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Joan of Arc
A Military Leader
By Kelly DeVries
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Kelly DeVries
All rights reserved.
On 28 June 1431 English military leaders at Rouen in occupied France sent the following letter in the name of King Henry VI to 'the prelates of the Church, to the dukes, counts and other nobles and to the cities of his kingdom of France':
... it is commonly reported everywhere how the woman who had called herself Jehanne la Pucelle (the Maid), a false prophetess, had for more than two years, against divine law and the estate of her sex, dressed in men's clothes, a thing abominable to God, and in that state journeyed to our chief enemy, whom, with others of his party, clergy, nobles and commoners, she often contended that she was sent from God, and presumptuously boasted that she often had personal and visible communication with St Michael and a great host of angels and saints of Paradise, as well as with St Catherine and St Margaret. ... She dressed herself also in arms worn by knights and squires, raised a standard, and, in very great outrage, pride and presumption, demanded to have and carry the very noble and excellent arms of France, which she entirely obtained, and carried in many conflicts and assaults ... In such a state she went to the fields and led men-at-arms and commanded great companies to commit and exercise inhuman cruelties in shedding human blood, in causing popular seditions and disturbances, inciting them to perjuries and pernicious rebellions, false and superstitious beliefs, in disturbing all free peace and renewing mortal war, in permitting herself to be worshiped and revered by many as a holy woman, and working other damnable things in many cases too long to describe, which in many places are recognized always to have greatly scandalized almost all of Christianity.
The reason for the release of such a letter was simple: the English wished to restore what had been the military situation but two years previously, when they controlled almost the entirety of northern and southwestern France. At the time of this letter, they no longer controlled that same territory. In fact, during that two-year span of time not only had the English lost the extremely important Loire town of Orléans, which they had been on the very point of capturing in 1429, but they had been deprived of almost all of their other Loire strongholds – Jargeau, Beaugency, Meung, and, further to the south, Saint-Pierre-le-Moutier. They had suffered the capture and imprisonment of two of their military leaders, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, and William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk. And, perhaps most grievous of all because there had been relatively no military action involved, they had seen the surrender of Auxerre, Châlons, Troyes, Soissons, Laon, Senlis, Compiègne, and Reims. At the last town, their enemy, the man whom they saw as the usurper of their lawful French throne, had been crowned as King Charles VII of France.
There was a simple reason for these losses: a peasant girl, that same Jehanne la Pucelle, the false prophetess, whose burning had prompted the epistle quoted in part above, had changed the military affairs of the Hundred Years War. Almost alone, Joan of Arc had transfigured a losing French side into one that not only won those aforementioned numerous victories, but would continue to win until, by 1453, it had completely cleared even Normandy and Aquitaine of English soldiers; only Calais on French soil would be left in English hands. How did she do this?
No person in the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more historical studies than Joan of Arc. Yet, few of these studies have been devoted to her capabilities as a military leader, despite this being the primary reason for her notoriety, whether famous or infamous. Instead, she has been portrayed as a religious figure – saint or heretic, zealot or witch, seer or demented teenager – a proto-feminist 'gender-bender', a class equalizer – Marxist liberator or aristocratic wanna-be – and a French nationalist – a symbol for both the political right and left. Maybe Joan was all of these, even those that seem dichotomous. This should not be seen as a contradiction, though, as Joan represents the quintessential medieval 'fish-out-of-water'.
A religious figure? Joan of Arc was a devoted believer in the Christian God, but not One Who gives a message of general theological significance, rather One Who sends her on a one-sided military mission – to remove the English from France. Theological questions actually seemed to be irritants to her; many of those asked her at her trial she answered incorrectly. A proto-feminist? Joan of Arc was a woman participating in the most harsh, violent, and cruel part of a medieval man's world, seeming to destroy those very gender boundaries. Yet, when confronting another 'holy woman', Catherine de la Rochelle, who wished to aid the king, Charles VII, in his fight against the English by helping him to discover 'hidden treasures', which she had seen in dreams, with which he could purchase the services of soldiers for his war, Joan remarked that she should go home and attend to her family, hardly a feminist comment. A class equalizer? Joan of Arc never claimed any background other than that of a peasant girl from a relatively small village, Domrémy, and asked as a reward for her victories only that the people of that and a neighboring village, Greux, be discharged from paying taxes. But neither did she turn down the ennoblement of herself and her family, and she became accustomed to wearing fine and costly clothes, the latter of which brought the enmity (and, one suspects, also the jealousy) of Regnault of Chartres, the archbishop of Reims. A French nationalist? Joan of Arc had one cause: a unified, unoccupied France. To achieve this, she wanted to see the rift between the king and his cousin, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, mended. And she wanted to see the end of English occupation of any area of her homeland. She praised the towns that had withstood English military threat and conquest, and she disdained the many that had surrendered without putting up a valiant and continual fight. She loved the company of men, like Arthur de Richemont and Jean, duke of Alençon, who wished to rid their homeland of the English invaders, while she would threaten with death and destruction any who might seem half-hearted in their patriotism, as witnessed in her initial meetings with Jean, the Bastard of Orléans and later count of Dunois. She especially remembered the French warrior, Bertrand Du Guesclin, whose brave generalship a generation previously had greatly diminished the English occupation of his age. But her politics stopped there. She would obey her 'divine right' king in his every command, and she even facilitated his crowning at Reims, but she was not above being frustrated with him and especially his counselors for not pressing forward quickly enough or with enough strength to win more definitive victories.
