This year marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of St. Joan of Arc, one of the most courageous and inspiring people, man or woman, ever to have lived. And what better way to honor Joan’s memory than to retell her story and introduce a new generation to the leading actors in her thrilling drama? But be careful, I warn you, this fascinating medieval web of intrigue, war and triumph can become addictive…
The Story of Joan of Arc, Part I
Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl, living in the small, obscure village of Domrémy, at the very edge of the kingdom of France, during the time of the Hundred Years War. The Hundred Years War was a major conflict between England and France that lasted—you guessed it—one hundred years. But England and France didn’t fight each other continuously through that period. The Hundred Years War was actually conducted in two distinct stages. The first stage began about 1350, long before Joan was born, when the English king, Edward III, and his son, the Black Prince (don’t you just love that name?), won a great battle and took over all of western France. It took the French thirty years, until about 1380, to push Edward and his English soldiers out of their kingdom, but they finally managed to do it. And then, for the next thirty years or so, everybody took a well-earned break from hostilities, and England and France lived in relative peace.
Joan of Arc’s story takes place during the second stage of the Hundred Years War, which began in 1415, when she was about three years old. That’s when Henry V—he’s the English king in Shakespeare who says “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” that’s Henry V—invaded France and mowed down nearly all of the French army at the famous battle of Agincourt. (There’s a good movie about this with Kenneth Branagh playing Henry.) Because the French crown lost so many soldiers that day, the kingdom was unable to resist further encroachment, and over the next few years England basically took over all of western France and the capital city of Paris. The dauphin, who was the French king’s surviving son (and the legitimate heir to the throne), was disinherited, and Henry V married the dauphin’s sister Catherine (played by Emma Thompson in the movie) and went on to claim the thrones of both England and France.
But the dauphin, whose name was Charles, refused to surrender his inheritance without a fight. Forced to flee Paris, he declared war on England and escaped south, heading straight for the court of the most experienced and powerful politician in France, the one person who he knew was adroit enough to help him defeat the English and reclaim his kingdom.
The Story of Joan of Arc, Part II
Charles, the dauphin of France needed help from his mother-in-law, whose name was Yolande of Aragon. She was queen of Sicily, duchess of Anjou and Maine, and countess of Provence. Yolande was wealthy, educated, and of royal birth. She owned castles and property in France that she did not wish to see captured by the English; even more importantly, she wanted Charles to regain his throne so that her daughter would be queen and her grandson could inherit the kingdom after his father. She strongly encouraged Charles to resist the English militarily, providing him with much-needed money, supplies and allies.
But despite her efforts, the war went badly for Charles. He lost battle after battle. He despaired, believing that he could not defeat England because God was against him. He began to doubt whether his cause was just, whether he really was the legitimate heir to the throne.
Yolande, who had known Charles since he was ten years old, had in fact brought him up with her own children, tried to reassure him. She knew that it was imperative that he keep fighting for his throne, that the English were not invincible. But Charles was terrified to put another army into the field for fear that his soldiers would be annihilated as they had in previous battles. He refused to listen to her.
Around this time, when she was just thirteen years old, Joan began to hear voices. At first they frightened her but before long she began to trust them, and to identify the voices as belonging to angels. One of the angels whose voice she heard was Saint Michael, divine commander of the forces of good against those of evil. Over the years, as Charles’ campaign against the English went from bad to worse, Saint Michael began to urge Joan to leave her small village of Domrémy, and travel to the royal court, in order to offer her aid to thedauphin. When she was sixteen Joan heeded his call and ventured out to the nearby fortress of Vaucouleurs to ask a local captain, Robert de Baudricourt, to send her to the dauphin. But Robert refused to take her request seriously, and she was forced to return home.
Six months after Joan was rebuffed at Vaucouleurs, England, determined to break what was left of the dauphin’s spirit and take over the rest of the kingdom, launched the siege of Orléans. Orléans was a large, walled city on the bank of the Loire whose citizens were still loyal to Charles. The English tried first to scale the walls and barrage those inside with cannonballs, but the city was too well defended, so eventually the enemy commanders decided simply to dig in for the winter and encircle the town. Blockades were then set up to prevent supplies from getting in. The intent was clear: the English meant to use hunger to bring Orléans to submission.
Yolande did everything she could to compel Charles to defend this important city. She organized an immense relief effort and paid for the supplies herself. She brought together an army that included the most seasoned warriors in the kingdom. She coaxed important noblemen to Charles’ court to give him courage. But still the dauphin, haunted by his previous defeats, refused to act. As the weeks passed, and Charles continued to delay, his loyal subjects in Orléans began to starve.
And then Yolande had an idea.
The Story of Joan of Arc, Part III
All of her life, Yolande of Aragon loved literature. She was known for having amassed a notable library. After the duke of Orléans was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt Yolande had all of his books transferred to his castle at Saumur for safekeeping. Her passion for fiction had been nurtured in childhood by her parents, whose court ranked among the most literary in Europe.
There was one novel in particular that had made an enormous impression on Yolande in her youth. It was called The Romance of Melusine. The Romance of Melusine, which was written twenty years before Joan was born, when Yolande was a girl of twelve still living with her parents at their court in Aragon, was wildly popular. Think of it as The Hunger Games of the fourteenth century. It told the story of Melusine, a fairy in the guise of a beautiful woman, who befriends a nobleman named Raymondin. Raymondin has gotten himself into trouble by accidentally murdering his cousin and is wandering around in the forest trying to figure out what to do about it. Melusine offers to help Raymondin in exchange for marrying her. By following Melusine’s sage advice, Raymondin goes on to become one of the richest and most successful lords in all of France.
In fact, The Romance of Melusine was more than just a fairy tale, as Yolande well knew. Underneath the fantasy were tucked the accumulated military and political lessons gleaned from the first stage of the Hundred Years War, so on one level the book also operated as a medieval how-to manual. Melusine’s advice to Raymondin (and by extension to princes and noblemen in general) included how to get back an inheritance that someone else has stolen from you, how to make a murder look like an accident and so gain political capital from it, how to isolate enemies and lure allies to your cause, and how to train soldiers and win battles. The author camouflaged this wisdom by layering it into a romance to confuse the English and keep this hard-won knowledge out of the hands of the enemy. They did that sort of thing all the time in the Middle Ages.
For Yolande, The Romance of Melusine was more than just a novel she had loved from young adulthood; it was the book of her family. Her maternal grandmother had inspired the author to write the story and he had dedicated the work to her. More than this, the author, who knew Yolande’s mother’s side of the family very well, had actually written Yolande’s parents, the king and queen of Aragon, into the book as important characters. It is easy to see how Yolande, faced with a military crisis and Charles’ stubborn intransigence, made the connection between the dauphin’s predicament and that of Raymondin. Charles, too, had murdered his cousin, an English ally; Charles had also been deprived of his rightful inheritance; and certainly, if anyone needed lessons in how to win a battle, it was Charles!
Many people in the Middle Ages, Yolande included, believed in fairies. But where—and more importantly how—to find a Melusine? And could she be discovered in time to stave off almost certain defeat and rescue the starving people of Orléans?
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