God, Country, and Joan of Arc

In the year 1412, perhaps on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany (as a later 15th century source reports), Jeanne D’Arc was born to her parents, Isabella and Jacques, and baptized in the church at Domremy in the Lorraine, a region in the northeast of France. Jeanne had three older brothers and a younger sister, Catherine, who preceded her in death. A pious child, Jeanne began to hear Voices of instruction during her thirteenth year. According to her own testimony, she kept these experiences secret for five years. Then, in 1428 and 1429, with the somewhat reluctant help of her uncle, Jeanne petitioned Robert de Baudricourt, the commander at Vaucouleurs, to supply her with a horse, an armed escort, and authorization for an audience with the Dauphin, Charles VII. The girl insisted that God had chosen her as his instrument to lead the armies of France to victory over the English invaders and to secure Charles’s ascendance to the throne. Accompanied by a few volunteers and dressed in the clothes of a soldier, Jeanne made a dangerous eleven-day journey on horseback through enemy territory, from Vaucouleurs to Chinon in the Loire Valley, where the Dauphin held his court.

Her arrival there on March 4, 1429, was hailed by some as the fulfillment of a prophecy that France would be saved through a virgin. Jeanne won the personal confidence of Charles through her disclosing to him of a secret, the contents of which remain a secret to us. The Dauphin arranged for an ecclesiastical examination of the Maid at Poitiers by reputed theologians, who concluded that Jeanne was a pious girl of good character and who accepted as a conditional sign of her vocation the victory she promised would be won at Orléans, a city long held under English siege. At Poitiers, Jeanne dictated the first of her letters, an ultimatum to the king of England, demanding the withdrawal of his troops from French soil.

Equipped with symbolic accoutrements—a miraculously discovered sword, white armor, a ring, a standard, and a pennon—Jeanne joined the royal army on its way to Orléans and entered the city on April 29, 1429. Galvanized by the presence of the Maid (“La Pucelle”), who exhorted them to prayer and penitence, the French troops stormed the English fortresses surrounding the city and took them, one by one, until the battle ended in English defeat on May 8.

The victory at Orléans was followed by a rapid succession of victories, the most famous of which occurred at Patay, where the English general, John Talbot, was captured. City after city yielded to the Maid, who wept over the dead and wounded, English and French alike, and who called repeatedly for peaceful submission to Charles. The way opened up for the Dauphin to proceed to Rheims, where he was anointed and crowned king by the presiding archbishop on July 17, 1429. His succession to the throne secured, Charles began to vacillate in his support of Jeanne’s martial efforts for a complete expulsion of the English army from France. In September he commanded the cessation of the attack on Paris and the disbanding of the army. Restless at court in the winter of 1429 and the spring of 1430, Jeanne still persisted in occasional military expeditions, but with mixed success. Captured at Compiègne on May 23, Jeanne was held prisoner by her Burgundian captor, John of Luxembourg, in a high tower at Beaurevoir, from which she attempted to escape. In November, John accepted a valuable payment for her from the English, who had imposed a tax on the people of Normandy for that purpose. Charles VII made no offer either of a ransom or of a prisoner exchange for the Maid, whom he effectively abandoned.

Jeanne arrived in Rouen on December 23, 1430. Her trial began on January 9, 1431. Chained and guarded by English soldiers day and night, Jeanne was tried by an ecclesiastical court, over which Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, presided. Through relentless interrogation, sleep deprivation, threatened torture, and violations of the seal of confession, her judges sought to validate charges of heresy, immorality, sedition, idolatry, and witchcraft. Jeanne’s Voices counseled her to answer boldly. They spoke to her of her martyrdom and of a great victory.

Facing death at the stake, an exhausted Jeanne publicly signed on May 24 a document abjuring her Voices. She expected to be transferred to a church prison and to be allowed to receive the Eucharist. Instead she was taken back to the English prison, where she was maltreated, probably raped. She resumed (perhaps of necessity) the wearing of male clothes, thus incurring the charge of a relapse into heresy. On May 28 she declared that she had been wrong to deny her Voices by signing the abjuration.

