Joan of Arc

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The historical truth about Joan of Arc

Historical sources and myths portrayed On the cinema screens : What facts do we have ?

With monotous regularity film producers like Besson, or historians, who unfortunately have few scruples when it comes to portraying a historical figure that they dislike, do not hesitate to assure us that “ not much is known about Joan of Arc ”.

The matter had to be investigated. The file below gives answers to the questions concerning the history of Joan of Arc. Are there means of knowing her real history through documents ?

Outline :
Introduction : why make a study Joan of Arc ?
1° Sources on Joan of Arc
2° France during the Hundred Years War
3° Chronology of Joan’s public life
4° A woman War Chief
5° Joan’s purity
6° Common sense and humour
7° Sense of mission

Introduction :
Joan is known worldwide : studies of her have been made in the USA and Japan. Yet this heroine is not just the product of a legend as her origins and path are well known. So there is not much room for extrapolation and imagination if the need is felt to make a decent study giving due regard to the documents. The aim of of this article is to prove this point.

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Texts of the trial

1° Sources
Joan’s public life spread over roughly two years, from 1429 to 1431,
when she was burnt at the stake on the Old Market Square in Rouen. At the time of her death, she was about 19 years old. Evidence of her action, her trial and her execution are available to us through four kinds of sources :

  • Joan of Arc’s court trial : from February to May 1431, Joan was tried in Rouen in the fortress of Bouvreuil. The sessions of the trial which were at first public and then in camera, were written Down by notaries who transcribed both the judges’ questions and Joan’s replies. These Documents were also called minutes of the trial. Today, historians can read the three original documents bearing the signatures of the notaries. One of these documents can be found in the library of the National Assembly in Paris.

  • Nullity or discharge ; such was the tenor of the trial : from 1452 to 1456, the Papal Legate, Guillaume d’Estouteville, and the grand inquisitor institued an inquiry to Establish the truth about Joan. For the occasion, 115 witnesses appeared : childhood Friends, relatives who knew Joan at Domrémy, her companions at arms, clergy who Recognised her mission in Poitiers in 1429, the inhabitants of Orléans and the towns which received Joan, the lawyers and clerks of the court at the conviction trial, assessors and bourgeois from Rouen who witnessed her death. The investigation was very carefully led. The diversity of the testimonies make a convincing portrait of Joan Present day historians are fortunate to have three original manuscripts which also bear the signatures of the notaries.

  • Joan’s letters : like all war chiefs, Joan had a herald responsible for the communication of injunctions to the enemy or for taking messages. A dozen letters have been found, four of which bear Joan’s signature. Other letters are mentioned in the municipal archives of certain towns.

  • Testimonies of chroniclers and contemporaries of Joan : in Joan’s time, the courts of the grand princes had official historians who were responsible for the written records of events. These are the chronicles. Joan’s actions were certified by several chronicles, letters amongst tradesmen, writers’ accounts of her time, like the letter writer Christine Pisan who lauded Joan’s victories

    One cannot therefore speak of legend concerning Joan’s life and action. The Testimonies are so convergent that they give astonishing coherence to the picture of Joan. A historian relying on his sources was in possession of a body of information about Joan which left very few elements in the dark.

The city of Orléans

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2° France during the Hundred Years War.
The France of Joan’s time was in a sad state, judging by the report of the Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain : “ Upside down, the footstool of men, sprain of the English and the doormat of brigands ! ” From 1330, France was at war against England for the duration of what was called the Hundred Years War. In fact it lasted for 115 years (1338 to 1453), but the battles were actually fought with numerous intervals for truces.

When Joan came on the scene in 1429, the situation had never been so critical. Indeed, the war started up again, as often so sadly happens in France, as the result of civil war. The French were divided into two camps :

The king Charles VII

The Burgundians were in control of Paris. Their leader, the powerful Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, had decided on an alliance with England. The English had invaded Normandy and the whole of the North of France and also had possession of the Duchy of Guyenne. Since the treaty of Troyes in 1420, the English dynasty was assured the rule of France as Charles VI, who had gone mad, had disinherited his son, the future Charles VII, in favour of his daughter Catherine of France who had been given in marriage to the King of England, Henry V.

The Armagnacs’ had as leader the Duke Charles of Orléans who had been captured by the English and held prisoner by them for 25 years. This party supported the Dauphin Charles who had been disinherited. All in all, the man the Burgundians scornfully called the King of Bourges only had power over a quarter of South Western France, excluding Guyenne. The bridgehead, the gateway to the South West was Orléans. By besieging the city the English intended to put an end to the Dauphin as once this last passage on the Loire was removed, there would be no further obstacle until Bourges. This shows how desperate the situation was.