All of these definitions of Joan seem to miss the most obvious one. Joan of Arc was a soldier, plain and simple. If that is understood, Joan's other characteristics are also explained. But, what is more, if one can understand Joan's military purpose and character, so too can one understand France's reversal of the Hundred Years War, which can be dated effectively from her military advent in 1429. One can understand that the English began an easy decline from that time, a decline that would eventually lead to the other major events in their defeat in the Hundred Years War: the Congress of Arras in 1435, which would see the abandonment of their side by the Burgundians, the rebellions in and ultimate loss of Normandy, (the latter in 1450) and, finally, the 1453 fall of Gascony.
But, returning to the question that was sidestepped above, how did she do it? How did she turn the tide of the Hundred Years War in only a little more than one year? Joan was sent from God. At least she believed that she had been sent from God, and for our modern historical purposes this was equal to having actually had the divine mission that she asserted. For with it, and by her confident and direct military tactics, combined with her willingness to risk everything, including the lives of an extraordinarily large number of her own countrymen, Joan put military aggressiveness into an army that had been forced into a psychology of defeat, a psychology that had resulted in little confident military action since at least 1415.
The composition of a military biography of any premodern individual is at the best of times a difficult task, especially as most military leaders living in an age of relative illiteracy wrote, or had someone write in their name, so little. Moreover, Joan of Arc's military career was very brief. Despite this latter fact, or some might say because of it, Joan's exploits are written about frequently in narrative histories. Chroniclers from all lands involved directly or indirectly in the Hundred Years War were attracted to her feats in the war and devoted a portion of their histories to recounting her military exploits. Two of these chronicles are devoted in particular to her story, the Chronique de la Pucelle and the Journal du siège d'Orléans. Both were written in the French vernacular between thirty and forty years after her death and both have survived without authorial attribution, although it seems probable that they were composed in Orléans, the site of her greatest victory. Numerous other pro-French chronicles also exist, almost all of which are extremely favorable to her and sustain her beliefs in her divine mission. Less praiseworthy and less believing in her divine mission are the equally numerous narrative histories of Joan written by Burgundian and English chroniclers. However, they too contain valuable accounts of her exploits as well as indications of attitudes toward her held by her enemies; some did question whether it was in fact possible that she had heard the voice of deity directing her actions, but most rejected her spiritual claims. Finally, there are a few narrative sources written outside of these warring countries. Because of the duration and importance of the Hundred Years War, Joan's accomplishments became quickly publicized as far away as Constantinople. Even Cardinal Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, not yet Pope Pius II, commented on what had occurred between 1429 and 1431 and pondered Joan's divine call. Many of these foreign narratives are valuable only in noting Joan of Arc's renown throughout Europe, although one or two, such as Antonio Morosini's Diario, give even-handed eyewitness reports from foreigners living within the fought-over regions who were concerned with how the Hundred Years War was affecting their own lands – in Morosini's case Venetian trade and commerce.
All of these narrative sources together provide a portrayal of what Joan did and how. They also relate who was among her noble followers and what roles they played in her adventures. These can then be supplemented by a number of letters written at the behest of Joan of Arc. Contemporary records make reference to seventeen letters 'written' by the Maid and what was contained in them. Three still exist which contain her signature: one written to the town of Riom on November 1429, a second sent to Reims on 16 March 1430, with a third also sent to Reims on 28 March 1430. Others exist as original, unsigned letters from her – six in total. Together these form the only relics left by this young saint. (That is if we discount the mostly burned piece of rib bone today found in the Joan of Arc Museum in Chinon Castle, which the placard affixed to it claims was taken from the ashes after her burning.) They also are an extremely invaluable source for Joan's military career as they all contain her thoughts as a leader of the French forces. Even the letter written by Joan to the Hussites on 22 March 1430 and preserved in a contemporary German translation in the Vienna Reichsregister shows her confident military leadership as Joan threatens to leave the fighting against the English to direct her military attentions against those heretical Christians fighting in Bohemia at the time. Other documentary sources, muster rolls, etc., also add to the history of this French leader in the Hundred Years War.
