By Andrea Maraschi
Joan of Arc’s life and deeds have left unforgettable traces in the history of Europe and in the cultural memory of France. Even today, one can hardly remain indifferent to the incredible story of this young woman who was able to emerge in a world of men, lead armies, besiege cities, and, ultimately, save France in one of the toughest conflicts of the Middle Ages.
Since this issue’s main focus is on heresy, it may be useful to pay close attention to what the actual reasons for Joan’s condemnation were. As most of the readers surely know, Joan’s judges questioned her about the nature of her “voices,” which she first identified as one (God) and later as three: St. Margaret, St. Catherine, and the Archangel Michael. They asked her whether she saw the three saints with her own eyes, whether she touched them, and where. One of the other main problems also lay in Joan’s apparel and hairstyle, which made her look male – even though Joan repeatedly stated that she dressed like that only because God had asked her to, and because she could not have led the French army on the battlefield in a woman’s garb.
Christian Village, Pagan Practice?
Along with these troublesome aspects of Joan’s public life was her native village and her cultural background. Joan came from a little village named Domrémy, arguably not much different from many others in the country. And, probably not unlike the others, was a Christian village with a residual stratum of pagan religiosity of probable Celtic origins, that had survived since ancient times.
In 1431, after inquests in Joan’s native region, the clerics at the trial were acquainted with the existence of a famous beech tree near her village, around which locals (especially young children) used to sing and dance at certain times of the year. Joan’s prosecutor, Jean d’Estivet, mentioned the tree in his list of articles of indictment: he described it as magna, grossa, and antiqua (“large,” “thick,” and “ancient”), and noted that the folk called it l’arbre charmine faee de Bourlemont, that is, “the enchanting fairy-tree of the Bourlémont” (because the tree was located inside the property of the aristocratic Bourlémont family). Furthermore, near this tree was a healing spring, and maligni spiritus (“evil spirits”) called Fata, in French faees, allegedly used to encounter utentes sortilegiis (“sorcerers”) at night near the tree and the fons to dance and to do – presumably – abominable things.
The tree represented a useful trump card for Joan’s judges in order to convict her of heresy and eventually burn her at the stake. The main problem for Joan was that she had been seen going to the tree several times along with other young girls from the village. Joan admitted going there with her friends to make garlands of flowers for the image of Our Lady of Domrémy, which they put on the branches, and sometimes they sang and danced around the tree. Such an apparently innocent ritual had dangerous implications, though, for Joan confessed to having heard the old folk say on many occasions that “fairies gathered there.” Elders and youngsters thus knew about the connection between the tree and the fairies, and it is no wonder that Pierre Cauchon (the Bishop of Beauvais, who presided over the trial) suspected that Joan and her friends visited the huge beech just to encounter the evil fairies.
There is one more layer to this account, however: Joan notes that one of her godmothers (Joan, the wife of Mayor Aubery) claimed to have actually seen the fairies near the tree, and Joan did not distance herself from such hearsay; she simply stated that she was not aware whether that was true or not, and that she had never seen fairies near the tree quod ipsa sciat (“as far as she knew”). In other words, she did not deny the existence of fairies, but stated that she did not know whether they gathered at the so-called “Fairy Tree.” Many inhabitants of the countryside did believe this, though, and – most importantly – according to her brother, many thought that she first heard her voices right there.
Fairies or Saints?
A potential coincidence between the fairies and Joan’s voices thus emerged, which posed a deadly threat to her life. The reason lay in the theologians’ understanding of such beings as opposed to that of the villagers. Joan’s inquisitors considered the fairies as maligni spiritus, since their conception of the supernatural was binary: it could be either divine (like miracles and angels) or diabolic (like magic or demonic entities).
On the contrary, the inhabitants of Domrémy and its environs had a more syncretic conception of the supernatural, and believed in the existence of a third group of entities, neither angelic nor diabolic: spirits who had been thought to live near certain trees, springs, rocks, and hills since pre-Christian times, benevolent (but dangerous) liminal figures. In the specific case of Joan, it was fundamental to establish whether her voices (which the judges did not doubt existed) were or were not the result of her alleged encounter with fairies, where she used to hear them, and why.
Joan repeatedly stated that the voices spoke to her not only when she was under the tree, but also in the fields, in church, in battle, in her cell, and – in general – whenever the church bells were ringing, so much so that she was often seen instantly dropping to her knees when she heard the bells. This notwithstanding, Joan’s description of her saints, and of the circumstances of their apparitions, was consistent with an encounter with fairies, according to her judges. The question remained whether she would have been able to distinguish between a saint and a fairy when she saw one. Needless to say, the judges were convinced that her cultural background misled her into thinking that her visitations were godly, while they were actually evil. Joan’s saints were three, just like the Latin Fatae (or Parcae), and they gave Joan foreknowledge of future events (just like the Fatae were known to do).
Even at the 1456 Rehabilitation trial, Domrémy’s villagers would still speak cautious words about the tree, even though they were technically under no threat. They would still disclose a profound sense of discomfort about the pre-Christian survivals at their village. Such survivals were even more evident to the eyes of Joan’s judges in 1431, when the matter was also politically relevant within the context of the Hundred Years’ War. Their inquiry was guided by an ancient bias against women’s stories about feminine evil beings who were believed to bestow precious supernatural gifts to those who worshipped them (and, most of the time, worshipers were mainly identified with women).
La Pucelle (“The Maid,” the name by which Joan preferred to be called) seemed to perfectly match such a scenario, and for good reasons: according to her and other villagers’ testimonies, the tree played a major role in the pagan cultural memory of the village, transmitted orally for generations by the village’s women, as Joan stated about her godmothers. The tree had an undisputable association with women and with feminine supernatural beings, which some elders said to have seen personally, and was periodically visited by the youngsters (young girls in particular). The presence of a nearby healing spring added to the supernatural (and thus heterodox) identification of the place.
In hindsight, one of Joan’s major faults was to have never denied the very existence of the fairies (just like her friends, relatives, and neighbors had), and to be a young woman, brought up by older women whose centuries-old matriarchal traditions were perceived as a threat to the patriarchal structure of the Church. For Joan and the many other women accused of heresy who came after her, the rest is history.
Andrea Maraschi holds a BA degree in Modern Humanities (2008), an MA degree in Medieval History (2010), and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Bologna (2013). From 2014 to 2017 he has been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iceland. He has taught courses on food history in the Middle Ages and anthropology of food, and he has published on many aspects connected with food in medieval times such as banqueting, religious symbolism, and magic practice. He is currently teaching at the University of Bari.
Barstow, Anne L. Joan of Arc: Heretic, Mystic, Shaman. The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986.
Tisset, Pierre, and Yvonne Lanhers, editors. Procès de condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc. Klincksieck, 1960–71.
Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Joan of Arc encounters the voices. Painting by Léon-François Bénouville (1821-1859)