Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was a young peasant woman who took command, at the astonishing age of seventeen, of the medieval French armies fighting the English. After a string of surprising victories, she was captured, convicted of heresy, and promptly burned at the stake. Inspired by Joan’s courageous leadership, however, the French eventually drove the English off their territory. She remains a national hero and symbol of France.

War between the kings of Europe—and especially between the English and French—was a constant feature of medieval life. Indeed, at the time of Joan’s exploits in 1429, the two countries were in the midst of the Hundred Year’s War, a sporadic conflict that actually lasted 116 years. For the most part, war was simply a business proposition for the greedy feudal barons who ruled Europe in the Middle Ages. The nobles wanted land, and war was the way to get it. As a result, national borders during the medieval period changed constantly, and the common people of the continent, like Joan’s family, felt little kinship with any particular ruler.

But by the time of Joan’s birth, that was starting to change. Joan’s campaign against the English marked one of the first examples of what would become European nationalism. For Joan, France was not just a line on a map or the possession of a monarch. It was her country, to which she felt a special, patriotic bond. In visions that she experienced as a teenager, Joan claimed that God wanted her to drive the English from France. What began as a territorial dispute among the inbred French and English aristocracies became a clash of nationalities. In the coming centuries, the various feudal kingdoms of Europe evolved into nation-states with distinct cultural identities, fueling both patriotism and its evil twin, xenophobia.

After Joan’s capture in 1431, the English executed her on a trumped-up charge of heresy. The pope later overturned her conviction, and Joan was officially made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1920.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. During World War II, the underground fighters of the French Resistance adopted the cross of Lorraine, Joan’s emblem, as their symbol.
  2. Before allowing Joan to take charge of his armies, the French king had his mother-in-law examine Joan to ensure that she was a virgin.
  3. The nineteenth-century American author Mark Twain was fascinated by Joan and spent twelve years researching and writing a book about the woman he considered “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” Although the book is not among Twain’s most well known, he considered it one of his best
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