Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

The Life of Joan of Arc
By Anatole France


A BELIEF, common to learned and ignorant alike, ascribed special virtues to the state of virginity. Such ideas had been handed down from a remote antiquity; their origin was pre-Christian; they were an immemorial inheritance, one part of which came from the Gauls and Germans, the other from the Romans and Greeks. In the land of Gaul there still lingered a memory of the sacred beauty of the white priestesses of the forest; and sometimes in the Island of Sein, along the misty shores of the Ocean, there wandered the shades of those nine sisters at whose bidding, in days of yore, the tempest raged and was stilled.

According to these beliefs, which had dawned in the childhood of races, the gift of prophecy is bestowed on virgins alone. It is the heritage of a Cassandra or a Velleda. It was said that Sibyls had prophesied the coming of Jesus Christ. In the Church they were considered the first witnesses of Christ among the Gentiles, and they were venerated as the august sisters of the prophets of Israel. The Dies Iræ mentions one of them in the same breath with King David himself. By what pious frauds their fame for prophecy was established, we cannot tell any more than Jean Gerson or Gérard Machet. With the doctors of the fifteenth century we must[Pg i.205] look upon these virgins as speaking the word of truth to the nations, who venerated but did not understand them. Such was the ancient tradition of the Christian Church. The most ancient fathers of the Church, Justin, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, frequently made use of the Sibylline oracles; and the heathen were at a loss for a reply when Lactantius confronted them with these prophetesses of the nations. Trusting in the word of Varro, Saint Jerome firmly believed in their existence. Into The City of God Saint Augustine introduces the Erythrean Sibyl, who, he says, faithfully foretold the Life of the Saviour. As early as the thirteenth century, these virgins of old had their places in cathedrals by the side of patriarchs and prophets. But it was not until the fifteenth century that multitudes of them were represented; sculptured on church porches, carved on choir stalls, painted on chapel walls or glass windows. Each one has her distinctive attribute. The Persian holds the lantern and the Libyan the torch, which illuminated the darkness of the Gentiles. The Agrippine, the European, and Erythrean are armed with the sword; the Phrygian bears the Paschal cross; the Hellespontine presents a rose tree in flower; the others display the visible signs of the mystery they foretell: the Cumæan a manger; the Delphian, the Samian, the Tiburtine, the Cimmerian a crown of thorns, a sceptre of reeds, scourges, a cross.[775]

[Pg i.206]

The very economy of the Christian religion—the ordering of its mysteries, wherein humanity is represented as ruined by a woman and saved by a virgin, and all flesh is involved in Eve's curse—led to the triumph of virginity and the exaltation of a condition which, in the words of a Father of the Church, is in the flesh, yet not of the flesh.

"It is because of virginity," says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, "that God vouchsafes to dwell with men. It is virginity which gives men wings to soar towards heaven." Celibacy raises the Apostle John above the Prince of the Apostles himself. At the funeral of the Virgin Mary, Peter gave John a palm branch, saying: "It becometh one who is celibate to bear the Virgin's palm."[776]

Throughout western Christendom the Virgin Mary—the Virgin par excellence—had been the object of zealous devout worship[777] ever since the twelfth century. The great cathedrals of northern France, dedicated to Our Lady, celebrated the feast of their patron saint on the day of the Assumption. On the sculptured pillar of the central porch was the Virgin, with her divine Child and the Virgin's lily. Sometimes Eve figured beneath, in order to represent at once sin and its redemption: the second Eve redeeming the first, the Virgin exalted the woman humbled. Marvellous scenes are portrayed on the tympanums of porches. The Virgin is kneeling; at her side is a[Pg i.207] flowering lily in a vase. The Angel, book in hand, greets her with an AVE, thus transposing the name EVA, mutans Evæ nomen. Or again, with her feet resting on the crescent moon, she rises to the highest heaven: Exaltata est super choros angelorum. Further, from Jesus Christ she receives the precious crown: Posuit in capite ejus coronam de lapide pretioso. In gems of painted glass, church windows portrayed the figures of Mary's virginity; the stone which Daniel saw dug from the mountain by no human hand, Gideon's fleece, Moses' burning bush, and Aaron's budding rod.

