The Rise of Joan of Arc: How a Visionary Peasant Girl Defied a Dress Code and Challenged the Patriarchy

Following the guidance of the voices only she could hear, Joan, a peasant girl living in a world dominated by aristocrats and men, left her home to convince the dauphin—and many men along the way—that only she could save France and make him king.

Kathryn Harrison | Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured | Doubleday | October 2014 | 29 minutes (7,119 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from the book Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, as recommended by Longreads contributor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

On October 12, 1428, the English laid siege to Orléans. As it was the single remaining bastion that prevented them from crossing the Loire and occupying what remained of France, there was talk of little else. The kingdom that had reigned supreme in Europe just a hundred years earlier now faced extinction. Should Orléans fall, all of France would follow it, and all who called themselves French would find themselves under the rule of the king of England. It grew ever harder to manufacture hope in the face of what appeared inevitable defeat. Soldiers too honorable to defect sank into the apathy of the condemned, and the French clergy found themselves marching circles around the army’s frozen infantry, processing through the streets on a regular basis to demonstrate the constancy of their devotion in hopes of summoning a miracle. The dauphin, whose fear of illegitimacy inspired fatalism, was making plans to abandon his sinking kingdom for the castle of one of France’s allies—Scotland or Spain.

Siege of Orléans. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Siege of Orleans. Image via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

For whatever reason—and perhaps it was nothing more than her own impatience—Joan left Domrémy in haste, a leave-taking remembered primarily for her cryptic good-byes. She left quickly but not in secret, bidding farewell to those she encountered as she was heading out of town. If she looked, she never found an opportunity to tell her friend Hauviette that she was leaving, and Hauviette, who said she “loved her very dearly,” had “cried very bitterly about her going.” Mengette, with whom Joan spun and “did other household chores,” did get a last embrace, perhaps due to proximity, as her “father’s house was almost next door to Joan’s father’s.”

“When she went away, she said good-bye to me,” Mengette testified. “Then she departed and prayed God to bless me, and set out for Vaucouleurs.”

“All I know,” the farmer Gérardin of Épinal testified, “is that when she was about to go away, she said to me: ‘Friend, if you were not a Burgundian, there is something I would tell you.’” It would appear Gérardin was the single enemy sympathizer in town, whose head Joan would have been happy to “take off,” should God ask her to. As for Gérardin, he assumed Joan’s secret was no different from that of any other girl of her age, “something about a lad she wanted to marry,” he guessed.

* * *

“No eggs! No eggs!!” Sir Robert says to his steward in Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw. The play opens like a fairy tale, in a castle, and amplifies the apocryphal bird imagery that lifts Joan’s story above those of other mortals and loans her the vantage of angels. “Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?” How can it be that all Sir Robert’s hens—“the best layers in Champagne”—have stopped producing eggs?

“There is no milk,” his steward tells him. “There are no eggs: tomorrow there will be nothing . . . [T]here is a spell on us: we are bewitched . . . as long as the Maid is at the door.”

Joan, however, wasn’t waiting at the castle door. Nor was she staying outside town with her uncle in Burey, but lodging with friends of his, Henri and Catherine Le Royer, who owned a house within the walls of Vaucouleurs. She had no intention of returning to Sir Robert before strengthening the legitimacy of her request by attracting more and more powerful adherents to her cause. Word had spread in the eight months since Joan’s earlier visit. Before the siege of Orléans, it had been easy to laugh off the odd girl in the homespun red dress, but news of the pivotal city’s imminent fall delivered the French to a desperation that transformed Joan from the butt of a joke into a young woman who merited serious attention. Perhaps she really was who she claimed to be, the prophesied virgin from the marshes of Lorraine. “I heard it said many times that she was to restore France and the blood royal,” her childhood friend Jean Waterin testified.

Joan had no sooner arrived in Vaucouleurs than the whole city knew of her return. Impatient for a first look at her, a throng gathered around the Le Royers’ door.

“What are you doing here, my dear?” asked Jean de Metz, a squire stationed in the city garrison. “Is it not fated that the King shall be driven from his kingdom, and that we shall all turn English?” Jean asked her, his tone arch. A knight in training, like Bertrand de Poulengy, he was playing to an audience at Joan’s expense, unprepared for sincerity so absolute it didn’t acknowledge sarcasm.

