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Did St Joan really burn at the stake?

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Miracle, Mystery, Religion, Saints, War on Wednesday, 23 January 2013

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This edited article about Joan of Arc originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 106 published on 25 January 1964.

Joan of Arc, picture, image, illustration

Joan of Arc burns at the stake

The trouble with searching out the truth of what really happened in some of the world’s great mysteries is made many times worse when we have to deal with someone whose position in the world’s story has been deliberately altered to suit the crafty convenience of the people who have come afterwards.

For instance, Joan of Arc.

It would, indeed, have been hard enough for us to get at the truth of Joan’s story if we had lived in her own time – so carefully, it seems, was the truth veiled even then. But in the five hundred years since her time it is doubtful whether any single story in the whole of history has been more twisted, stretched, pummelled, distorted, taken apart and rebuilt than Joan’s story.

Somewhere you have probably read that she was a shepherd girl from Lorraine, devout but illiterate.

Well, two highly skilled researchers and writers, of whom more in a moment, have recently made out an excellent case for her being the daughter of the Duke of Orleans – and therefore the aunt of King Henry VI of England – and the tool of the scheming, divided noble houses of the French states that existed in her lifetime.

You probably learned somewhere that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake.

The same writers have re-examined the strong body of opinion which believes that Joan was never burned at the stake at all – that someone else was burned in her place at the last moment and that she was set free, married, re-appeared in French society and lived happily ever after.

Indeed, seeking the whole truth about Joan of Arc is rather like admiring your reflection in a brick wall. It can’t be done!

Let us remind ourselves briefly of the “official” story of Joan. Reference books say she was born in Domremy, France, in 1412, but even that is suspect. A close study of documents about her life makes it clear that she must have been born earlier in that fifteenth century.

In Domremy, says the traditional story, heavenly voices heard by Joan, a quite illiterate shepherd girl, convinced her to seek the presence of the Dauphin Charles at Chinon, and inform him of her divinely-inspired mission to drive out the English and their French allies and lead him to Rheims Cathedral, where he would be crowned King Charles VII of France.

This Charles was an ugly, apathetic fellow when he met Joan, with an inbuilt conviction that he had no right to wear a crown. His country was writhing in the terrors of war: invaded by England, divided against itself, and bankrupt into the bargain. Charles, surveying the mess, could be forgiven for believing that the task was hopeless. Nevertheless Jeanette, to give her her French name, convinced him that a greater power had sent her to help him.

That she took a prominent part in raising the siege of Orleans and defeating the English is certainly true, and that she led the Dauphin, who was slowly becoming a changed man, to his coronation at Rheims is also undoubted. She was also certainly captured by a rival French party and handed over to the English, who put her on trial and sentenced her to death.

These are the known and accepted facts. Yet even a second glance at them shows them to be so amazing as to demand further investigation.

Heroine or heretic? Saint or sinner? Those are questions which have bothered people for five centuries. Scores of indecisive books have been written about them, so that according to the mood of the times, Joan has been sometimes in favour, and sometimes out of favour. That today she is considered a saint and a heroine must not prevent us from considering any fresh ideas offered about her.

“The queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages.”

That was the verdict of the famous writer George Bernard Shaw who wrote a play called St. Joan about the Maid of Orleans. And then again:

“In the official thesis on Joan of Arc, nothing is credible. Nothing.”

That was the verdict of two distinguished writers, a Frenchman, Andre Guerin and an American, Jack Palmer White, who wrote a book called Operation Shepherdess* about her.

Guerin and White leave no question in anyone’s mind that the Joan of Arc story needs official re-appraisal. But the most extraordinary doubt they throw upon this extraordinary girl is that she was ever burnt at the stake – despite what our history books tell us.

Sample evidence, from a manuscript of 1439 (eight years after the “execution”), now in the British Museum:

“. . . finally they burned her, or another woman like her. About this many persons were, and still are, of diverse opinions.”

Another sample from an ancient French writer: “Many persons . . . believed firmly that . . . she escaped the fire, and that another was burned to make believe it was she.”

According to Guerin and Palmer, heretics about to be executed were always permitted certain Catholic rites. But the same rites were never permitted to relapsed heretics (that is, heretics cast off by the church).

Joan was a relapsed heretic. Yet she was permitted the rites.

“We are lost! We have burned a saint!” an English soldier is said to have cried out when the flames licked up around Joan. Onlookers claim that a dove flew from her mouth and ascended towards heaven.

In the fifteenth century a public burning really was a public burning. Everybody went along to have a look.

At Joan’s supposed burning at Rouen 160 soldiers were posted all round the perimeter of the square. The object: to keep away sightseers!

Again, invariably at a burning the stake was built close to the ground. At Joan’s supposed burning the stake was built so high that the executioner found it difficult to make a proper pile of faggots to reach the unfortunate victim.

So high, perhaps deliberately, so that she could not be recognized.

But surely some of the soldiers would have recognized her? None did, because the victim was veiled.

Guerin and Palmer point to the detailed records of witches burned at the stake during the year 1431, when Joan was supposed to have been burned. They point, too, to the records for the year before, 1430, and the year after, 1432. There is no mention of a Joan of Arc having been burned in any of those three years.

If Joan was freed at the last moment, and a substitute put in, then why?

The answer, it is claimed, is that Joan was really a royal princess, much too important a person to burn, who had been used with great success by the French to rally and inspire their faint-hearted followers in their desperate cause.

Five years after the burning a woman calling herself Joan of Arc turned up again at Metz in France. Some people say that that woman was an impostor. At any rate she was made most welcome by the city of Orleans, whose people remembered the help Joan had given them during their siege, and who, presumably, would have got to know her sufficiently well to have recognized her again.

Later the woman – Joan or impostor – married a French gentleman and little more was heard of her.

It is true that after the burning a dozen “Joan of Arcs” turned up in France. But that, of course, could have been a deliberate official attempt to add to the confusion.

Indeed, the truest thing about Joan of Arc seems to be that, “in the official thesis on Joan of Arc, nothing is credible.”

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