In an inexhaustible flow of images, expressed in hymns, sequences, and litanies, she was the Mystic Rose, the Ivory Tower, the Ark of the Covenant, the Gate of Heaven, the Morning Star. She was the Well of Living Water, the Fountain of the Garden, the Walled Orchard, the Bright and Shining Stone, the Flower of Virtue, the Palm of Sweetness, the Myrtle of Temperance, the Sweet Ointment.

In the Golden Legend, images rich and charming clothed the idea that grace and power resided in virginity. The hagiographers burst forth in loving praise of the brides of Jesus Christ; of those especially who put on the white robe of virginity and the red roses of martyrdom. It was during the passion of virgins that miracles of the most abounding grace were worked. Angels bring down to Dorothea celestial roses, which she scatters over her executioners. Virgin martyrs exercise their power over beasts. The lions of the amphitheatre lick the feet of Saint Thecla. The wild beasts of the circus gather together, and with tails interlaced, prepare a throne for Saint Euphemia; in the pit, aspics form a pleasing necklace for Saint Christina. It is not the will of the divine Spouse for[Pg i.208] whom they endure anguish that they should suffer in their modesty. When the executioner tears off Saint Agnes's garments, her hair grows thicker and clothes her in a miraculous garment. When Saint Barbara is to be taken naked through the streets, an angel brings her a white tunic. These Agneses and these Dorotheas, these Catherines and these Margarets, this legion of innocent conquerors prepared men's minds to believe in the miracle of a virgin stronger than armed men. Had not Saint Geneviève turned away Attila and his barbarian warriors from Paris?

The fable of the Maid and the Unicorn, so widely known in those days, is a lively expression of this belief in a special virtue residing in the state of virginity.

The unicorn was half goat and half horse, of immaculate whiteness; it bore a marvellous sword upon its forehead. Hunters, when they saw it pass in the thicket, had never been able to reach it, so rapid was its course. But if a virgin in the forest called the unicorn, the creature obeyed, came and laid its head on her lap, and allowed such feeble hands to take and bind it. If however a damsel corrupt and no longer a maid approached it, the unicorn slew her immediately.[778]

It was even said that a virgin had the power to cure king's evil, by reciting, fasting and naked, certain magic words; but they were not words from the Gospel.[779]

[Pg i.209]

While mystics and visionaries were glorifying virginity, the Church, bent on governing the body as well as the soul, condemned opinions denying the lawfulness of marriage, which she had constituted a sacrament. Those who would anathematise all works of the flesh she held to be abominable and impious. A maid deserved praise for preserving her virginity, provided always that her motives were praiseworthy. Two hundred years before the reign of Charles VII, a young girl of Reims realised that a grave sin may be committed against the Church of God by refusing the solicitations of a clerk in a vineyard. Here is the damsel's story as related by the canon Gervais.

"On a day, Guillaume with the White Hands, Uncle of King Philippe of France, for his pleasure rode forth from his town. A clerk of his following, Gervais by name, who was in the heat of youth, saw a maiden walking alone in a vineyard. He went to her, greeted her and asked: 'What are you doing in such great haste?' And with fitting words he courteously solicited her.

"Without even looking at him, calmly and gravely she replied: 'God forbid, youth, that I should ever be yours or any man's, for if I were to lose my virginity and my body its purity, I should inevitably fall into eternal damnation.'

"Such words caused the clerk to suspect that the maiden belonged to the impious sect of the Cathari, whom the Church was in those days pursuing relentlessly and punishing severely. One of the errors of these heretics was indeed to condemn all carnal intercourse. Impatient to resolve his doubts, Gervais straightway provoked the damsel to a discussion on the Church's teaching in this matter. Mean[Pg i.210]while, the Archbishop, Guillaume with the White Hands, turned his steed, and, followed by his monks, came to the vineyard where the clerk and the maiden were disputing together. When he learnt the cause of their disagreement he ordered the maiden to be seized and brought into the town. There he exhorted her, and, in charity, endeavoured to convert her to the Catholic Faith.

"She would not submit, however. 'I am not well enough grounded in doctrine to defend myself,' she said to him. 'But in the town I have a mistress, who, with good reasons, will easily refute all your arguments. She it is who lodges in that house.'