“Before mid-Lent I must be with the King,” Joan told him. “Even if I have to wear my legs down to the knees.” The salvation of France had been ordained, and “for that she was born,” she said to Henri Le Royer, identifying her messianic role as clearly as Jesus had to those who “sought him and would have kept him from leaving them” to minister to “other cities also, for,” as Jesus said, “I was sent for this purpose.” As it had been for Bertrand de Poulengy, the fervor of Joan’s answer made Jean de Metz her friend for life, a man of good standing who became another of her instant adherents. “I had great trust in what the Maid said,” Jean testified, “and I was on fire with what she said, and with a love for her which was, as I believe, a divine love.”

“I believed in what she said,” Catherine Le Royer testified, “and so did many others”—enough that Joan could gather together a party of companions and set out for Chinon without Sir Robert’s blessing. But according to Catherine the mission was quickly aborted. “Joan said that this was not the way in which she ought to depart,” and the party came back to learn that Joan’s fortunes had shifted once again, just as they had the last time she’d returned to Vaucouleurs. But that was after an absence of many months, not the few days it took to get to Saint-Nicolas, a quarter of the way to Chinon, and back. As Saints Catherine and Margaret had promised, God had indeed cleared her way to the lord dauphin.

* * *

Sometimes depicted as a lazy dilettante without any interest in rule, or as a simpleminded playboy, the dauphin was neither stupid nor apathetic. Prior to his mother Isabeau’s betrayal—that is, the doubt she cast on his legitimacy—he had been known for his theatrical military exploits, leading an army against the English when still a teenager. But Isabeau’s betrayal left him prey to a psychic paralysis that made him vulnerable to scheming courtiers jockeying for power, some with allegiance to the Burgundian party. His marriage, in the spring of 1422, when the dauphin was nineteen and Marie seventeen, and the subsequent death of his father that fall resolved nothing. Seven years later, as Joan struggled to make her way to Chinon, the dauphin had yet to claim what was his, the throne of France remained empty, and his mother-in-law Yolande had financed an army Charles didn’t have the confidence to dispatch. She wasn’t about to sacrifice the kingdom she’d secured for her daughter to his inertia, and her immediate concern was to keep the remaining houses of France united while fending off an advancing enemy. For months now she had been searching for a means to guide, or force, if need be, Charles into a war she wanted and he didn’t. That a girl claiming to be the Virgin from Lorraine had arrived in Vaucouleurs to announce she’d been sent by God to lead France’s army and escort the reluctant dauphin to be anointed king at Reims was news Yolande seized with excitement. Immediately upon coming into possession of so welcome a rumor, she dispatched her messenger, Colet de Vienne, from the court at Chinon to that of her son René, the future Duke of Bar and Lorraine and Sir Robert’s immediate overlord.

Sir Robert, Yolande wrote to René, was on no account to squash or banish this peasant girl, not when his country needed the energy and confidence inspired by a prophecy fulfilled. René must contact Sir Robert immediately and tell him to have the girl evaluated and her words taken as those meriting serious attention.

Son obeyed mother; captain obeyed duke; Catherine Le Royer found herself with unexpected visitors. Sir Robert had done what Joan never thought to do: he summoned a Church authority to validate her mission, obliging Joan to participate in what she knew was a charade and considered a waste of time. “I saw Robert de Baudricourt, then captain of the town of Vaucouleurs, and Messire Jean Fournier enter my house,” Catherine testified. “I heard Joan say that this man, who was a priest, had brought a stole, and that he had exorcised her in front of the captain, saying that if there was any evil thing in her, let it begone away, and if there was any good thing, let it come to them all.” Since he had heard her confession, and thus already knew the state of her soul, “Joan said that this priest had done wrong.” Promised success by her voices, Joan hadn’t troubled to puzzle out how it might be realized, nor did she defer to earthbound clerics who ruled what they called the Church Militant, “all good Christians engaged in the struggle against the enemies of Christ,” to distinguish it from the Church Triumphant, whose members inhabited heaven. Still, all the rest of the world, who lacked direct access to God, believed that to offend Church doctrine was a grave mistake, and it was only after Joan had Fournier’s sanction that she received a summons from René’s father-in-law, the old Duke Charles of Lorraine.

* * *

An invitation to the home of a nobleman was as good as an announcement that through the inaudible direction of her voices and the invisible hand of Yolande Joan had bounded out of the peasantry and into the highest echelon of society, an accomplishment rare enough to qualify as something of a miracle. Now her appearance needed to reflect her new station. “I asked her if she wanted to travel in those clothes,” Jean de Metz said of Joan’s dress of “the reddish-brown homespun material known as russet.” If it was the typical farm girl’s dress, it was long sleeved and ankle length, with a laced bodice. “She replied that she would rather have a man’s clothes,” Jean said. “Then I gave her a suit and breeches belonging to my servants, so that she could put them on.”

