“Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.” Louis Kossuth
To note that the late medieval period was not known for its kickass female heroines is a bit of an understatement. But fourteen years after their disastrous loss at Agincourt, France was dragged out of its torpor by a seventeen year old woman who claimed to have god on her side.
Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’arc, properly speaking) is a controversial figure in history. She began her life as an uneducated peasant and before she was burned at the stake at age nineteen she had earned the respect of many of the french nobility as a battlefield strategist. There are eyewitness accounts of her surviving some rather nasty injuries such as an arrow to the neck and a stone cannonball to her helm while scaling a siege ladder. What is not in doubt is her importance to the French army: she rallied the troops when no one else could, turning the defence of France into a religious crusade and taking back much of the territory held by the English. Her crusade was cut short when the English broke truce, capturing her, and condemned her as a heretic to cast suspicion on her role in Charles the VII’s coronation, and burned her at the stake. The Vatican later retried her posthumously, after the war, and found her innocent: a testament to her popularity. She was later canonized, becoming a Saint in 1920.
Some historians argue that she was simply little more than a figurehead, but this has lately come under attack since the primary sources of evidence used in many of these arguments were from the rather unfair trial that led to her death.
However, as a role-model for women in general and as an archetype for female characters in Fantasy Fiction Saint Joan’s role is unquestioned. Here are a few reasons:
1) Fighting Woman. Joan wore a man’s clothes and cut her hair short, a popular device for female characters who take to the field. Joan did this out of practicality more than anything, since fighting in women’s fashions at the time would have been out of the question, but it certainly sets the stage for Characters like Tolkien’s Eowyn and other strong willed women who join their male brethren, disguised or not. When confronted about her immodest attire at her trial she responded.
“I was admonished to adopt feminine clothes; I refused, and still refuse. As for other avocations of women, there are plenty of other women to perform them.” Joan at her trial
Many of the tales of Joan have her fighting, saving her male colleagues from death, planning and leading battles, and trying to escape captivity by jumping out of a seventy foot tower with only a dry moat to cushion her fall. This is certainly in line with some of today’s more badass female characters and not bad at all for a seventeen year old girl who did not have the same training as the Knights and soldiers of her day.
2) Destiny, Divinity and Martyrdom. Joan follows the archetype of a heroine chosen by fate. She hears God one day, out of the blue, calling on her to unite France. She never doubts this voice or her own sanity, and her conviction is so strong that it pulls in those around her, converting those who doubt and revile her, even earning sainthood after death. She leads her armies to many Victories, often against odds that daunted the best commanders of her day, and seemed so convinced of her own cause that she neither did not fear death in battle and faced her trial with a courage that resonates to this day. Although her cause came from god, it can be noted that it also spurred French nationalism.
“She turned what had been a dry dynastic squabble that left the common people unmoved except for their own suffering into a passionately popular war of national liberation.” Stephen Richey
Regardless, in death she became a powerful symbol, and continued to rally the French until the end of the hundred years war.
3) Humble Origins. Not only was Joan a woman, but she was also a peasant from a small village. The idea of a member of the lower orders making her way across France and into the army and eventually aiding in the coronation of a king is worthy of many a tale just by itself. Humble origins resonate with modern readers, who have a soft spot for characters who start low and rise to glory. Joan is one of the greatest lower class heroines, moreso because she was actually accepted by her noble peers after proving herself to them and overcoming their prejudice. It is also worth noting that despite her origins, Joan was a great supporter of the monarchy, a fact that made her a hero to monarchists as well as commoners.
4) Betrayal and Tragedy. Despite Joan’s amazing rise to glory, her story is cut short rather quickly and she meets a tragic end. Many followers of the story accuse Charles VII of being too timid in coming to her defence, and some even note that he feared her popularity. It is a compelling element, one which would be at home in many of today’s darker works. The courage with which she faced death, the horrific nature of her execution and the viciousness with which they treated her remains only adds to the tragedy. She is an excellent example for characters who rise to greatness only to be destroyed by a world that they seem too good for.
“Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years.” Winston Churchill
5) Rape. Joan did not have a special fear of rape, despite her desire for chastity. Some histories note that she avoided “molestation” by wearing men’s clothes, while others say she had to fend off the attention of at least one English nobleman while awaiting her trial. It is possible that this attack might even have been partially motivated by a desire to destroy her purity and malign her. An ugly situation, and one I am loathe to write about, but certainly a modern theme.
6) The Voices in my Head. Joan can also be used as an archetype for more complex heroines. Perhaps despite her outer confidence in a god-given destiny she is riven with doubt. Or maybe the voices are just an excuse to get her into the fight, a way of convincing others to let her do her part. These interpretations could work very well in modern tales.
In all Joan of Arc is an excellent template for a modern female hero. She breaks the gender barrier. She overcomes humble beginnings to attain nobility and Sainthood. Despite her flawless courage and sense of destiny she is selfless and dedicated to her cause, even when it leads her to death. While she might seem to lack the complexity of some modern characters, interpretation can lead to interesting takes on her legend and the way that society reacts to such a glorious abberation makes for a wonderful narrative by itself.