"The Archbishop Guillaume straightway sent to inquire after this woman; and, having questioned her, perceived that what the maiden had said concerning her was true. The very next day he convoked an assembly of clerks and nobles to judge the two women. Both of them were condemned to be burnt. The mistress contrived to escape, but promises and persuasions having failed to turn the maiden from the pernicious error of her ways, she was delivered up to the executioner. She died without shedding a tear, without uttering a complaint."[780]

In the year 1416 there was a certain woman, a native of the Duchy of Bar, Catherine Sauve by name. She was then a solitary, living at Montpellier, on the road to Lattes. Having been publicly accused, she was examined by the Inquisitor's Vicar, Maître Raymond Cabasse, and found to be infected with the heresy of the Cathari. Among other errors she maintained that all carnal intercourse is sinful, even in wedlock. Wherefore she was delivered to the secular arm and[Pg i.211] burned at the stake on the 2nd of November in that year.[781]

It was then commonly believed that such maidens as gave themselves to the devil were straightway stripped of their virginity; and that thus he obtained power over these unhappy creatures.[782] Such ways accorded with what was known of his libidinous disposition. These pleasures were tempered to his woeful state. And thereby he gained a further advantage,—that of unarming his victim,—for virginity is as a coat of mail against which the darts of hell are but blades of straw. Hence it was all but certain that a soul vowed to the devil could not reside within a maid.[783] Wherefore, there was one infallible way of proving that the peasant girl from Vaucouleurs was not given up to magic or to sorcery, and had made no pact with the Evil One. Recourse was had to it.

Jeanne was seen, visited, privately inspected, and thoroughly examined by wise women, mulieres doctas; by knowing virgins, peritas virgines; by widows and wives, viduas et conjugates. First among these matrons were: the Queen of Sicily and of Jerusalem, Duchess of Anjou; Dame Jeanne de Preuilly, wife of the Sire de Gaucourt, Governor of Orléans, who was about fifty-seven years of age; and Dame Jeanne de Mortemer, wife of Messire Robert le Maçon, Lord of Trèves, a man full of years.[784] The last was only eighteen, and one would have expected her to be better acquainted with the Calendrier des Vieillards[Pg i.212] than with the formulary of matrons. It is strange with what assurance the good wives of those days undertook the solution of a problem which had appeared difficult to King Solomon in all his wisdom.

Jeanne of Domremy was found to be a maid pure and intact.[785]

While she herself was being subjected to the interrogatories of doctors and the examination of matrons, certain clerics who had been despatched to her native province were there prosecuting an inquiry concerning her birth, her life, and her morals.[786] The ecclesiastics had been chosen from those mendicant Friars[787] who could pass freely along the highways and byways of the enemy's country without exciting the suspicion of English and Burgundians. And, indeed, they were in no way molested. From Domremy and from Vaucouleurs they brought back sure testimony to the humility, the devotion, the honesty, and the simplicity of Jeanne. But, most important, they had found no difficulty in gleaning certain pious tales, such as commonly adorned the childhood of saints. To these monks we must attribute an important share in the development of those legends of Jeanne's early years, which were so soon to become popular. From this time, apparently, dates the story that when Jeanne was in her seventh year, wolves spared her sheep, and birds of the woods came at her call and ate crumbs from her lap.[788] Such saintly flowers sug[Pg i.213]gest a Franciscan origin; among them are the wolf of Gubbio and the birds preached to by Saint Francis. These mendicants may also have furnished examples of the Maid's prophetic gift. They may have spread abroad the story that, when she was at Vaucouleurs, on the day of the Battle of the Herrings, she knew of the great hurt inflicted on the French at Rouvray.[789] The success of such little stories was immediate and complete.