On May 30, 1431, after receiving the Eucharist devoutly in her prison cell, Jeanne was publicly burned at the stake in the presence of a large crowd, including an estimated 800 English soldiers and several dignitaries, including the Earl of Warwick. She was heard to forgive her enemies and to ask forgiveness for her own sins. Fixing her gaze upon a cross, she died crying aloud the name “Jesus!” An Anglo-Burgundian soldier declared, “We have burned a saint!”

Five centuries later, on May 9, 1920, the Church officially concurred in that soldier’s judgment when Pope Benedict XV canonized Jeanne d’Arc a saint in the ranks of the holy virgins, partly on the basis of an official inquest held between 1449 and 1456, which preserves the testimonies of 115 witnesses and provides considerable evidence of her heroic virtue. On July 7, 1456, a panel of judges in Paris nullified the results of the trial for heresy held against Jeanne d’Arc at Rouen and rehabilitated her. Tested by four trials—at Poitiers, at Rouen, at Paris, and finally in Rome—the girl from medieval Domremy has emerged from the crucible of history as a canonized saint who stands among the greatest and most popular saints of modern times.

Much can be said about St. Joan. In what follows, I will first talk about her presence at the university in general terms, then to use her particular instantiation here at the University of Notre Dame to suggest that Joan has a great deal to teach us today about how to love God and God’s Church, our country, and Our Lady. Thinking in the spiritual company of St. Joan about how to love God, country, and Notre Dame can help us to discover what is most essential to her sanctity and to our imitation of her—namely, that which the French poet, playwright, and political mystic Charles Péguy has called “the mystery of the charity of Joan of Arc”—her all-conquering love in the face of hardest disappointment, betrayal, and abandonment.

To think of Joan of Arc at the university is a curious thing. Jeanne d’Arc learned to spell her own name, but that was probably the limit of her literacy. Schooled by her mother, she had memorized the Ave Maria, the Paternoster, and the Creed, but her formal religious education was that typical of a pious laywoman in a small village—no match for that of the judges and university-trained theologians who questioned her, tried her cases, and wrote the documents involved in her process. Jeanne d’Arc would never have been admitted to any university in her own time, nor would she gain acceptance into one today, were she, a time-traveler, to apply. Coming from Domremy would not give her an automatic “home under the Dome.”

And yet, were Joan of Arc to return to earth in a physical form and to slip into a seat in the back row of a university classroom, she would be astonished (and probably often dismayed) to find herself the topic of discussion in many a course in the humanities. Attending a film class, would Joan be able to recognize herself in the performances of Renée Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg, or Leelee Sobieski? At a performing arts center, imagine a time-travelling Joan as she encounters herself onstage, perhaps singing in the 1938 oratorio composed by Paul Claudel and Arthur Honegger, or defending herself as the heroine in Lillian Hellman’s Broadway adaptation, The Lark. Listening in on a gender studies class, St. Joan might hear herself described variously as a transvestite, an androgyne, or a proto-feminist (as George Bernard Shaw believed her to be). In a history class she might overhear a debate about whether or not she actually exercised any military leadership in the Hundred Years War; about her putative influence over England’s future queens, Margaret of Anjou and the virgin-queen, Elizabeth I; about the role her image played in propaganda during the French Revolution and the First and Second World Wars; about her pivotal role (according to historian Jules Michelet) in concluding the Middle Ages and giving birth to the modern nation-state. In a medieval studies class, she might find students translating her trial records from Latin, worrying about violations of canon law, comparing her case to that of others tried for heresy.

Auditing an English literature class, Joan might hear students discussing Shaw’s play, Saint Joan, or Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc, or even a lyric about her by Leonard Cohen. Were Joan to attend a class in comparative literature, she might find the students reading Friedrich Schiller’s Maid of Orleans or Bertolt Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards or the poem written about her by the French medieval poet Christine de Pisan. Walking with art history students to a museum, she might be very surprised to find herself depicted in paintings by Jules Bastien-Lepage, Ingres, Paul Gauguin, among others. In a philosophy class, she might find her name written in Simone Weil’s book, Need for Roots, or in a study by Jacques Maritain. In a political science class, Joan might learn that she is regularly enlisted in the service of different political agendas, from the Far Right to the Far Left, especially in modern France. And what about theology? Joan might find her example invoked in a class on miracles, in a discussion of the laws for the discernment of spirits, in a study of Just War Theory and pacifism, in a class on the meaning of private revelation, on the theology of history, on Carmelite spirituality (given the Little Flower’s great love for her), or even in a course on the Church’s developing theology of Judaism.