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3° Chronology of Joan’s public life
Joan’s life and mission were very short : she died at the age of 19, her public activity lasted only just two years, from February 1429 to 30 May 1431. These two years can be divided into two periods : one year at war and one year in captivity :

1. Military exploits

During July of this year, the English troops attacked Vaucouleurs. Joan and her family left Domrémy and took refuge at Neufchâteau because of the insecurity of the region. The “ place de Vaucouleurs held out.

- 12 February : French defeat at Orléans. Captain Robert Baudricourt gave Joan permission to leave for Chinon to meet Charles, the Dauphin.
-22 February to 4 March : Joan’s journey to Chinon Until 11 March : meeting with the Dauphin.
- 11 to 24 March : Joan was in Poitiers to have her mission ratified by a clerical commission. End of April : After setting up her military base, Joan left for Orléans.
- 8 May : The English, after being defeated, lifted the siege.
- 18 June : English defeat at Patay. The road to the coronation was open.
- 17 July : Coronation of Charles VII at Reims. From July to September : Joan’s campagne to march on Paris.
- 10 September : The king gave the order to give up the attack on Paris. The army was dissolved. November : The taking of Saint Pierre Le Moûtier but failure to take la Charité sur Loire.

February and March : Joan spent the winter at Sully sur Loire.
From March to May : Joan resumed her march towards Paris.

2. Period of Captivity

-23 May : Joan was taken prisoner by the Burgundian, Jean de Luxembourg under the ramparts of Compiègne.
- 11 July to beginning of November : Joan was locked up in the château de Beaurevoir where she attempted to escape by jumping from a tower. In the mean time Jean de Luxembourg sold his prisoner to the English for 10 000 pounds (livres tournois).
- From November to December : Joan was transferred from the château du Bouvreuil to Rouen.

-January : Investigation ordered by Pierre Cauchon to Domrémy and Vaucouleurs.
- 13 February : Constitution of the tribunal.
- February to March : Court trial.
- End of March : Drawing up of 70 articles condemning Joan. April : Deliberations of the Doctors. Attempted poisoning.
- Beginning of May : Threat of torture.
- 24 May : In the cemetery of Saint Ouen, Pierre Cauchon forced Joan to abjure. T give proof of her submission, Joan again dressed as a woman.
- 28 May : Joan put on masculine clothing once again. For this reason alone, she was deemed to have relapsed and this led to her death sentence.
- 30 May : Joan was burned alive on the Old Market Square in Rouen

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4° A woman at the head of the Army

How could the simple daughter of a labourer who had never left her village become a chief of staff in the army who was held in esteem by her companions at arms and feared by her enemies ?

Indeed, Joan’s childhood could never have explained how she should come to have such a destiny. All extant testimony is in agreement on this point . Joan’s own testimony given at her trial and sentencing to death was confirmed by that of inhabitants of Domrémy, of her mother, her gocfather as well as childhood friends. Joan was just an ordinary girl like others of her time, except for her extreme piety, which gave rise to teasing from the boys of her age. Her childhood friend, Hauviette, related very simply her memories of Joan :

“ Joan was a kind, humble and gentle girl ; she went often and willingly to church et holy places and she was often embarrassed at the way people said she went so piously to church(…) She kept busy as other girls do, doing housework and sometimes spinning - I saw her - she minded the flocks like her father did. ”

There is nothing exceptional to be found in Joan’s childhood. This ordinariness can be irritating because one would like to know more. The investigation ordere by judge Pierre Cauchon would certainly have brought to light the slightest details which could have influenced Joan in her decision to go to Chinon. There was never any question in any of the documents, of any violence committed on her little sister, Catherine. If such had been the case, the judges would have made use of it to turn it against her. Had they not gone as far as to ask Joan to explain why she had allegedly broken her promise to marry ? Her entire past had been thoroughly investigated. When considering the evidence of the witnesses, one has to note that this young, apparently simple girl had an extremely strong will and extraordinary force. From January 1429, she tried to persuade the Captain of the “ place de Vaucouleurs ” to allow her to go to meet the Dauphin at Chinon. Her cousin Durand Laxart, who had gone with Joan, gave evidence that the captain had asked him to slap her ! No matter ! Joan made the same request twice more. She managed to convince the captain when she told him of the defeat of the French on the day of the Harengs. This defeat had just happened. The news had not yet been announced. The captain was so astonished by this premature announcement that he gave her equipment and an escort.

