Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Joan of Arc

(1412-1431)

Joan of Arc, in French, Jeanne d'Arc, also called the Maid of Orleans, a patron saint of France and a national heroine, led the resistance to the English invasion of France in the Hundred Years War. She was born the third of five children to a farmer, Jacques Darc and his wife Isabelle de Vouthon in the town of Domremy on the border of provinces of Champagne and Lorraine. Her childhood was spent attending her father's herds in the fields and learning religion and housekeeping skills from her mother.

When Joan was about 12 years old, she began hearing "voices" of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret believing them to have been sent by God. These voices told her that it was her divine mission to free her country from the English and help the dauphin gain the French throne. They told her to cut her hair, dress in man's uniform and to pick up the arms.

By 1429 the English with the help of their Burgundian allies occupied Paris and all of France north of the Loire. The resistance was minimal due to lack of leadership and a sense of hopelessness. Henry VI of England was claiming the French throne.

Joan convinced the captain of the dauphin's forces, and then the dauphin himself of her calling. After passing an examination by a board of theologians, she was given troops to command and the rank of captain.

At the battle of Orleans in May 1429, Joan led the troops to a miraculous victory over the English. She continued fighting the enemy in other locations along the Loire. Fear of troops under her leadership was so formidable that when she approached Lord Talbot's army at Patay, most of the English troops and Commander Sir John Fastolfe fled the battlefield. Fastolfe was later stripped of his Order of the Garter for this act of cowardice. Although Lord Talbot stood his ground, he lost the battle and was captured along with a hundred English noblemen and lost 1800 of his soldiers.

Charles VII was crowned king of France on July 17, 1429 in Reims Cathedral. At the coronation, Joan was given a place of honor next to the king. Later, she was ennobled for her services to the country.

In 1430 she was captured by the Burgundians while defending Compiegne near Paris and was sold to the English. The English, in turn, handed her over to the ecclesiastical court at Rouen led by Pierre Cauchon, a pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, to be tried for witchcraft and heresy. Much was made of her insistence on wearing male clothing. She was told that for a woman to wear men's clothing was a crime against God. Her determination to continue wearing it (because her voices hadn't yet told her to change, as well as for protection from sexual abuse by her jailors) was seen as defiance and finally sealed her fate. Joan was convicted after a fourteen-month interrogation and on May 30, 1431 she was burned at the stake in the Rouen marketplace. She was nineteen years old. Charles VII made no attempt to come to her rescue.

In 1456 a second trial was held and she was pronounced innocent of the charges against her. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1999.

Bibliography:
1. The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time. A Ranking Past and Present by Deborah G. Felder, Carol Publishing Group, 1996
2. Women Warriors: A History by David E. Jones, Brassey's, 1997
3. 100 Women Who Shaped World History by Gail Meyer Rolka, Bluewood Books, 1994
4. Herstory. Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995. Joan of Arc bio by Judy Gitenstein.
5. Joan of Arc (World Leaders, Past and Present) by Susan Banfield, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

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