My photo
A lover of the liberal arts, especially antiquity in its diverse forms, I am nonetheless wholly devoted to, utterly transformed by divine revelation. I seek to know the thought of the past, articulate my deepest longings aroused by the wise, and understand the uneasy relationship between reason and revelation; all for the sake of proper action and contemplation, both now and in the future.


On the Greatest Human

A few days ago I began reading a book by the Sieur Louis de Conte, a French writer of the fifteenth century. It was not translated into English until 1896 by a man named Jean Francois Alden, better known as Mark Twain; he considered it his finest work - twelve years of research and two more of writing. As he said, "The other books needed no preparation and got none". The book is about the rise and fall of who I am now convinced is the most extraordinary, incredible, and greatest man who ever lived - excuse me, the greatest person humanity has produced: St. Joan of Arc, Joan the Maid, the Maid of Orleans, etc. Now before you sneer and dismiss this as sentimental-historic-romance, let us consider some important parts of the exceptionally brief life the Maid led. 

First, consider the state of France during the Hundred Year's War: the Capetian Dynasty (an unbroken line of French kings stretching back to the eighth century) had ended with the death of Charles IV, causing a crisis of succession: the closest relatives of Charles were women, generally excluded from French succession. Thus the closest male relative turned out to be...Edward III of England (this is why trans-national royal marriages are a bad idea). Naturally Edward claimed the French throne (no surprise here), and naturally the French objected (no surprise here either), since Edward was related to Charles only through the female line -  for his mother was Charles' sister -  they brought in Phillip of Valoir, grandson of Phillip III, a French king of the old dynasty. After some minor territorial disputes in northern France, Edward and Phillip declared war. 

This war turned out very poorly for the French. During the next ninety years or so, there were three major, exceptionally important battles, all in France: Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, all of which were decisive victories for the English and losses for the French. Agincourt (fought in 1415) in particular was a French disaster, ending in effect the war in victory for the English and in French surrender: Henry V, the "Butcher of Agincourt" (so called because against the international custom decreed by chivalric laws of war, he killed his French prisoners near the end of battle, for he feared they would overwhelm him) destroyed a French army almost ten times his size, killed over 40% of the French nobility, and forced the Treaty of Troyes, under which Catherine, the daughter of the current French King Charles VI, would marry Henry, and when Charles died, Henry would act as Regent of France, and his eldest child, male or female, would inherit the French throne. Henry died shortly after the treaty was signed, but not before his son, Henry VI, was born: thus this infant was the heir to the thrones of both England and France. At this time Western and Nothern France were in control of the English or their French allies, the Burgundians. Charles VII, Charles VI's son tried to claim the throne, but the English attacked and besieged the last major city not under their control, Orleans. A victory here would enable them to strike at the French heartland and end the war. No one expected Orleans to last particularly long, and Charles prepared to flee the country. At this time and in a very real sense, there was no such thing as France.

Enter Joan of Arc. Born in the village of Domremy to peasant farmers in 1412 (three years before Agincourt), she believed in mid-adolescence that God chose her to drive the English out of France, and specifically to lift the siege of Orleans and crown Charles VII at Rheims. At the age of sixteen she left her home, traveled to Vaucouleurs with her uncle, and petitioned the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, to give her soldiers so she could travel to Chinon and visit the Dauphin (as Charles, heir apparent of France, was known). Naturally he laughed at her, but the following January gave her what she wanted after she returned and predicted a French defeat at Orleans, which turned out to be true. She traveled to Chinon, greatly impressed the Dauphin (she gave him an unknown sign), but was delayed in being granted an army by his advisors, who, being unnerved by her uncanny knowledge and predictions, feared she was from the devil. She was tried by an ecclesiastical court at Poitiers, and after three weeks was pronounced of pious, moral Christian character; that to spurn her would be an insult to the Holy Spirit. Further, that since she had divine mandate to perform a man's work, it was appropriate for her to wear man's clothing and armor - an important detail. The minutes of this trial are most unfortunately lost (as is the case with most 15th century documents), but the conclusions remain part of the public record.