Having convinced the Dauphin at Chinon, Joan became the authentic chief of the army, had military quarters and a horseman, a steward and a messenger to take her messages. The Duke of Alençon, who became her companion at arms, was amazed by her skill on horseback and in handling a weapon. He even gave her a horse as a gift.

Joan’s action quickly became powerfully efficient. After gathering together her army, she left for Orléans, protected by Captain Dunois, nicknamed the bastard of Orléans as he was the half-brother of Duke Charles, imprisoned in England. Joan imposed respect and managed, not without difficulty, to take command of her army. In ten days she slayed the English in the East of the city and freed the bridge over the Loire in the course of the day of Tourelles, where she was wounded. This victory brought about the lifting of the siege as the chief of the English company was killed in the battle. From 8 May until 18 June, she won back the forteresses and towns on the banks of the Loire. On 18 June, Joan’s army won its first campagne victory. Since the beginning of the Hundred Years War, the defeat of Poitiers, of Crécy and of Azincourt had covered the French cavalry with shame. Patay was thus the much awaited revenge which restored confidence and at the same time opened up the road to Reims for Charles to be crowned there.

Joan conducted the war in an entirely new way, at a tume when the savagery of battles had broken all the rules of God’s Peace. Of course baudy wenches and other girls of possibly doubtful virtue were not allowed to follow the army. Priests carrying banners recited prayers and heard the confessions of the soldiers. Joan’s companions at arms, rough men of the road noted for their propensity for rape and their exactions (one of these companions of Joan, Gilles de Rais, was hanged for rape and pilfering), held her in such esteem that it was close to veneration. They had to change their behaviour and language when in her presence.

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5° Joan’s Purity
In the rough and tumble of the times, these men were impressed by Joan’s purity. Joan’s virginity is a proof of the authenticity of her mission. She claimed her title of « Maid of Orléans » for herself ; it was the only name by which she was called by her contemporaries. Today, we find this term very strange, if not ridiculous. Yet, on two occasions, Joan’s virginity was noted by mature women, at Poitiers in March 1429 but also at Rouen, on 13 January1431. Pierre Cauchon had ordered this second investigation in order to find a major charge against Joan. In vain.
Several pieces of evidence converge in this regard. When Joan went on horseback from Vaucouleurs to Chinon, her escort who shared her camping was impressed. Gobert Thibault, a royal squire gave evidence : « In the army, she was always with the soldiers ; I heard it said by some of those close to Joan that they had never been tempted to seduce her. »

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6° Common sense and good sense of humour.

Joan’s common sense was another sign of the integrity of the person. Joan was not a crank detached from reality by her supernatural visions, on the contrary. She had her feet firmly on the ground . When she was questioned in Poitiers by some clerics about her mission, a Dominican called Seguin Seguin was impressed by the clarity of her replies, her confidance and sincerity. He was, in addition, surprised by Joan’s humour : « I asked her what kind of language her voices spoke. She answered « Better than yours. » I spoke the language of Limousine : and again I asked her if she believed in God : she answered : « Yes, better than you. »

Later, during the prosecution trial, the judges had a hard time with her. From the start, the preliminary investigation ordered by Pierre Cauchon could not make any case against Joan. So the trial had to start without any motive. Joan was thus condemned solely on the grounds of her own words. She had no advocate. She had to defend herself and her defense was good, never contradicting herself and maintaining total coherence with all she said from beginning end. Let us see for ourselves in the interrogation of 1 March 1431 :

"- What did Saint Michael look like, when he appeared to you ? (…) Was he naked ?
-Do you think God can’t clothe him ?
-Did he have hair ? Why wa s it cut ?
-Did he have weighing scales ?
-I don’t know (…) I experience deep joy when I see him… "

So what were the reasons for her condemnation ? There was an attempt to catch her out by drawing up 70 false articles contradicting Joan. On reading these articles, it was hoped that Joan would be caught out, but she stood firm. Let us take the example of article 7.

