Joan of Awkward (Addressing the Supernatural In History)

Joan of Arc w/ BannerJoan of Arc is one of those historical figures everyone has heard of and most know just enough about to be confused. She’s been the subject of dozens of books, over a hundred works of art, and films too numerous to list.

Why? What’s the ongoing appeal, even for those not desperately trying to validate France?

She was a simple girl, with no social status or formal education, who led an army. And saved France. While helping Bill and Ted on their history project. And wearing her hair really short.

Oh, and… she heard voices from God and was burned at the stake when she was just 19. So there’s that.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning…

Joan was born in early 15th century France, near the end of the Hundred Years’ War. As she hit puberty, her nation was enduring yet another dispute over who would inherit the French throne. It wasn’t just about the nice chair and fancy castle; the outcome would determine who would control France for the foreseeable future – the French via the Dauphin, Charles VII, or the English through their up-and-coming monarch, Henry VI, and a sizeable faction of ‘Burgundians’ (Frenchmen who cooperated with the English because everything has to be complicated).

Charles VII’s daddy, Charles VI (nice system, right?) was insane – even for royalty – and may not have been his daddy at all. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, was thought to be having an affair with the King’s younger brother, the Duke of Orleans, and he may have been Charles VII’s biological father.

Charles VII’s sister, Catherine of Valois, was given in marriage to Henry V (father of Henry VI) to promote peace between the two historically antagonistic nations. Catherine’s older sister, Isabella, had already been Queen of England briefly due to her marriage to King Richard II when she was, um… seven years old.

After King Richard II died, his successor Henry IV (who was not Richard’s son – long story) wanted Isabella to marry his son, Henry V. She refused, instead eventually marrying Charles, Duke of Orleans – who was the son of that other Duke of Orleans, Louis I, who may or may not have been Charles VII’s real daddy. This latest Charles became known as one of the most significant poets of the Medieval era, thanks to all the time he spent in captivity as a political prisoner.

See how fun it is to study history? Your family’s not as messed up as you think. “Dysfunctional” is just another word for “like royalty, but without money or power.”

Isabeau – Charles VII’s mother – faced years of innuendo and open hostility as she repeatedly shifted alliances and engaged in other political maneuvering trying to ensure the safety and future reign of her son. It’s possible she used her sexuality as part of these political shenanigans, making her something of a royal tramp by the standards of the day. If true, this sets up a wonderful narrative in which the Dauphin – left bereft and bewildered despite his mother’s carnal ploys – is saved instead by a politically naïve virgin who merely follows the Voice of God.

It makes for a tempting morality play, but it’s just as likely that Isabeau’s reputation was regularly slandered because she was smarter than most women in her day and held more political and personal influence than was typical even for a queen. If her complexion were darker than your average Frenchman’s – which is likely, but impossible to confirm – slanderous rumors must be approached with even greater skepticism.

Charles VII In any case, Charles VII grew up uncertain of his own legitimacy – in more ways than one. He may have been a bastard, biologically-speaking. Word on the street was that his mother was a bit of whore. And he was completely unable to do the one thing kings were divinely appointed to do – rule his people and protect them from the hostile forces across the way. England was practically ruling France.

So did he have issues? Probably.

Joan dealt with none of this as a child, of course. She was a peasant, which to modern ears suggests poverty and servitude. Neither seems to have been the case, however. Daddy Jacques d’Arc and crew were certainly near the bottom of the social hierarchy, and times were tough all over, but they don’t appear to have been in severe need by the standards of the day.

Somewhere around age 13, Joan begin having visions and hearing voices from Saint Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine – telling her that she must be a good girl and stay faithful, and that she had a destiny and purpose far beyond her upbringing. By itself, these voices are a curiosity. What harm, though, in a child believing God wants her to go to church and behave herself?

It's when they tell you to start interfering in political affairs and leading armies that things get serious – and way more interesting. But that’s just the sort of thing which makes historians uncomfortable, you understand. It’s just so awkward to deal with the supernatural in an academic context, especially given the typical disconnect between those book-learnin’ types and people of faith. We’ll include religion in the most general sorts of ways as it shapes nations or movements, but individual choices based on genuine belief…? Awkward. 

MLK JrNotice how often “Reverend” is dropped when Martin Luther King, Jr. is discussed. When his primary calling IS referenced, it’s used as framing for the story we wish to tell – as if the call of ministry, spreading the Word of God to the downtrodden and fighting for justice, made a nice placeholder before he began his real job.

It’s easier the further back we go. Dismissing the faith of the Puritans or the revival preachers of the Second Great Awakening happens almost naturally; they seem so radical by today’s mores. Pantheistic cultures are tacitly patronized without question, as are those more driven by nature, visions, or quests than westerners find comfortable. We dance around, determined not to be rude, but isn’t it cute how they thought such and so?

*titter titter*

We rarely reflect on Brother Malcolm’s claim that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad came to him in a vision in prison. We barely mention the miracles supposedly enabling the Mormons to survive in their new Utah settlements. And we certainly don’t adequately ponder whether or not Joan heard from God in audible voices.

Because… um… what?

Joan’s story forces historians to deal with overtly spiritual claims and potentially miraculous outcomes in ways historians do not generally wish to do. Joan, by all accounts, followed up the predictions of her “voices” with
successful action. She – a peasant girl – wrangled an audience with the Dauphin Charles VII. She shared with him secret words of God which immediately turned him from manipulative skeptic to temporary believer and gave him the strength to actually lead his nation in a renewed war for independence.

In a time of drastically divided sexual roles, she led battlefield troops to greater successes than they’d seen in a generation. And, when the same king she’d brought to power began to tire of her – perhaps fearing her popularity, or perhaps simply believing she’d exhausted her usefulness – betrayed her and allowed her to be captured and tried by the English, she held to her faith, and to her convictions regarding God’s calling for him and for France.

To the point of being burned alive at the stake.

Joan BurningAccounts suggest she died calling out to Jesus, her eyes locked on the Crucifix she’d requested be held before her eyes. Some versions insist witnesses cried out for forgiveness, repenting of their role in her martyrdom. The legend quickly spread that her heart survived undamaged in the ashes.

The details of her final moments or the existence of immutable internal organs lack sufficient documentation to insist on their veracity, but are they so much crazier than angels telling a teenage girl to lead France in rebellion? Landmark events always spark their own mythology, but in this case the supernatural is essential to the documented tale.

How can you tell Joan’s story without pondering her faith? Her voices? She was either crazy with an extra-helping of luck, a very effective liar, or God spoke to her and sent her on a miracle-laden mission to save France from the English. The idea God could like France that much is problematic enough – but successful wars based on divine visions? Is that something we wish to encourage?

Of course it’s tricky even when not teaching in public schools to presume to understand the spiritual realities of others – particularly those six centuries gone. But we do our past a disservice when we circle so widely around the subject instead.

We don’t have to resolve the ethereals in order to embrace them. We cover tons of complicated stuff without passing detailed judgement on the veracity of everyone involved. If we’re in the business of educating, however imperfectly, let’s do it without dancing around the wonderful complications of real people and true belief – whatever its object. It’s not a violation of “separation of church and state” to acknowledge the role of faith (ANY faith) in shaping people and events. It is, in fact, reckless and dishonest to omit it.

Who knows? Maybe recognizing the complexities of mankind’s motivations and the variety of realms in which we presume to move might even spark a tad more interest and acceptance on the part of our students. “Real life” may be many things, but it rarely overflows with easy answers or clarity. Why should history?

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