I hope I have made my point that Joan of Arc is a saint that has made us think and who continues to make us think. From that perspective, the Maid from Domremy has a guaranteed place under the Dome. I drew the title for the Saturdays with the Saints lecture that led to this article, “Joan of Arc at the University,” from the title of a collection of essays edited by Mary Elizabeth Tallon and published in 1997 by Marquette University Press. Marquette University boasts the possession of the Joan of Arc Chapel, a chapel carried stone by stone from France to Long Island in 1927 and reconstructed first there and then, in 1966, in Milwaukee. The oldest part of the chapel dates from St. Joan’s own lifetime.

Joan of Arc is certainly present at Marquette University. She is also here with us visibly at Notre Dame. Her image appears in a relief carving above and to the left of the east entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. St. Michael, identified as one of St. Joan’s three Voices (along with St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret), appears in relief on the other side. Across the entrance appear the words: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”


There can be no doubt that Joan of Arc loved God. Words fail when one tries to describe a love like hers, but let me use three adjectives: sacramental, obedient unto death, and triumphant over scandal.

Joan was an extraordinarily sacramental saint. She took care that army chaplains heard the confessions of her soldiers, and she herself confessed daily on the battlefield—not unlike Dorothy Day, who confessed weekly to keep her soul “squeaky clean” and who humbly counted on it that failures would and did occur in the thick of life’s battle. In an age when frequent Communion was unusual, Joan attended Holy Mass regularly and with great devotion, daily whenever possible. During the months of her excruciating imprisonment, Joan not only confessed frequently, but she also pleaded again and again to receive the Eucharist, a reception that was denied to her as an accused heretic and then, inexplicably, granted to her as a “food of the martyrs” on the very morning of her execution as a relapsed heretic.

Joan’s profound sense of the Church’s sacraments as outward signs communicating the grace of Christ was consistent with her appreciation, more broadly, of sacramentals: the ringing of church bells, in which she sometimes also heard her Voices; the ring on her finger inscribed with three crosses and with the names of Jesus and Mary; the holy names “Jhesus Maria” with which she began her dictated letters; the pennon depicting the scene of the Annunciation; the fleur-de-lis as an emblem of purity and faith.

Joan’s own body was given to God and to others as a kind of sacramental—her virginity as a sign and source of spiritual integrity, her ears to hear God’s call in her Voices and in the cries of her people, her mouth to speak God’s prophecies, her eyes to look with faith and to see unseen realities, her body at the stake mirroring the image of the crucifix on which she fixed her gaze.

The parallels between the trial and death of Joan and the trial and death of Jesus are often noted. In his multi-volume history of France, the great 19th century historian Jules Michelet, for example, likens Joan’s jury to the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, the presiding bishop of Beauvais to the high priest Caiaphas, the collusion of the Norman and Burgundian clergy with the English occupiers to that between the Jewish leaders and the Romans. Acknowledging the power of that comparison and turning it against Michelet’s anti-Judaism, the modern Jewish scholar Jules Isaac argues in his book The Teaching of Contempt that, just as no one would hold Christians as a whole responsible for the death of St. Joan, no one should blame the whole Jewish people, past and present, for the death of Jesus—an argument, by the way, that was among those that influenced the Church’s firm rejection at the Second Vatican Council of the doctrine of deicide as erroneous.

When Carl-Theodore Dreyer’s classic silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was first shown in theaters in France, an initial reaction deemed the work to be anti-clerical in spirit, due in part to its depiction of Joan’s persecutors in close-up shots of their faces—unadorned by make-up, ugly, toothless, warty, old. In today’s theaters and concert halls, where Dreyer’s cinematic masterpiece is shown accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s musical composition, “Voices of Light,” that anti-clerical potential remains—not so much because of the film itself, which centers luminously on the saint herself, but because of the recent clergy scandals, terrible in themselves, costly to the Church, taken up relentlessly by the media.

