"The Inspired Generalship of the Lorraine Peasant Girl"

May 30, 2014 | 7 comments

Mark Twain considered his biography of Saint Joan of Arc, whose feast we celebrate today, to be his best work. He called the Maid of Orleans “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” The story of St. Joan is well known by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but we may be surprised to learn just how well it is known: There may be no medieval figure whose life is better documented than that of Saint Joan of Arc.

The story of her life and of her liberation of France from the English had survived for centuries as a kind of French national myth, but it was, in fact, only during Twain’s adolescence that the French historian and archeologist Jules Étienne Quicherat collected the official documents from Joan’s trial and rehabilitation and rendered them into five volumes of, as Twain puts it “lucid and understandable modern French.” We can only imagine the effect on medieval scholars and on the faithful of France, when these documents verified to the modern world the myth that had fired the hearts of Frenchmen for generations.

Quicherat’s volumes provide layer upon layer of corroboration of the remarkable events of her short life, all given, as Twain points out, under oath. Twain insists that there is no other life “of that remote time” that is “known with either the certainty or the comprehensiveness that attaches to hers.” Either the details of Joan’s life are true, or her story is a centuries-long conspiracy to create a national heroine the likes of which we find nowhere else in history.

Saint Joan has captured the imagination of novelists, playwrights, historians, and filmmakers, some coming closer to the truth than others.

And then there are the outright distortions. In Joan some see a feminist, an interpretation that ignores, among other things, her desire to consecrate her virginity. Joan was no feminist. Of her, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one.”

Her motives were never to make it big in a man’s world. Indeed, she tried to refuse her mission. Once the Dauphin had been crowned she sought to return to her life in Domrémy. Her childhood was altogether feminine, one given to training in the art of making a home: “In sewing and spinning I fear no woman,” she insisted at her trial.

Not only was Joan decidedly domestic, she exhibited none of the sexual license of the feminist. Testimony from the soldiers and officers with whom she shared close quarters describe her modesty and its influence on their own behavior. Upon joining the French Army, one of her first acts was to chase the prostitutes from the camp with her sword. George Bernard Shaw describes this act as prudery; it is a charge typical from quarters that cannot understand the vow of a virgin. Joan’s soldiers, however, understood, and her heroic virtue, inspired them to love and follow her.

Joan as proto-protestant, another distortion from Shaw, does not accord with the testimony. She loved the Church and her sacraments. Also among her first acts as commander was establishing the practice of Mass attendance and frequent reception of the sacraments among her soldiers. There is nothing in her testimony that contradicts Church teaching, and all throughout her trial she defends the authority of the Pope, requesting more than once to be referred to his judgment. Moreover, Joan may well have dictated a letter to the Hussites in Bohemia condemning their utraquism, likening them to “Saracens,” and warning them of God’s terrible judgment on heretics.

There are other errors about Joan: that she was a nationalist and a heroine of the working classes, an early revolutionary toppling the old feudal order. If these were truly Joan’s motives, why did she all but drag the Dauphin to his coronation? Why did she so desperately desire to leave behind the political world of Charles’s court and return to peasant life?

It is commonly believed that the Church reveres Joan as a martyr. She is not. Her sainthood derives from her piety, her devotion, and her charity, and above all, as Fr. Thurston notes, her willingness to imitate the Blessed Virgin in accepting the will of God and letting nothing get in the way of that will no matter how improbable it seemed.

Most improbable, of course, is the thought of a teenage farm girl with no military training leading an army, yet her battlefield successes, and more than these, her central role in a military campaign that changed the course of the Hundred Years War, are incontrovertible facts. These she accomplished at the age of 19, the youngest person ever to command a nation’s Army, and not as a mere figurehead or cheerleader but as an actual battlefield commander, who took charge of the strategic and tactical employment of her force. She discharged what may well be the most important role of a commander. She restored morale to the French Army and kept it high, largely by insisting that her soldiers conduct themselves like Christians, and also by taking her place at the vanguard of the assault.

But Joan did more than that. According to the testimony of the captains who served alongside her, Joan was a skilled tactician. “Except in matters of war” spoke one captain from Chartres at her rehabilitation, “she was simple and innocent. But in the leading and drawing up of armies and in the conduct of war, in disposing an army for battle and haranguing the soldiers, she behaved like the most experienced captain in the world, like one with a whole lifetime of experience.”

The Duke of Alençon corroborates this testimony:

"In the conduct of war she was most skillful, both in carrying the lance herself, in drawing up the army in battle order and in placing the artillery. And everyone was astonished that she acted with such prudence and clear-sightedness in military matters as cleverly as some great captain with twenty or thirty years experience; and especially in the placing of artillery, for in that she acquitted herself magnificently."