After this examination and inquiry, the doctors came to the following conclusions: "The King, beholding his own need and that of his realm, and considering the constant prayers to God of his poor subjects and all others who love peace and justice, ought not to repulse or reject the Maid who says that God has sent her to bring him succour, albeit these promises may be nothing[790] but the works of man; neither ought he lightly or hastily to believe in her. But, according to Holy Scripture he must try her in two ways: to wit, with human wisdom, by inquiring of her life, her morals, and her motive, as saith Saint Paul the Apostle: Probate spiritus, si ex Deo sunt; and by earnest prayer to ask for a sign of her work and her divine hope, by which to tell whether it is by God's will that she is come. Thus God commanded Ahaz that he should ask for a sign when God promised him victory, saying unto him: Pete signum a Domino; and Gideon did likewise when he asked for a sign and many others, etc. Since the coming of the said Maid, the King hath observed her in the two manners aforesaid: to wit, by trial of human wisdom and by prayer, asking God for a sign. As for the first, which is trial by human wisdom, he has tested the said Maid in her[Pg i.214] life, her origin, her morals, her intention; and has kept her near him for the space of six weeks to show her to all people, whether clerks, ecclesiastics, monks, men-at-arms, wives, widows or others. In public and in private she hath conversed with persons of all conditions. But there hath been found no evil in her, nothing but good, humility, virginity, devoutness, honesty, simplicity. Of her birth, as well as of her life, many marvellous things are related."

"As for the second ordeal, the King asked her for a sign, to which she replied that before Orléans she would give it, but neither earlier nor elsewhere, for thus it is ordained of God.

"Now, seeing that the King hath made trial of the aforesaid Maid as far as it was in his power to do, that he findeth no evil in her, and that her reply is that she will give a divine sign before Orléans; seeing her persistency, and the consistency of her words, and her urgent request that she be sent to Orléans to show there that the aid she brings is divine, the King should not hinder her from going to Orléans with men-at-arms, but should send her there in due state trusting in God. For to fear her or reject her when there is no appearance of evil in her would be to rebel against the Holy Ghost, and to render oneself unworthy of divine succour, as Gamaliel said of the Apostles in the Council of the Jews."[791]

In short, the doctors' conclusion was that as yet nothing divine appeared in the Maid's promises, but that she had been examined and been found humble, a virgin, devout, honest, simple, and wholly good; and that, since she had promised to give a sign from God before Orléans, she must be taken there, for fear that in her the gift of the Holy Ghost should be rejected.[Pg i.215]

Of these conclusions a great number of copies were made and sent to the towns of the realm as well as to the princes of Christendom. The Emperor Sigismond, for example, received a copy.[792]

If the doctors of Poitiers had intended this six weeks inquiry, culminating in a favourable and solemn conclusion, to bring about the glorification of the Maid and the heartening of the French people by the preparation and announcement of the marvel they had before them, then they succeeded perfectly.[793]

That prolonged investigation, that minute examination reassured those doubting minds among the French, who suspected a woman dressed as a man of being a devil; they flattered men's imaginations with the hope of a miracle; they appealed to all hearts to judge favourably of the damsel who came forth radiant from the fire of ordeal and appeared as if glorified with a celestial halo. Her vanquishing the doctors in argument made her seem like another Saint Catherine.[794] But that she should have met difficult questions with wise answers was not enough for a multitude eager for marvels. It was imagined that she had been subjected to a strange probation from which she had come forth by nothing short of a miracle. Thus a few weeks after the inquiry, the following wonderful story was related in Brittany and in Flanders: when at Poitiers she was preparing to receive the communion,[Pg i.216] the priest had one wafer that was consecrated and another that was not. He wanted to give her the unconsecrated wafer. She took it in her hand and told the priest that it was not the body of Christ her Redeemer, but that the body was in the wafer which the priest had covered with the corporal.[795] After that there could be no doubt that Jeanne was a great saint.

At the termination of the inquiries, a favourable opportunity for introducing the Maid into Orléans arrived in the beginning of April. For her arming and her accoutring she was sent first to Tours.[796]

Sixty-six years later, an inhabitant of Poitiers, almost a hundred years old, told a young fellow-citizen that he had seen the Maid set out for Orléans on horseback, in white armour.[797] He pointed to the very stone from which she had mounted her horse in the corner of the Rue Saint-Etienne. Now, when Jeanne was at Poitiers, she was not in armour. But the people of Poitou had named the stone "the Maid's mounting stone." With what a glad eager step the Saint must have leapt from that stone on to the horse which was to carry her away from those furred cats to the afflicted and oppressed whom she was longing to succour.[798]


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