Joan of Arc’s Holy War

Above Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)- Jehane le Pucelle. Source: Wikimedia

The following selection of text was cut from an early draft of Chapter 3, “Holy Wars in Defense of the Sacred,” in the forthcoming book (expected March 2021) Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History. Rather than discarding it, the authors, Alfred J. Andrea, emeritus professor of history at the University of Vermont, and Andrew Holt, professor of history at Florida State College at Jacksonville, wanted to make it available here. The book, aimed primarily at a student readership, explores the various types of wars waged in the name of religion that have occurred around the world over the past 5,000 years. It will be offered by Hackett Publishing as part of their Critical Themes in World History Series. Please see more information about the project below.

Joan of Arc, Divinely Inspired Defender of France

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which devastated the French countryside and its people and almost bankrupted England, began as a purely secular affair, fought over political and dynastic ambitions. It took a teenaged peasant woman from the obscure village of Domrémy in eastern France to raise the defense of France to the level of a divinely approved holy war.

Known to history as Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc (ca. 1412-31), the young woman  claimed that around 1425, she began to hear the voices of Michael the Archangel and Saints Margaret and Catherine, and was convinced that they summoned her to the defense of France and its royal heir, the yet-to-be-crowned Charles VII. In early 1429, she persuaded the captain of a nearby garrison to provide a small contingent of soldiers to escort her to Charles’s court at Chinon. Upon meeting her, Charles tested her to determine whether or not her voices were genuine and from Heaven rather than Hell.  Convinced of her veracity, orthodoxy, and moral integrity, and assured by his theological advisors that there was a high degree of probability that her mission was divinely inspired, Charles allowed her to accompany a military force that would attempt to raise the English siege of Orléans, one of the last strongholds loyal to Charles.

Charles’s small army forced an English withdrawal on May 8th. Seasoned warriors commanded the French at Orléans, and Joan’s role appears to have been confined to holding a banner in the midst of the fight and lifting morale by her bravery and conviction of her mission. Regardless, she was acclaimed a heroine, who was wounded in the fray but carried on, and hailed as the Maid of Orléans (her “virgin maidenhood” was important to male clerics and others who viewed it as a necessary quality in support of her claim to be a deliverer dispatched by Heaven). Many became convinced that because of God’s grace bestowed on Joan, the tide was turning.

Indeed, the tide had turned, as the English withdrew from the Loire Valley, and town after town in southern France fell to Charles’s troops. In the midst of this apparently miraculous reversal of fortune, Joan accompanied the dauphin to Reims, where he was consecrated and crowned king on July 17. Despite a setback in the siege of Paris in September, where she was wounded again, Joan seemed almost invincible as the year closed out.

At some point in 1429, one of Joan’s most ardent supporters, the distinguished author Christine de Pisan, proclaimed her to be “the young maiden, to whom God gives the strength and power to be the champion who casts the rebels down and feeds France with the sweet, nourishing milk of  peace.” In that same lengthy poem known as the Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc), Christine addresses the Burgundians and Gascons of France who still supported the English: “Oh, all you blind people, can’t you detect God’s hand in this?…Do you want to fight against God?” Moreover, Christine assures her readers that once Joan has “cast down the English for good,” she will destroy “the heretics and their vile ways” and then she will lead Charles to the Holy Land, where “she will destroy the Saracens.”[1]  And Joan herself might have believed that she was on a mission from God that was greater than just ridding France of the English and defeating their Gascon and Burgundian allies. It is possible that on March 23, 1430, Joan dictated a letter intended for the Hussite “heretics” of Bohemia, in which she threatened them with war if they did not recant their “error.” Many historians have questioned the authenticity of the letter, however, and the issue remains in doubt.

Whatever the truth might be about the letter to the Hussites, it is indisputable that two months to the day, on May 23rd, 1430, Joan was captured in a Burgundian ambush and subsequently sold to the English. In a politically motivated trial, she was charged with heresy and witchcraft and found guilty of the former. Her execution by burning took place in Rouen on May 30, 1431, and her ashes were scattered into the Seine, lest they be collected as holy relics.

Although the war continued for another twenty-two years, Joan had set in motion a French victory that could not be denied. Her martyrdom could also not be denied. An appellate court declared her innocent of all charges in 1456, and in the sixteenth century her memory and presumed sainthood served as an inspiration for the Catholic League of France, which, as noted below, was a major player in the bitter and bloody French Wars of Religion (1562-98). She was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.


 Above Image: This was drawn onto the margin of the Parlement de Paris’s official register of daily activities on Wednesday, 10 May 1429 by Clément de Fauquembergue, secretary of the parlement (see the word Me[r]credi [Wednesday] beneath Joan.). Her banner reads IHS, the Greek monogram for Jesus (iota, eta, sigma). This is not a life portrait because Clément never saw her, but upon receiving word of the victory at Orleans and depending on accounts describing her, he drew this celebratory image. Source: Wikimedia


More on Santified Violence: Holy War in World History

Organized thematically, with each theme further divided into cultural-geographic and chronological units, Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History, looks in some depth at the usual cast of characters, such as crusades, jihads, Europe’s religious wars, and Aztec flower wars, but it also explores manifestations of holy war that normally do not appear in the pages of books dedicated to world and military history. Such forms of sacred violence include: ritual headhunting in Papua New Guinea and South America; Shinto holy wars in Japan; Buddhist holy war in Tibet; millenarian rebellions and civil wars in China, Peru, North America, and Sudan; and Ethiopia’s militant defense of its Christian culture. A bare-bones list of the book’s six sections suggests its wide range:

Introduction: What Is Holy War?

Chapter 1: Holy Wars in Mythic Time, Holy Wars as Metaphor, Holy Wars as Ritual

Chapter 2: Holy Wars of Conquest in the Name of a Deity

Chapter 3: Holy Wars in Defense of the Sacred

Chapter 4: Holy Wars in Anticipation of the Millennium

Epilogue: Holy Wars Today and Tomorrow

In addition to investigating numerous holy wars that fall under a chapter’s organizing rubric, each chapter contains four appended primary sources that allow readers to explore in depth a particular issue. After all, source analysis is the means through which teachers of history stimulate critical thinking.

In choosing the holy wars and other forms of sacred mayhem that appear in these chapters, the authors found themselves forced to be highly selective, a selectivity that will surely disappoint many readers because someone’s favorite holy war is absent.

But may one have a “favorite holy war”?



[1] Christine de Pisan, Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc, ed. and trans, Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), excerpted in A. J. Andrea, The Medieval Record: Sources of Medieval History, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 2020), 404-07, passim.