She returned to Chinon, was granted her army, and went to Orleans, where she lifted the siege in only three days of fighting. In ten days Orleans was free and she had dealt a decisive blow to the English campaign. After freeing Orleans she began a campaign to free Rheims and crown Charles VII. She rode up and down the Loire valley, taking fortress after fortress by the seemingly imprudent strategy of storming the walls. Her army never suffered loss. Near Patay, remembered later as the English Agincourt, she destroyed an English army, captured the famous English general Talbot, and broke the back of their campaign - after Patay the English gave up thought of resistance, and castles all the way to Rheims capitulated without a fight; this part of the campaign is given the name Bloodless March. At Rheims her king was crowned and her mission over. She said she was sent to free Orleans and crown the king, and she had done so in less than two months: possibly the most successful military campaign in recorded history.

Naturally Charles VII did not accept her resignation, and so she tried to persuade him to attack Paris. He finally relented, but when she was wounded in battle he forced a retreat against her will and concluded a truce with the English. Shortly thereafter she was captured by the Burgundians, held to a prince's ransom, and abandoned by the French. For almost six months she lay in prison while the king and country did nothing. This  is particularly disappointing on the part of the French, since under chivalric law, the captured prisoner was obliged release if their ransom was offered. Bishop Pierre Cauchon paid the ransom on behalf of the Church to try her for heresy and witchcraft, although Poitiers had already tried her under suspicion of these charges and found her innocent. Further, since the ruling was passed by the Archbishop of Rheims, Cauchon's immediate superior, he lacked authority to try the case (in a modern analogy, it would be as if a Circuit Court re-opened a case which the Supreme Court had previously decided). But since Cauchon was paid by the English, helped orchestrate the treaty of Troyes, and was promised the archbishopric of Rouen, his poor exercise of canon law may be thus understood. 

The Maid of Orleans was tried for heresy in 1431. The court had one objective, to find her guilty, since obviously the English would not accept her not-guilty verdict. There were additional rules a court had to follow in an Inquisitional trial as opposed to a secular trial and Cauchon ignored them all, immediately rendering the trial invalid. The Vice-Inquisitor of France in particular complained he had no jurisdiction over the trial, a judgment which was later confirmed. As an ecclesiastical trial, it was required that adverse evidence against the accused be collected and included in the "proces verbal" (record of accusations), so a notary was sent to Domremy to collect it. His report of Joan's sterling character (he is reported to have wished such a character for his own daughter) meant the court had no evidence to continue, and thus under canon law she had to be released, preventing the opening of any trial. Opening a trial anyway, the court struck the notary's findings from the record and denied Joan access to a legal advisor, another violation of canon law, since she was a minor under twenty-one. Under Inquisitional guidelines, the Maid should have been held in an ecclesiastical prison, guarded by nuns. Instead, she was placed in a secular prison, guarded by English soldiers, and not surprisingly, given her beauty (concerning which her guards and subordinates testified later), subject to frequent sexual harassment.

The early trial of Poitiers had seen it fitting that Joan wear men's clothing and armor, but this, among other minor charges, was the angle Cauchon took in the prosecution. Finding her guilty, the court threatened her with immediate death unless she recanted, which violated yet another ecclesiastical law, since heresy was a capital crime only on a repeat offense. She relented from fear of the stake, fatigue of constant imprisonment, and illness. She was made to sign a document she could not understand, in which she confessed to the usual crimes of  heresy and sorcery (since an examination confirmed her virginity, she could not be convicted as a witch, for witches were consorts of the devil),  was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, and given feminine clothing. Naturally the English were incensed, but Cauchon had a plan for her relapse and execution: the guards returned her male clothing, stole her dress, and attempted to rape her, at which point she resumed wearing male attire and recanted her abjuration. The relapse into heresy was complete, and she was burned at the stake on May 24th, 1431.