But, Joan’s uncle Durand said, “some people of Vaucouleurs” determined that Joan should go off to see the duke in the clothes of a gentleman, not a servant, and had “everything that was necessary” made for her. As the clothing was offered as a gift, the citizens who outfitted their virgin warrior can hardly have found the idea of a woman wearing male clothing “abominable to God and man, contrary to laws both divine and natural and to ecclesiastical discipline . . . and prohibited under penalty of anathema.” The trial record dilates this judgment with a description of Joan’s dress so lingering in its specificity that it can only have been inspired by the delight taken in counting up the sins of others. Joan “wore shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together and fastened to the said doublet by twenty points, long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantle reaching to the knees, or thereabouts, a close-cut cap, tight-fitting boots and buskins.”

Joan, as it turned out, was—or she quickly became—something of a fop. The tailor-made clothes the citizens of Vaucouleurs gave her awoke a taste for the luxurious fabrics and flamboyant styles that sumptuary laws held out of a peasant’s reach: velvet surcoats embroidered with gold thread; fur-lined mantles; colorful tunics bearing coats of arms; tight-fitting damask doublets with jeweled buttons and slashed sleeves that revealed contrasting silk linings; brightly colored hose; voluminous gowns—houppelandes—with sleeves that hung to the ground; pigases with their extravagantly long and pointed toes; chamois gloves; belts hung with bells and trinkets; an “infinity of hats . . . tam-o’shanters and furred caps, hoods and brims, chaplets of flowers, coiled turbans, coverings of every shape, puffed, pleated, scalloped, or curled into a long tailed pocket called a liripipe.”

Joan could not have chosen a more dramatic moment to defy a dress code. Costume historians identify the high Middle Ages as the arrival of fashion in western Europe. Cotton from Egypt; silks from the Ottoman Empire; improved dyes and dyeing techniques; complex patterns and new fabrics, like brocade and velvet, made possible by Chinese innovations in weaving: crusaders went east bearing murder and returned home with the ingredients for haute couture. And the increased social mobility that accompanied the aristocracy’s loss of power strengthened the yet ruling nobility’s resolve to assign and maintain standards of dress that identified a peasant as a peasant, no matter how much money he had to spend on disguising himself as a lord. Etymology identifies villein as the progenitor of “villainous,” as is churl of “churlish,” suggesting the regard in which the aristocracy held a peasant, whose lowly stature was received as proof of his base character. The Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain “attributes sublime virtues only to the nobility,” Huizinga observed of his Chronique des choses de mon temps, a history of the years 1417–74 that was written when “God, the theory went, had established an intangible order of which costume was merely the expression.” The Third Reich didn’t invent the yellow badge that announced its wearer as a Jew; it revived the idea from a decree made by Pope Innocent III in 1215 that Jews be “marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples.” By the time Joan was born, two centuries of increasing social unrest had drawn the strictures of sumptuary laws that much tighter; never before or since has Europe insisted on so rigid and visible a classification of its citizens. Even were a prostitute successful enough to afford the fine clothes of an aristocrat, she could never be confused with a lady, required, as she was by law, to wear a striped hood or cloak. Within this context, Joan, whose dress revealed, in the opinion of her judges, “her obstinacy, her stubbornness in evil, her want of charity, her disobedience to the Church, and the scorn she has of the holy sacraments,” refused to acknowledge the most basic and essential distinction, that drawn between male and female. “It was characteristic of the time, of the doctors’ narrowmindedness, of their blind attachment to the letter without any consideration for the spirit,” Michelet wrote, “that no point seemed more grievous to them than the sin of having assumed the garments of a man.”

“Mark what I say,” Shaw’s inquisitor lectures, “the woman who quarrels with her clothes and puts on the dress of a man is like the man who throws off his fur gown and dresses like John the Baptist: they are followed, as surely as the night follows the day, by bands of wild women and men who refuse to wear any clothes at all.” Shaw’s representation of the clerics’ response isn’t drawn from historical record, but it represents the Church’s viewpoint well enough. As pronounced by an anonymous member of the University of Paris, “If a woman could put on male clothing as she liked with impunity, women would have unrestrained opportunities to fornicate and to practice manly acts which are legally forbidden to them according to doctrine . . . for example, to preach, to teach, to bear arms, to absolve, to excommunicate.”

