I was surprised to learn during a graduate course in Middle East history, that the movement to free Arabic-speaking nations from Ottoman Turkish rule began amongst Western-educated Arab Christians. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Muslim Arabs didn’t much care who ruled them politically, as long as their rulers were also Muslim. The notion of the Dar al-Islam—the House of Islam—has proven more durable than the analogous construct called Christendom.
A number of events led to the dissolution of Christendom: the Great Schism of 1054 (when the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches separated), the Protestant Reformation, and the liberalizing influence of the European Enlightenment period among them. Perhaps one of the best-known agents of change in the way Christian Europe understood itself was Joan of Arc.
Jeanne d’Arc was born in France, near the border of the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, on 6 January 1412. The King of England claimed the crown of France, and in 1415, Henry V of England was finally able to make good that claim in battle.
Under the agreement signed with the French King Charles VI, Charles retained the crown during his lifetime, on condition that his daughter Catherine marry Henry, who would mount the throne upon Charles’s death.
Charles VI had a son (the Dauphin), and in order to set aside his claim to the French throne, the Queen took an oath that she had been unfaithful to Charles, and that the Dauphin was not the King’s son. After the death of Henry V in 1422, his infant son grew up to become Henry VI of England, and England claimed the throne of France in his name.
The Duke of Burgundy, who operated independently of the French crown, supported the English claim. The French claimant, the Dauphin (later Charles VII), had not been crowned because of his mother’s oath that he was illegitimate. Many Frenchmen believed her, sapping the national will to fight for Charles.
However, there was more to it than that. Like the Arab Muslims before the fall of the Turks, Christian monarchs were less eager to fracture Christendom by going to war with each other than they would be later. Nationalism had yet to eclipse Christendom as a uniting force.
Enter Jeanne d’Arc.
At thirteen, Joan began hearing voices—Michael the Archangel among them—telling her that she was called to save France. She persuaded a local baron to send her to Charles’ castle at Chinon, where she met with the Dauphin, convincing him that her message was genuine.
The English laid siege to the city of Orleans. Joan, with an army behind her, marched on the city and raised the siege on May 8, 1429. After several other victories, she was able to escort the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned king.
Joan attempted to persuade the new king to press his military advantage and liberate Paris, but he refused. The powerful pro-English Duchy of Burgundy was hard by, and, having gained his point by being crowned king, Charles had little stomach for driving out the remaining English. The ethno-nationalist sentiment—that “France” belonged to “the French,” was not yet in the ascendent. Joan attempted to recapture Paris without royal support, failed, and was taken prisoner.
Tried on an accusation of heresy and witchcraft, she was finally convicted on the flimsy charge of wearing men’s clothing. Perhaps out of embarrassment at having an untutored peasant girl fighting his battles or as a sop to the English and the Papal Inquisition under whose aegis she was tried, Charles made no effort to ransom or rescue her. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the age of 19.
Ultimately, the French won the war and expelled the English. Charles VII, perhaps uncomfortable with having it said he owed his crown to the valor of an accused witch and heretic, pressured the Church courts to review the verdict against Joan. The Church annulled her condemnation in 1456.
The echoes of Joan’s campaign have been felt down the centuries—from the mass exodus of client states from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1848, to the collapse of the British Empire, to the horrors of ethno-nationalism and ethnic cleansing in the Balkan War of 1994-95, the idea that “X country is for X people,” once planted, has been all but impossible to root out.
Of course, no one should be forced to live under the heel of colonial oppression, and the struggle of colonized peoples for independence and self-determination has left us a more just world. And when a united Christendom fractured under the weight of national identities, we were left with the freedom to believe, worship, and live out our faith as we chose.
But I wonder what Joan would make of the White Christian nationalism flourishing in America today. Is there a straight line to be drawn from her “France for the French” to the Latinx children in cages at our southern border? From “save France” to “Make America Great Again”?
The Church, in any case, honors her today, not because of her military victories or even as a validation of the authenticity of her visions, but because, being persuaded of the will of God for her life, she acted in faith and obedience to that will as she understood it.
Joan was canonized in May of 1920.