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Joan of Arc’s heresy

A month before Joan of Arc’s heresy was cleansed by fire on this day in 1431 CE, a spokesman for her Burgundian accusers railed against her: “O Royal House of France! You have never known a monster until now! But now behold yourself dishonored in placing your trust in this woman, this magician, heretical and superstitious.” Although these words identified “Joan the Maid” as a personification of evil, they said nothing about the particular act of heresy that required her to be executed. What was the act that justified her having been burned alive?

Joan claimed to have heard voices that guided her actions. They first spoke to her when she was just on the verge of womanhood. She said they told her of God’s great pity for the people of France and for His plan to go to their aid. According to her, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Michael the Archangel had spoken to her. She even claimed that God himself had addressed her. Although rejected by her accusers as false, these claims were not the heresy for which she was condemned to death.

Then there was the charge of claiming divine status. During her imprisonment, Joan was visited by a Burgundian cleric by the name of Martin Lavenu, who attested that: “spontaneously and without being constrained to do it, she said and confessed that….[she] herself had been the angel who promised [Charles VII] that, if he put her to work, she would crown him at Reims.” This was not the heresy either for which she was burned alive.

Joan rallied the demoralized forces of the dauphin, Charles de Valois, against the English invaders and their Burgundian allies, inspiring a chain of military and political victories that would culminate in the coronation of the dauphin as King Charles VII at Reims in July of 1429. Though the Burgundians charged Joan with defying the Church Militant through these acts, they were not the deeds for which she was executed.

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake by Hermann Anton Stilke. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake by Hermann Anton Stilke. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When Joan was a child she was known to have visited a “Fairy tree” of which her accusers made much during her condemnation trial. Like other girls in her village, she had fashioned garlands and placed them on the tree and danced and sang in the tree’s vicinity. The clerics who tried her claimed that her garlands were actually offerings to “fairies” that inhabited the tree, and that her dancing and singing were incantations and spells. Even so, this was not the basis for the heresy of which she was convicted.

During her condemnation trial, Joan’s accusers challenged her with these transgressions, many learned clerics all at once, in a nightmarish interrogation of ecclesiastical ambiguities in the absence of a formal charge. Their intent was to confuse and trap her into admitting to acts that might dishonor and discredit her as well as her king. Failing to do so, they settled on cross-dressing as the basis for their accusation of heresy, citing Deuteronomy 22:5, which states: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” Joan argued in vain that she had worn men’s clothes, simply because they were more appropriate for the work she performed among men-at-arms, and also because she was compelled to do so by a higher force.

Although deeply indebted to Joan for his crown, Charles VII made no effort to ransom her or to provide any other assistance after her capture. Joan died rejected and alone on a platform near the butchers’ market hall at the Vieux Marché, calling through the flames that consumed her to Jesus and to the saints of paradise for help. It took another eighteen years for Charles VII to come to Joan’s aid. In 1449, he petitioned the pope to authorize a new trial, which concluded its deliberations on 7 July 1456, after lengthy interrogations of one hundred fifteen witnesses. This second (nullification) trial declared the original (condemnation) trial procedurally flawed and therefore nullified. Although Joan is remembered primarily for her Voices and the deeds they inspired, her canonization in May 1920 was based on her “heroic virtues” and not on an acknowledgement by the Church that she had communicated directly with the heavenly host.

Feature image credit: Entrance of Joan of Arc into Reims in 1429, painting by Jan Matejko. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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