Jesus drafted his own death warrant in the temple when he upturned the tables of the moneylenders and berated those who sold doves for holy sacrifice, publicly challenging a corrupt social order that allowed the rich to purchase sacred power—an order swiftly reinvented by the Church that deified him. So now had Joan drafted hers by drawing the attention of both those who made and guarded rules she refused to obey and the multitudes governed by their misogyny.

With the example of Saint Margaret and other virgin martyrs before her, Joan sheared off her hair; by doing so, she announced she had removed herself from the company of other unwed girls, who were expected to leave their heads uncovered in public, their hair undressed and falling down their backs as an advertisement for prospective suitors. At a time when women didn’t get their hair cut, ever, Joan’s barely covered her ears. Hers was the original bob, the haircut assumed by flappers as a symbol of female liberation and still known in France as la coupe à la Jeanne d’Arc. It would have been possible for Joan to preserve her hair’s length and still wage war, especially as women and girls often wore plaits coiled over their heads. Arguably, it would have been a comfort, or even a precaution, to have an extra layer of padding under a metal helmet designed not only to deflect arrows but also to preserve a knight’s skull from the impact of a rock dropped on his head from a parapet.

But Joan didn’t want a woman’s hair any more than she wanted a woman’s fate. By the time she accomplished her mission, Joan would have attended the highest state function mounted on a white horse, dressed in armor, and cloaked in red velvet as she processed before courtiers and nobles, escorting her gentil dauphin to the altar of Reims’s cathedral, where he would be anointed Charles VII, his title secure, as no mortal could undo what God ordained. Unarmored, Joan wore clothes that befit a national heroine: conspicuously stylish and costly, as noted both by her worshipful, approving followers and by her enemies, who would call attention to her dress as evidence of decadence and, worse, pride. As they understood it, Joan had seized a set of symbols she didn’t merit.

What Joan wore—and what she didn’t—announced what was more powerful for not being spoken aloud. Under interrogation, she said she dressed as a man as a practical concession to a life spent making war among men, but Joan wore male clothing under all circumstances, among soldiers or not. Schiller’s Joan seizes a helmet before leaving home to embark on her crusade; from it “warlike thoughts” pour into her head and make her eyes flash, her cheeks red. The costly male costume in which Joan cloaked her virgin female body transcended the pragmatic. It was the physical manifestation—the announcement—of her refusal to abide by patriarchal strictures, a defiance that was absolute and uncompromising, and both Joan and her judges knew that. The extravagant attention the inquisitorial trial paid her clothing and the role her cross-dressing would play in the decision to execute her reveal how subversive and genuinely dangerous the clerics who ruled society considered Joan’s assuming the right to wear male attire. No one, especially not Joan, thought her dressing as a man was “a small, nay, the least thing,” as she dismissed the topic when under interrogation.

* * *

From the time she arrived in Vaucouleurs in early January 1429 until her departure for Chinon on February 13, subtracting two weeks for her visits to the courts of Bar and Lorraine, Joan was left with a month to fill, and it’s assumed she received instruction in riding and carrying a lance from the knights stationed in the garrison there. “She was very bold in riding horses . . . and also in performing other feats and exercises which young girls are not accustomed to do,” said Jean de Wavrin, a Burgundian who fought against Joan at Patay.

To master a knight’s necessary skills, ordinarily acquired over years, Joan had the four weeks at Vaucouleurs and would be granted an additional three at Poitiers, when not being interrogated by the clerics assembled there to assess her claim of a divine vocation. Even a strong rider with native talent would be remarkable in achieving so high a level of expertise in six weeks. The girl who had protested that she “knew not how to ride nor lead in war” was praised universally—by comrades and enemies alike—for her adroit handling of a destrier. The expression Joan used for “ride” referred to a horse not as a garden-variety cheval but as a knight’s courser: strong, swift, and bred for battle. A destrier was a specialized horse, as different from a harness animal as a Thoroughbred from a Clydesdale. It was a knight’s deadliest weapon, plunging into the fray to rear up and come down kicking with forelegs powerful enough to kill an enemy with a single blow from an iron-shod hoof. Despite their relative prosperity, Joan’s family was unlikely to have kept any but work animals. Oxen plowed; horses pulled wagons to market. Even an athletic girl who loved being outdoors and going off alone into the woods, a girl in the throes of chivalric fantasies, wouldn’t have had the means to learn to ride a warhorse.