But perhaps the most valuable contemporary sources of Joan of Arc's military career are her trial and nullification trial transcripts. Unprecedented in medieval military history, these records contain an accurate account of Joan's short life from her own mouth (the trial) and the mouths of her neighbors, confederates, followers, friends, and even some of her judges and tormenters (the nullification trial). The trial transcripts, written in French each evening from notes taken during the day's interrogation and later translated into Latin (both the French and Latin versions still exist), are definitely slanted to make Joan appear guilty of heresy, much as the trial was; nevertheless, they seem to record her words accurately. The nullification trial, also called the retrial or rehabilitation trial, took place over a period of four years from 1452 to 1456. King Charles VII commissioned this trial in an effort to review Joan's condemnation, sending notaries and investigators throughout the kingdom to interview those who knew Joan well and could thereby shed light on the justice or injustice of her original trial. Numerous witnesses were interviewed, including many who had served with her during her military campaigns, such as Jean, the Bastard of Orléans, Jean, duke of Alençon, Jean d'Aulon, Joan's squire, and also some of her soldiers. These transcripts form a sort of oral history of Joan's exploits, necessitating the same cautions in using these testimonies which apply to modern use of oral histories. Memories fade, and legendary individuals, like Joan of Arc, grow in proportion over the years; still, what these witnesses to her life add to the chronicles and other narrative histories is priceless.
But, if all of these sources do exist, and if Joan of Arc has been the subject of so many modern authors, what is the need of yet another history? It is true that since the middle of the eighteenth, and especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there has been an increase in Joan of Arc studies. Indeed, during this time she undoubtedly was the most written about individual of the Middle Ages. French nationalism, especially in the wake of the failed wars of the eighteenth century and the end of the nineteenth century, coupled with a drive for theological authenticity leading to sainthood undoubtedly aided the resurgence of academic interest in this fifteenth-century French hero. Her greatness crossed all political boundaries, it seems, as her image was appropriated by both the political and scholarly right and left. Additionally, the whole process was facilitated by the collection and editing of most of the documents, letters, poems, and chronicles concerning Joan's life, as well as the transcripts of her trial and nullification trial made by Jules-Etienne-Joseph Quicherat in 1841–9. While superseded and updated in some parts by later editors, this work still stands as one of the great editorial collections of medieval history.
After Joan's sanctification in 1920, scholarly interest in her seemed to subside, but only relatively. What was written differed from the more traditional military and religious biographies of the previous two centuries. Especially since the Second World War, there has been an interest in Joan as a woman or, developing later, as a 'cross-dresser'. Although the attraction of her as a saint and as a national hero has persisted, the fact that she achieved what she did by military leadership seems to have been minimized and, in a few of the more recent books, nearly forgotten. Some military historians do not believe that she was a good military leader, while others doubt her role as a leader at all, preferring to view her as the inspirational symbol for continually defeated troops, in other words more a mascot than a general. It is true that some French military officers wrote histories praising Joan's strategy and tactics, but these have become fewer since the end of the First World War, with only three written since 1919 and only two of these written since the end of the Second World War. Moreover, they are not frequently read by Joan of Arc scholars, most of whom justifiably disregard what these officers have to say as they almost always write from secondary sources and in so doing perpetuate errors and myths that originate in earlier military histories of Joan. But when these military histories are so surreptitiously discarded, gone too is what an officer trained in the military arts might reveal to those less well trained in the leadership and skills of war, which Joan was obviously so well versed in. Some kind of middle ground must be found. Joan of Arc, after all, was a soldier. It is this alone that she believed was her mission, and it is what brought both her honors and her condemnations. Wanting to be a French soldier, a leader of men into combat, took her from her simple life in Domrémy to the king in Chinon and Reims, to the battlefields and siege sites of Orléans, Jargeau, Meung, Beaugency, Patay, Saint-Denis, St Pierre-le-Moutier, La Charité, Senlis, Crépy-en-Valois, Melun, and Compiègne, and, finally, to the tribunal and then the stake in Rouen. We should not denigrate that legacy; instead, we should study it.
Excerpted from Joan of Arc by Kelly DeVries. Copyright © 2011 Kelly DeVries. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2. Why Joan of Arc was Needed,
3. A Military Mission?,
4. Relieving the Siege of Orléans,
5. Cleaning up the Loire,
6. The Road to Reims,
7. The Decline of a Military Leader,
8. The End of a Military Leader,