In the fifteenth century, women had little place in the machinations of war and government. Any women of influence pulled their strings behind the scenes, influencing their male counterparts to make decisions rather than openly making them themselves. This was a time before the great Queens of Europe and long before the idea of equality of the sexes was even considered. A woman’s place in medieval Europe was as daughter, wife, mother or lover; her actions otherwise were irrelevant and undocumented, while her whole life revolved around her family, husband and children. While women could be powerful pawns in the alliances between families and dynasties, their own opinions and deeds were of little significance.
Joan was born in Domrémy, a small village in Eastern France, the daughter of small landowner. The Hundred Years War was in full swing and as a result, claim to the French throne was in question between three houses; the Armagnacs, the Burgundians and the current royal house. The former were loyal to the English King Henry V, while Joan’s family supported the current King Charles VII’s regime. Due to her region’s continued support for the Armagnac claim, Joan’s village was sacked several times by the Burgundians and on one occasion, burned to the ground. At twelve years old, during one of these raids, Joan was said to have received a vision of three saints commanding that she drive out the English from France. As a result of this, she travelled to Vaucouleur to petition the garrison commander to take her to court. Consistently laughed off, Joan would return year on year to petition the commander again and eventually, aged sixteen, she made a prediction about military gains in Orléans. Once her prediction came true, the commander finally agreed she should be taken to court.
Whether Joan fought in the wars themselves is a debated point, but as the army’s commander she disposed of the usual French policy of caution and made bold advances on all military fronts. Victory after victory for the French ensued and the tide turned in the war, allowing Charles to be officially crowned in Reims. Regardless of whether she fought at all, her command led to this dramatic change. For three years, Joan advanced the battles further and further north, even fighting at the gates of the English-held Paris. However, traveling to Compiègne at age nineteen, Joan’s forces came under siege and the young commander was captured by the English army. The French King did not intervene with a ransom, and despite several failed escape attempts, Joan was brought Rouen where she was tried for heresy, a charge brought about to undermine the legitimacy of Charles’ coronation, due to her responsibility for it. The trial was unfairly weighted, the evidence biased and the transcripts later doctored. Joan was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death. She was burnt at the stake.
Ancient history is littered with tales of great female leaders and warrior queens. Empires all over the world feature stories of women who defied their patriarchal societies to gain power, glory and recognition, but these stories became eclipsed by the influence of organised religion and its systematic widening of the gender gap. Women in western Europe were seen in two lights; they were either the Virgin Mary (good, a mother, familial) or they were Eve (bad, childless, a whore). With this becoming the social norm, the idea of female leaders and warriors faded into distant antiquated memory, without any hope that women could be anything else. Joan changed all of that.
Yes, Joan was a woman driven by religious obeisance. There were many female saints, inspired by visions to perform great works, but unlike all women who had come before her, Joan was driven to not just participate in a religious war, but to lead it. She had no qualms that she couldn’t succeed because of her gender; as far as she was concerned, she had been born to lead the French armies, and by hook or by crook she was going to do it. The fact that the reason she got the opportunity was through a fluke of circumstance is irrelevant; Joan succeeded. And maybe because of the anomaly of this success, or because she “burnt bright and burnt fast”, history remembers her as one of the greatest heroes in military history.
Though it would take centuries for Womens’ Rights to really reach their zenith, figures of modern history like Joan of Arc quite legitimately became icons of what women could achieve. Like many folk heroes, Joan rose from nothing to lead a disenfranchised and threatened people in their darkest hour; if she could achieve this despite the patrimony of fifteenth century France, imagine what women could achieve given the support of government. Joan of Arc is an inspiration and remarkable figure who, religion aside, made way for great change and social reform. She may just have been a mascot or a puppet for the King, but her very existence, let alone her tragic demise, makes her a truly Sensational Woman indeed.