* * *

Joan’s zeal for battle was apparent, but she knew better than to present herself to powerful men without a veneer of humility and a few words to suggest a reluctance to undertake so immodest a quest. Long before she was on trial for her life, she was careful to underscore her lack of personal ambition.

“It’s no good breaking your heart to make men understand anything,” Joan’s mother tells her in Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark. “All you can do is say ‘yes’ to whatever they think, and wait till they’ve gone out to the fields. Then you can be mistress in your house again.”

But Joan didn’t stoop to gather unacknowledged power. “If God didn’t mean me to be proud, why did He send an Archangel to see me, and saints with the light of heaven on them to speak to me?” Anouilh has her ask her inquisitor. “He only had to leave me looking after the sheep, and I don’t think pride would ever have entered my head.”

“I would much prefer to stay with my poor mother and spin,” Joan said to Jean de Metz, “for this is not my station. But I must go, and I must do it, for my Lord wishes me to perform this deed.” Once her vocation had been fulfilled, however, Joan didn’t return to the hearth but refused to relinquish her identity as a military chieftain. That she had been a child exemplary in her obedience speaks to her commitment to her voices’ direction to be good, not to her embrace of domestic routine, to which she never intended to return.

“I am a soldier,” Shaw’s Joan declares. “I do not care for the things women care for. They dream of lovers, and of money. I dream of leading a charge and of placing the big guns.”

In his film Joan the Woman, Cecil B. DeMille’s vision of his heroine’s potency is even less subtle. “If thou comest from God,” Sir Robert says to Joan, “show me what answer he would make to this!” Baudricourt rises from his throne-like chair to unsheathe and brandish his sword. Standing in profile, he points to its blade with his left hand, while with his right he holds its hilt just at the height of his pelvis; the length of it projects from his groin at an angle and rigidity suggesting tumescence. Provoked, Joan borrows a dagger-size knife from a page standing beside her and holds it up as if it were a chalice, her face tipped heavenward to receive the divine grace that infuses her little blade with miraculous power. With it she halves the much longer shaft of Sir Robert’s weapon. Immediately, Sir Robert agrees to give Joan whatever she asks, but he cannot meet her eye as he speaks; his gaze is fixed on his severed sword. “I am convinced and will send thee to thy King,” his unnecessary title card reads. If the scene provides unintended comedy for today’s audience, it remains useful for the aggressive transparency of its symbolism, its release having preceded psychology’s imposition of self-consciousness on popular culture. What could more obviously convey the nature of the fear Joan of Arc has always inspired than her unmanning her opposition with a supernaturally enhanced phallic weapon?

When she at last set out for Chinon, it was with six men, of whom at least one would admit to starting the trip contemplating her rape as a means of robbing her of the power she claimed.

* * *

The traveling party of seven included the two knights who financed the trip: Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy; Bertrand’s servant, Julien; Yolande’s messenger, Colet de Vienne; Richard the Archer; and the servant he shared with Vienne, Jean de Honecourt. “They were all knights and servants of Sir Robert de Baudricourt,” Joan testified. “Sir Robert had sworn them to conduct me well and safely.”

“Go,” Robert said to Joan as she departed. “Go, and come what may.” It was hardly a benediction, but Baudricourt was obeying orders, not acting out of faith. No matter his opinion, the price of getting rid of the obstinate girl had been to provide her an escort and a formal letter of introduction to the dauphin—a bargain, as it turned out. Even had Yolande not been scheming from afar, by now the citizens of Lorraine were traveling miles to get a glimpse of their Maid, thronging around her. Were Baudricourt to refuse to promote what they believed was her God-given mission, he’d risk an uprising.

With the formal introduction she needed, Joan and her six companions set out for Chinon on the night of February 12, 1429, “to go,” as she said, “to the lord Dauphin, and for that I was born.” Her phrasing often mimicked that of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, an echo here of Christ’s admonition to those who tried to detain him from his vocation. “I was sent for this purpose.”