Joan’s “clergy scandal” is relevant to ours. Joan’s love for God—was it not tested and scandalized by the cruelty, the bias, and the actual illegality of the process taken against her by a jury consisting of priests and abbots and presided over by a bishop? In this regard, in the current clergy scandal, St. Joan of Arc has much to teach us. She knew well and she declared that the political bias of her judges—English allies all—made them unfit to judge her. She appealed to have her case heard instead by the Council held at Basel or by the Pope—an appeal that should immediately have suspended the trial at Rouen. She referred to the positive ruling given at Poitiers. She called on God as her judge. She maintained to the end her faithfulness to God and to the Church, and she rightly resisted her judges’ claim to speak on behalf of the Church. May we all have such faith, such a power as Joan’s to distinguish between the earthly failure of individual Christians and the holiness of the Church as Christ’s bride, and may we be granted a charity such as hers, which finally forgave her judges and her executioners.


Saint Joan loved her country and her king, but she was not a nationalist, nor was she a partisan in French politics. She simply loved France as a homeland—its native soil, its regional features, its rivers, forests, fields, and towns. She loved her countrymen and women, the languages and the dialects they spoke, the customs and traditions, the specific qualities of character that are distinctly French. She understood that the English, too, have a homeland, families, homes and villages, a language, a character that is distinctive and dear and precious to God. She had no animus against immigrants. Her quarrel was with an invading army that had wreaked havoc for decades on the people of her homeland—killing, raping, and taxing their fellow human beings and fellow Christians. Her solution: the peaceful withdrawal of the English. Joan’s tears over the wounded and the dead and her comfort of the dying, English and French alike, indicate clearly that she took no delight in war. She told her chaplain, “If I am to die soon, tell the king our liege from me that he must establish chapels for people to pray for the souls of those who died in the defense of the kingdom.”

St. Joan served her country well, recalling her people to their high ideals, inspiring their hope, and giving them a king anointed to their service. Writing during Joan’s own lifetime, Christine de Pisan attested: “In 1429 the sun began to shine again . . . Things have changed from great sorrow to new joy . . . You, blessed Maid, . . . undid the rope that held France tightly bound . . . Blessed be God who created you!”

And yet, as we have seen, Charles VII withdrew his support from her after his coronation, made no attempt to ransom her as a prisoner of war, sent no forces to rescue her, requested no exchange of prisoners. She might well have been tempted to turn against her king, but she strictly guarded his secrets under enemy interrogation, prayed for him, and maintained her loyalty to him as king and her hope in the completion of his kingdom until the end.

Meditating on Joan of Arc in London in 1943, Simone Weil found in her example an answer to the question: How is one to love one’s country? The French nation had made no resistance to the invading German forces in 1940, choosing instead to give the north into the control of the occupying forces. In Weil’s analysis, the modern nation-state had betrayed France as a country, a homeland. “In June, 1940,” writes Weil, “one saw how hideous and pitiful could be the spectacle of a people no longer attached by bonds of fidelity to anything whatsoever.” St. Joan, by contrast, had loved her country with a compassion moved by her people’s suffering—a suffering caused both by France’s enemies and by its own sins and failings, its self-divisions. Because her heart belonged, first of all, to God, St. Joan did not make the mistake of an idolatrous nationalism. Her patriotism was a Christian virtue. She loved her country for the sake of God, her homeland as a means to achieve the eternal homeland. As Weil observes, “We should beware of applying the same rules to the welfare of the State as to that of the soul . . . A Christian ought to be able to draw . . .[the] conclusion. . . : the welfare of the State is a cause to which only a limited and conditional loyalty is owed.”

In an era when religious liberty is everywhere increasingly an issue, when political scandals abound, and when people can easily feel betrayed by elected representatives, St. Joan may teach us much about how to love our country, its leaders, and its men and women in the military. She has something to say both to soldiers, like my brother who wore a medal of St. Joan during his tour of duty as a SEABEE photographer in Iraq, and to pacifists like Dorothy Day, who was devoted to the saint for her unflinching obedience to the voices of her conscience and as a fellow-prisoner.