"Joan was said to have worn a mandrake round her neck in the hope she would thus have great wealth in temporal things ; maintaining that a mandrake of this sort was powerful and active. "The notary kept the following reply of Joan in his report : "This article about the mandrake, she denies emphatically. "

The judges then tried to scare her by showing her the executioner and the torture chamber. This was a sheer waste of time : "Really, she said, if you were to tear my limbs from my body and separate my soul from it, I would not say anything different. And if I did say something different, I would afterwards say that you had made me say it under duress. "

There remained only one argument : the male dress. Joan did not submit to the Church because she wore male dress which was forbidden. Taking into account that she was guarded in her prison by three English male soldiers, that her feet were in leg irons and that at night her chains were fixed to a heavy wooden beam, it is not difficult to understand that this garb was a protection. On 24 May 1431, Cauchon rigged a scenario. Joan appeared in the cemetery of Saint Ouen before her judges. She was summonsed to obey the Church by signing a schedule to abjure. If she refused, she was condemned. Joan submitted, promised to obey the Pope and to dress in female garb. On the paper on which she was to deny her voices, she traced a simple cross in a circle. Now, Joan knew how to sign her name. In the military code this sign meant that the order was not to be carried out. Back in prison, Joan dressed as a woman again. But, during the night, her guards stole her new clothes and only left her the old ones. Cauchon found this pretext to accuse her of relapse (returning to her wrongful ways) and hurriedly condemned her to death.

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7° Sense of her mission

For the modern reader, this last part raises questions. Divine intervention in History upsets a rational understanding of the facts and events. However, in spite of all Pierre Cauchon’s zeal, it was not possible to condemn Joan on the grounds that she heard voices, or that she was a crank or mentally unstable He never succeeded in proving the slightest incoherence. Joan never contradicted herself. So, what then ?

At Poitiers, this is how Joan related her vocation : "When she was minding the animals, she heard a voice who told her that God was weeping over the people of France and that she, Joan, must come to France. When she heard this she began to cry ; then the voice told her to go to Vaucouleurs where she would find a Captain who would lead her safely to France and to the King ; she was not to doubt this. This is exactly what she did and she went straight to the King without any hindrance. "She gave this account on several occasions before the judges without contradicting herself, in spite of their snares. She refused to go back on her account of the voices and insisted that, even if she died, the English would be chased out of France...

"I know that the English will have me put to death because they think that after my death they will conquer the kingdom of France. But even if there were a hundred thousand more of them than at present, they will not take the kingdom. "
And this is exactly what happened after her death… The English did indeed crown the young Henry VI in the cathedral of Paris in 1432. But this symbol did not rally the French and did not prove a victory. In 1435, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians were reconciled. In 1436, Paris rejected the English. Normandy which had been thoroughly pillaged rose up in 1449 (Rouen had about 14 000 inhabitants at the time of the English conquest, but only 5 000 inhabitants remained afterwards). The English were beaten at Formigny in 1450, then at Castillon in 1453. They had to hand over the duchy of Guyenne which had belonged to them since Eleanor of Aquitaine… The best proof of the authenticity of Joan’s mission is indeed that all her prophecies came true.

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Epilogue :

On 30 May 1431 the day ended in an extremely sinister way in the fine city of Rouen. Yet, the English should have rejoiced as their worst enemy was dead. The executioner who had been called upon to torture her in the dungeon of Rouen reported the following:

"Once she was in the fire, she cried out more than six times « Jesus ! » And especially, with her last breath, she cried out in a loud voice « Jesus ! » Her cry was so loud that all those present could hear her ; almost all were moved to tears. "

A builder who had done several jobs in the château where Joan was imprisoned and judged and who had seen her on several occasions, also related :

"I heard the secretary of the King of England, master Jean Tressart, weeping and groaning with sorrow, and saying, on coming away from Joan’s torture, that after what he had seen there : « We are all lost, for the girl who was burnt was a good and holy person ». He thought that her soul was in the hands of God and that when she was engulfed in flames, she continued to proclain the name of the Lord Jesus. "And so the deep sense and meaning of Joan’s life were expressed in her last moments.

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Conclusion :

The problem that Joan presents to the historian and to History itself is the same as the one presented by Jesus of Nazareth. From start to finish, Joan claimed that she had received her mission from God, that she had obeyed her voices and that she would rather die than renounce her mission. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.

In Joan’s case, if we refuse to accept what she said of her mission, we see her as a lunatic, unbalanced, a pale figure burnt at the stake on the Old Market Square of Rouen.

But in this case the sources have to be rejected and the Joan presented does not correspond to the figure that stands out in the various pieces of evidence. Joan would then be put on trial a second time, which would be ridiculous since she has already been judged. This is precisely what Luc Besson’s film does, backed up by a substantial amount of dollars. This is the image of Joan that is being widespread in the global village by the powerful means of the cinema. In many respects, this image is intolerable as it is a false image.

It has to be said that, in this case, truth is indeed finer than fiction




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