to substantiate any charges against her (except the wearing of men’s clothing, which was not uncommon if women were traveling or in a potentially dangerous situation), she was indicted and condemned to death by fire. King Charles VII, who arguably would never have been crowned apart from her service, utterly abandoned her. Despite his shameful behavior, she defended him as the rightful heir until her death.
As her executioners led her to the funeral pyre, Joan burst into tears and collapsed. She asked those around her to pray for her and voiced forgiveness for her accusers. After authorities bound her to the stake and flames began to consume her body, a sympathetic priest held a crucifix high enough for Joan to see. The once jeering crowd grew silent and wept, and with “her last breath, Joan of Arc sang out the name of her Lord Jesus.”
Less than 25 years later, the trial itself was condemned and Joan was exonerated. In 1920, she was declared a saint. Based on historic records, she never thought of herself as exceptional: “Joan had a specific vocation, and she would be true to it. She listened, she believed, she obeyed.” After Joan’s execution, France stood strong; the nation repelled England’s hostile takeover and maintained her sovereignty.
While Joan’s life ended sadly, her legacy lives on, and her story is a testament to the grace of God that prepares and calls even the lowest among us. As women who are called by God, it’s easy to feel troubled by the final chapter of Joan’s life. If God invited this young maid to lead such an audacious mission, why didn’t he spare her from such humiliation and death? How do we find encouragement in Joan’s epic story?
Like Joan, we must trust our calling—regardless of where it may lead us. When we sense God asking us to do the seemingly impossible, will we obey and learn to trust in his provision? We must cling to the promise embedded in Joan’s story: in God’s kingdom, none of us are too insignificant, ill-equipped, or unremarkable to be used by him.
(*All quotes from Donald Spoto’s Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint.)
Dorothy Littell Greco is an author and writer living outside Boston. She is a regular contributor with Gifted for Leadership. Her first book, Making Marriage Beautiful, will be released in January 2017.