Notre Dame

This last title of St. Joan’s love, her charity, might surprise some of you. Some years ago, when I told a colleague that I was writing an essay on Joan of Arc’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, he replied, “What can that virago have to do with the humble handmaiden of the Lord?” His half-joking response corresponded to what I found in my research: namely, a tendency, especially on the part of Protestant and feminist commentators, simply to ignore St. Joan’s historically well-documented devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The testimonies given by eleven witnesses during the Rehabilitation inquest of 1456 recall Joan’s particular attachment to Notre Dame de Bermont, a hermitage near Domremy, where Joan and her friends often used to go to pray, to bring flowers, and to burn candles before a simple statue of the Madonna. In Joan’s dictated letters, she honored the name of Mary linked to that of Jesus. She commanded the army chaplains to lead the troops in singing Marian hymns in camp. Joan herself was called by others and named herself “the Maid” (“Jeanne la Pucelle”), a title that suggests a Marian identification of the young saint with the Virgin Mary in both purity and humility. George Tavard has argued that “pucelle” derives from the French word “puce” meaning “flea,” a wee little thing, a “maid” in the sense of a handmaid. In addition, Joan’s Voices called her “daughter of God” (“fille de Dieu”), as she told her judges at Rouen.

Christians in Joan’s own time associated her with the Virgin Mary, whose banner Joan carried into battle. The topic is richly suggestive of a sort of 15th century liberation theology, the belief of the downtrodden people that God would send them a Savior in and through the “yes” to her vocation, the fiat of a humble young virgin. Inspired by the Eva/Ave wordplay and by the typological contrast between Eve and Mary as the New Eve, a prophecy current in France and Germany stated that “the kingdom that had been lost through a woman, would be restored through a virgin.” Wounded at the battle of Paris, the last of her battles before the disbanding of the army, Joan left her white armor as an offering on the altar of Mary at the abbey church at Saint-Denis.

The young saint who called herself “the Maid,” who renounced marriage and the simple joys of domestic life for the sake of her military vocation, and who wore a soldier’s costume as a protection for her purity and as a sign, a habit, of her unusual calling—this saint also suffered greatly for striving to live as a “Mary” in a man’s world. Like the Virgin Mary, whose virginity before, during, and after Jesus’s birth, was doubted, Joan of Arc had to endure repeated, humiliating physical examinations to test her physical purity, in part because it was believed that no evil spirit could possess a virgin. From the English, she had to endure terrible name-calling, the accusation of whoredom. In her prison cell at Rouen, she had to defend herself against physical abuse by the men who guarded her. The evidence is unclear, but a weeping Joan is said to have told her confessor that she had been raped on the night before her death. One would like to have seen Joan of Arc canonized as a martyr, because the Christ-like manner of her death bore witness to the Jesus she loved.

One would have liked to see her canonized as a confessor, for the witness she bears to the sacrament of confession. But it is fitting that Joan was canonized in 1920 victoriously as a virgin, in keeping with the name she chose for herself, “La Pucelle,” as a tribute to her love for Notre Dame, and as a sign of the Church’s belief from the time of St. Augustine that no violence against a woman, no rape, can destroy a person’s purity, rob them of their spiritual virginity and personal dignity.

Here at Notre Dame, that name refers both to our Lady herself—honored in chapels throughout campus, but especially in the Lourdes Grotto—and to the University. Let us hope that we can all learn from St. Joan’s love for Mary that such a love, which humbles us, which makes us aware of our nothingness and weakness, also makes us pure and strong in the service of others. God, Country, and Notre Dame.

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a McGrath Institute Saturdays with the Saints lecture entitled Joan of Arc at the University: God, Country, and Notre Dame. This is the first essay from this years celebration of the Month of Mary (essays will be collected here).

Featured Image: Ingres, Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII, 1854; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Ann Astell

Sr. Ann W. Astell is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of six books, most recently Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. She has edited seven collections of essays.

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