Joan of Arc Leaving Vaucouleurs, Jean-Jacques Scherrer’s monumental history painting, first exhibited in 1887, has insinuated itself into the origin myth of France much as Emanuel Leutze’s equally narrative Washington Crossing the Delaware has shaped the vision of countless American schoolchildren. Life-size, regal, and handsomely attired in brown tunic, cape, and leggings, her yet-to-be-shorn hair falling over her shoulders and down her back—her transformation incomplete—Joan pauses on the threshold of her magnificent and terrible fate. The Maid’s horse lifts her to a heroic height. Like George Washington towering over his seated rowers, she is more than head and shoulders above the crowd around her, a sweep of caste from beggar to courtier; “the mother of her country,” history has judged her, “the George Washington of France.” She raises her left hand in farewell, her right reaches for the symbol of her vocation: a sword, its hilt and blade divided by the hand guard, emphasizing its cruciform outline and reminding us that her war is a holy one.

Jean-Jacques Scherrer, "Joan of Arc Leaving Vaucouleurs." Image via sofi01

Jean-Jacques Scherrer, “Joan of Arc Leaving Vaucouleurs.” Image via sofi01

“No sword!” Sir Robert exclaims in Victor Fleming’s 1948 film, Joan of Arc. “Here,” he says. “Take mine!”

Scherrer’s painting has a focal point. The silver gleam of the weapon being passed from the captain to the Maid captures the eye and holds it on the critical moment, as a man of wealth and status relinquishes the symbol of his potency to a much younger woman. Just below that transaction is another reminder: painted in profile, the pommel of Joan’s armored saddle projects forward from her groin like an abbreviated phallus. Sir Robert reaches over his head and past the pommel to extend the tied scroll of a letter along with the weapon. Joan’s gaze, like Washington’s, is visionary, fixed on what she alone can see.

* * *

Chinon, about 350 miles to the west, was at the end of an eleven-day journey through English-occupied territory, the rivers in flood as they were every February, “no roads and no bridges left.” Even though they took the precaution of proceeding only under cover of night, that seven men-at-arms—or six, and one armed girl—traveled on horseback undetected and undisturbed by soldiers guarding roads and circling the towns along the way is often cited as the first miracle to demonstrate Joan’s uncanny powers. A story was told by “some soldiers who had gone to intercept her when she was on her way to find the King,” Seguin Seguin testified for the nullification proceedings. A Dominican friar who provided the sole eyewitness account of Joan’s first formal ecclesiastical examination, at Poitiers, Seguin is considered by historians to have provided the most reliable of testimony. They “had laid an ambush to capture her and rob her and her company,” he said. “But at the moment when they were about to do so, they had found themselves unable to stir from their positions; and so Joan had escaped without difficulty together with her company.” There would be other miracles, both less ambiguous and more dramatic. Still, whether it was accomplished with or without the grace of God, that so large a party eluded both enemy soldiers and the bandits spawned by anarchy was at least lucky and by no means expected. After all, Baudricourt had provided Joan a military guard for a reason.

What conflict emerged was internecine and came in the form of power struggles between Joan and those members of her escort who, like Baudricourt, were just following orders—except Sir Robert was safe within the walls of a fortified city and they were being asked to risk their lives for a girl who not only claimed she heard voices from God but dressed as a man. Husson Lemaître, a tinker from Viville, not ten miles from Domrémy, testified for the nullification that he’d “heard it said that while Joan was being taken from Vaucouleurs to the King, some of the soldiers of her escort pretended to be the enemy troops, and that those who were with her made a show of being about to take to their heels. But she said to them, ‘In the name of God, do not run away. They will do us no harm.’” And, though Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy were firm defenders of Joan’s holiness from the outset, her other companions plotted to undo the audacity of this inconvenient virgin, only to discover why it was that one of the king’s squires, Gobert Thibault, heard “Joan’s intimates say that they never had any desire for her. That is to say, that sometimes they had a carnal urge, but never dared to give way to it; and they believed that it was impossible to desire her . . . Suddenly their sexual feelings were checked.” Whether the gift betrayed heavenly or, as her enemies would attest, demonic influences, and though her apologists would hardly have characterized it in such terms, Joan was believed to have safeguarded her virginity by using supernatural powers to emasculate would-be assailants.

“I afterward heard the men who led her to the King talking,” Marguerite La Touroulde said,

and heard them say that at the outset they thought her presumptuous and that they meant to put her to the test. But once they were on the road, escorting her, they were ready to do anything that she wanted and were as anxious to bring her before the King as she was herself to get there. They could never have denied her anything that she asked. They said that . . . they wanted to make sexual advances to her, but at the moment when they were about to speak they were so ashamed that they dared not tell her their intentions or utter so much as a word.