Twenty years later, when the English were largely expelled from France, Charles requested from the Pope a new trial for Joan of Arc. Naturally it was not for any noble reason: some prominent nobles with English sympathies were questioning the legitimacy of his rule since the one responsible for it had been convicted of being a heretic-sorceress. Called the Rehabilitation and lasting months, the trial found nullified the previous conviction, in effect declaring her innocent. She was summarily declared a martyr and French national heroine. Four hundred and fifty years later, the Pope pronounced her beatification, and she was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

Now this inferior and brief retelling of the Maid's life may not seem to you to properly illustrate her greatness. So consider: she was a natural genius in the fields of law, theology, oratory, and war. In none of these fields had she any training or preparation whatsoever. The first army she ever saw was the one she commanded. When she was in command, she never lost a battle, and is without exaggeration the Deliverer of France, the embodied reason why France today is France and not an English province. Her subordinates remembered her particular genius in placing and ordering artillery, and she led one of the most successful campaigns in military history, doing for the French in seven weeks what took the English almost one hundred years. Further, no other person has ever received supreme military command of a nation at the age of seventeen. In her letters she proved herself forceful, eloquent, and persuasive, adept at reading political climates and men. In a skillful display of statesmanship, she orchestrated a reconciliation between Charles VII and Arthur de Richemont (he had supported the Troyes treaty but afterwards swore allegiance to Charles), and he became Constable of France, the King's closest advisor; in this role he influenced Charles to complete that which Joan began, In all of her trials, she sat alone against a panel of judges and defended herself against the finest sophists of the age, betraying an uncanny ability to recognize subtlety and hidden traps in seemingly unimportant phrases.

This last ability, competence at law, is perhaps her most remarkable.  Bishop Cauchon assembled decadent scholastics from the University of Paris, men who had spent their lives unraveling the parsings of sentences of Aristotle and doctors of the Church; their goal was to trap her in contradiction or make her unknowingly state something contrary to Church doctrine. How difficult could it be, reasoned they, since she was an illiterate peasant, whose education consisted of the Credo and a handful of prayers, all taught to her by her mother? Yet she persisted in recognizing and avoiding each and every trap they set for her: I will give one example: there are twenty more. She said that she could do nothing apart from the grace of God, whereupon she was asked if she was in a state of grace. Church doctrine states that one cannot know this: and for her to say yes meant heresy: to say no would be to condemn herself. Her answer, "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me", stupefied the court. How an illiterate 19-year old so successfully defended herself against so hostile and educated opposition is baffling to say the least; in the three months during which she was in interrogation at least five hours every day, the judges could make no headway in the charges against her.

 I can think of few plausible, natural explanation for this quality or any others she demonstrated. To be sure, there have been many exceptional generals, even many young generals; but without exception they began as soldiers, rose through the ranks to command, and/or were educated in the art of war. There have been many brilliant legal and theological minds, but study of law or theology, practice, and the benefit of a thousand mistakes have been necessary for success. There have been many uninspired prophets, but again she is singular: she predicted a French defeat at Orleans two weeks before it happened, predicted the location and exact day of the minor wound she received in lifting the siege, predicted her capture of the Burgundians months before it occurred, and at her trial declared that within seven years the English would suffer a greater loss than Orleans, which would shortly thereafter drive them from France; six years later, Charles VII captured Paris, and shortly expelled the English. These predictions are among the very, very few which can be conclusively shown to have been uttered in their specificity before the event; at the very least she was endowed with exceptionally good luck.

She is singular in the recorded human race, for all of her vast and broad abilities were each at the rank of master, ready to be exercised at will, with neither education nor preparation  nor previous practice. When one considers her irrelevant background (sewing, spinning, and taking care of herd animals), this becomes all the more incredible. I know of no one like her before her time and I shall not hold my breath for one like her to appear now or afterwards. Whatever men call great, let them search for it in Joan of Arc and they will find it. 

No comments: