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Joan of Arc: Three ways the ‘Maid of Orléans’ made history


Joan of Arc’s short yet extraordinary life has inspired writers, artists, activists, and politicians throughout time. Her story is featured everywhere from First World War song lyrics to a new musical by David Byrne. She rose to fame with her notable military victory on the battlefield at Orléans; however, there are other ways in which her life influenced the course of history.

Changes to Anglo-French politics

Although the Hundred Years War would carry on for a further 22 years after her death, Joan of Arc can be attributed with marking a turning point in the very long and complicated civil war between the Dauphin (the future King Charles VII), the Burgundians, and the English. She provided a much-needed boost to morale and spurred on the French attempts to reclaim northern territory from the hands of the English.

England’s eventual loss of the conflict and land on the continent came as a major blow. Frustration with those in charge of the campaign led in part to England’s Wars of The Roses in the 1450s. It also corrupted the deep patriotism felt by the English after their victories at Poitiers and Agincourt, and established a Francophobia that carried on until the start of the beginning of the 20th century.

French identity and nationalism

During her lifetime Joan of Arc rallied Frenchmen from apathy into actively participating in a war of liberation. Her death solidified their resolve to fight for another two decades. When she was cleared of charges in a second posthumous trial requested by Charles VII in 1456 she was firmly cast as a symbol of French national identity.

Years later, after the Revolution, she came to symbolise a unified France - and one that resisted foreign influence. Ever since French politicians from both the left and the far right have claimed Joan of Arc as their banner carrier, with one side viewing her as a unifying force and the other as the Catholic woman who kicked out 15th-century ‘immigrants’. From the Vichy government to the National Front, Joan of Arc is a recurring mascot for political parties seeking to evoke patriotic fervour.

A feminist example

Whether or not Joan of Arc was truly guided by angelic voices it remains utterly remarkable that a teenage peasant girl from a small town would be able to have an audience with a king – let alone convince him be allowed to lead his armies into war. Women in the 1400s could only hold power through their royal or religious standing, and with neither of these Joan of Arc required help in order to make her way into the court and onto the battlefield. Several fellow women rose to her assistance, including King Charles VII's mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, who helped her to see the king. Joan of Luxembourg supported her when she was captured, and Anne of Burgundy insisted that Joan of Arc was a virgin at her trial. The first female court writer for Charles VII, Christine de Pizan (who was herself defying traditional gender roles as a court-employed widow), compared Joan of Arc to female emancipators in the Bible, and claimed she ‘had a heart greater than any man’s’. Despite Joan of Arc’s achievements, both her friends and enemies would see her powers supplied by either divine or evil forces, rather than by the equal abilities of her gender.

Perhaps the key to Joan of Arc’s wide-ranging legacy is that she has morphed over the centuries to become all things to all people – a saint martyred by her Catholic church, a feminist who lacked female solidarity, and a monarchist poster child for democracy. Whether you find her a spiritual leader or a demonic radical, Joan of Arc remains in all of her forms, guises and re-imaginings a captivating and complex historical figure even today.

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