“We escorted her to the King . . . as secretly as we could,” Jean de Metz remembered. The need for cover prevented Joan from attending Mass as regularly as she liked; given the opportunity, she went more than once a day. “If only we could hear a Mass it would be a grand thing,” Jean remembered her saying. “But, to my knowledge, we only heard the Mass twice on the way,” once on the first night, when the party of travelers reached the town of Saint-Urbain and were invited to sleep in the abbey, and again a few days later, when they passed through Auxerre and Joan attended Mass in the principal church there. On February 21 the seven travelers paused at the village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, a day’s ride from Chinon, that much farther to the west. From Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, Joan told the examiner, she’d requested permission to approach the dauphin at the castle. “I sent letters to my king telling him I had traveled a good hundred and fifty leagues to come to his aid, and I told him also that I knew many things to his advantage.”

* * *

Already, the citizens of Chinon were out milling in the streets, gossiping and waiting for a chance to see the Maid. Outside its walls were growing ranks of aspiring foot soldiers, as “French people of all ages and professions leave their homes to join the army and march towards Jeanne, like the Magi following their star.” Multitudes of mostly simple folk walking with clogs on their feet, carrying axes, pitchforks, and pikes—farm implements that provided prototypes for weapons used in hand combat—“crowds of people along every road that leads from Lorraine to Chinon” came to volunteer their lives to serve in the army of the virgin warrior who had passed unmolested “through the territory of the King’s enemies, and . . . almost miraculously, forded many rivers in order to come to the King.”

“There is something strange about this girl,” Yolande tells Charles in The Lark, “something remarkable. Or so everybody thinks, and that’s what matters.”

With Yolande overtly propping up his resolve, Charles defied the courtier La Trémoille and La Trémoille’s cadre of Burgundian spies and sympathizers and demanded that Joan be brought upstairs. The scene in which Joan at last meets the dauphin claims a prominent role in every telling of her story, identifying her immediate discovery of the dauphin, who had hidden himself among a crowd of courtiers, as her first significant miracle, the one that ignited the fuse of her messianic trajectory. After all, she’d never seen him or his likeness before—what other than her voices could have tipped her off? Predictably, the scene grew more fantastic with every telling, although in the case of Joan the religious truth embraced by hagiography can’t eclipse historical fact. The first meeting between Joan and Charles included only a handful of people. The second was a reenactment of the first and took place months later, after Joan had been thoroughly vetted by a Church tribunal.

“He came from on high,” Joan said of the angel who accompanied her on her initial visit, and he “went with me by the stairs to the king’s chamber.”

“Who entered first?” the examiner asked.

“The angel went in first. He came by Our Lord’s command.”

“How?”

“He came in through the door,” Joan said, and “from the door the angel stepped upon the ground and he walked towards my king.”

“How far was the distance between this angel and your king?”

“The space of a good lance-length,” she said, that distance being anywhere between nine and fourteen feet.

“And did anyone else see or hear this angel? Anyone other than you?”

“My king and several others heard and saw the voices which came to my aid,” Joan said, a characterization that evinces how oblique and cryptic she became when interviewed about angels and saints and their properties. No witness for the nullification claimed to have seen, or heard, her voices, though they trusted they were real. Not one of Joan’s contemporaries suggested she had ever lied about her experience of what she believed was a heavenly manifestation.

“Who were the others present?”

“Charles de Bourbon and perhaps three others”—Yolande, La Trémoille, and a handful of the dauphin’s closest advisers.

“When the King learned that she was approaching,” Simon Charles testified, “he withdrew behind the others; Joan, however, recognized him perfectly.”

Among the courtiers, the grand master of the king’s household and erstwhile crusader, Raoul de Gaucourt, remembered that Joan—he called her a “poor shepherd girl”—“appeared before His Royal Majesty in great humility and utter simplicity. I heard her speak the following words to the King: ‘Most noble Lord Dauphin, I have come and am sent by God to bring help to you and your kingdom.’”

Joan fell to her knees before the dauphin as she did before her angels and saints, Charles being one of the few mortals before whom she lowered herself in obeisance. She was wearing what she had on the journey from Vaucouleurs—“a black doublet with hose attached, a short tunic of coarse black material, black hair, cut round, and a black cap on her head.” If she was surprised by the physical appearance of the man she had imagined countless times, she didn’t betray it. Isabeau is reputed to have been beautiful in her youth, but her children, three of whom died in infancy, were an unprepossessing lot. Charles lived to be fifty-eight, longer than any of his siblings. If his official court portrait by Jean Fouquet is not of the warts-and-all school, then the dauphin must have been repellent. The lower half of his face, with its full-lipped, petulant mouth and fleshy chin, suggested sated appetites; the eyes above his bulbous nose were, as observed by his contemporaries, small and calculating. “If he can make three sous profit on any virtue you bring him he’ll sell you out, and throw you in the corner like an empty sausage skin,” Chartier observes in Maxwell Anderson’s 1946 play Joan of Lorraine. The dauphin’s arms and legs were so spindly as to shock those who saw him when he was not upholstered in ceremonial velvet and fur but wearing his everyday green tunic. An inexpensive garment that wasn’t discarded but repaired when the elbows gave out, it demonstrated well enough the poverty into which France’s court had descended. Though Joan would find herself increasingly impatient with Charles’s vacillation and what seemed like timidity, and he would sacrifice her life to his ambition, she never judged him. She saw no wrong in righteously criticizing most of the rest of the world, either collectively or one man at a time, but Charles was God’s anointed. If she believed she could budge his resistance to undertaking military maneuvers he perceived as risks and she understood as opportunities, Joan would remonstrate with him for an hour, but she regarded Charles as she did the pope, both representatives of divine will who stood outside the reach of mortal censure—as did she.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet. Image via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_VII_by_Jean_Fouquet_1445_1450.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charles_VII_by_Jean_Fouquet_1445_1450.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet

Despite the protests of La Trémoille and Archbishop Regnault de Chartres, the dauphin agreed under pressure from Yolande to retire with Joan to a separate room. “The Maid talked with our lord the King in private,” Joan’s squire, Jean d’Aulon, wrote of the initial meeting, “and told him certain secrets that I do not know.”

“After hearing her,” Simon Charles added, “the King appeared to be joyous.” By all accounts, the chronically indecisive and ineffectual dauphin emerged from the private audience radiating optimism and confidence, suddenly appearing as a man capable of rule.

Whatever transpired between the dauphin and the Maid has fueled six centuries of curiosity. Joan refused to discuss it at all, not even to save her life.

“What sign did you bring to Charles showing him you came from God?” the examiner asked repeatedly.

“Go and ask him,” Joan said. “I have already told you that you will not drag this from my lips.”

While Joan’s testimony about her private audience with the dauphin fails to address the obvious point of her judges’ questions—just how exactly had the divine manifested itself?—there’s little sense in parsing each of her inconsistent responses to exhume a truth from their vivisection, not any more than in constructing rationales to explain the inconsistency of her comments, when Joan refused to make any other than a qualified oath to her examiner.

“You may well ask me such things, that to some I shall answer truly, and to others I shall not.” She swore to tell the truth only about what she—not her judges—considered the subject matter of her trial for heresy and witchcraft and refused to divulge her private experience of God. Why would she when, as she said, she was “more afraid of failing the voices by saying what is displeasing to them, than of not answering you”? They were welcome to call other witnesses, she told them; those of her party knew well that the voice was sent to Joan from God, and they knew this voice.

If Charles gave any account of the sign Joan gave him, it was many years after the fact, and history is left with little more than secondhand hearsay from the man Joan called her gentil dauphin. Sala, a courtier and chronicler during the reign of Charles’s son and successor, Louis XI, wrote that toward the end of his life the king had confided in his chamberlain Guillaume Gouffier, whose duties required him to sleep in Charles’s bedroom. Gouffier told Sala that Charles had made a “humble silent request in prayer to Our Lord . . . in which he begged him devoutly that if it were true that he was His heir . . . might it please God to protect and defend him.” Otherwise, he asked that God allow him to escape to the court of one of his allies, in Spain or Scotland. Joan, Charles said, had known the prayer he made, known it in enough detail to convince the dauphin of her legitimacy. As all of France understood Charles’s predicament, and suffered his indecision, any of his subjects might guess the nature of his prayers. Whether it was what Joan said, a repetition of his words so precise as to be miraculous, or the fervor with which she said it that convinced the dauphin is impossible to know. The atmosphere at court had been so long imbued with pessimism and anxiety that Joan’s passionate certainty separated her from everyone else the dauphin knew.

* * *

From the Book: JOAN OF ARC by Kathryn Harrison. Copyright © 2014 by Kathryn Harrison. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.