 Joan’s extraordinary skill as a commander was not limited to her tactical ability. She also understood political strategy. After raising the siege at Orleans, the Dauphin and his advisors favored an invasion of Normandy. Joan convinced them that clearing the way to Rheims and having Charles anointed king would demoralize the English and rally the will of the French people to stay in the fight. Her plan led to the eventual French victory.

To this day, however, some say that her actions were not decisive in bringing about the end of the war. The question seems reasonable. After all, it was more than 30 years after Joan’s execution that the French achieved victory. Nonetheless, for the Christian, the question seems almost impertinent. God sent Joan to rid France of the English. Providence’s schedule is not mankind’s. That God chose to take another three decades to bring Joan’s work to fruition is his business.

Skeptics, cynics, debunkers, and other nonbelievers look for other causes for the conclusion of the war. It is true that England did recapture a good many of the losses suffered during the revival under Joan. Furthermore, England’s loss of revenue due to agricultural depression and a decline in overseas trade reduced her capacity to wage war.

Eduourd Perroy, whose history of the Hundred Years War is widely regarded as authoritative, seems conflicted on the question. At one point he writes: “So the sacrifice of the Maid, though it heralded decisive victory, did so only remotely. Did she exercise that essential influence on the course of events that is always attributed to her? It is permissible to doubt it.” In the same work, however, he writes,

All that the heroine left behind her were actions. But they were actions whose imprint no condemnation could efface. There was the military fact that for the first time the Lancastrian arms were halted on the road to victory. There was the political fact that the King … was given the prestige of coronation. In this way Joan of Arc’s intervention was decisive, and the page she wrote, contrary to all expectation, in the history of France deserves to be remembered as one of the finest.

Historian General J.F.C. Fuller, himself a nonbeliever, sees Joan as clearly decisive noting the effect of the raising of the siege of Orleans on French confidence. The unstoppable English had been stopped.

A further effect of the victory at Orleans was the uniting of French nobles who had been indecisive on the question of whether or not to back the Dauphin. They now came forward and rallied to the Valois cause. One such, the duke of Brittany sent Joan a letter declaring his alliance to Charles. Joan wrote back to the Duke scolding him for waiting so long.

Another way we might evaluate the extent to which Joan was responsible for an ultimate French victory would be to try to gauge to what extent Joan was responsible for bringing about a resolution to the French civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians, a question, as far as I know, underexplored by historians. We do know that Joan wrote a letter to the Duke of Burgundy at the time of the coronation at Rheims. Although he did not attend, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Burgundy may have decided that his better fortunes lay with a France increasingly united under the patriotic myth of Saint Joan.

Revisionist killjoys today like to fuss over whether the battle at the Alamo was decisive, or whether Washington’s crossing at Trenton was decisive. Such questions are boring. The myths of the Alamo and Trenton, like those of Lepanto or Thermopylae, fire the soul of a nation. “The inspired generalship of the Lorraine Peasant girl,” as Monsignor Philip Hughes describes it, was decisive and in many ways that cannot necessarily be measured with a casualty count. Saint Joan is France’s greatest myth, indeed one of Christendom’s. And her myth also happens to be true.

What is in Joan’s story for us? To be sure, her story drives home the merits of obedience, of trust in God, of fortitude, of perseverance, and the like.

There is also a truth all too easily missed in a modern nation where mobility is celebrated, rootlessness is the norm, and land means little more than a mortgage on a sphere of consumption. It is this: God loves particular places such as France and particular people such as the French. He also loves the Lorraine and Domrémy, and he wants us to be attached to our unique part of the world, wherever it may be. This kind of attachment is true patriotism, and it stands in contrast to the false globalism that informs so much of modern political discourse.

It says something to us that a great saint accomplished so much in defense of a unique people, of their land, and of their blood. Perhaps the revolutionary aspirations of universal empire are not part of the Divine plan. Rather, the little spot of land on which we all happen to live is the place designed for us on which to work out our salvation. When images of planet Earth from outer space, and the intensity of modern electronic communications make our own little villages seem small to the point of insignificance, we can reflect on what St. Joan fought and died for and give thanks to God for our own blood and soil.

This reflection on one of the saints most dear to the author also appeared at Crisis.com.

For the author's account of the heroic life of St. Joan that appeared in This Rock, visit here.

Christopher Check is president of Catholic Answers. A graduate of Rice University, for nearly two decades he served as vice president of The Rockford Institute. Before that he served for seven years as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps, attaining the grade of captain. He lectures on Church and...
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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Is this truly your only idea of what a "feminist" is? Someone who is mannish, or unfeminine, just wants to "make it big in a man's world, and is sexually promiscuous? Please.

To counteract your caricature, I might point out that the original purpose of feminism was to achieve justice, and equal rights for all, including women. The first nineteenth-century feminists in the U.S. were known for their support of the abolitionist movement to free the slaves. If it weren't for these first feminists, women in the U.S. would still not have the right to vote. The whole basis of feminism can be found in the Gospel and in St. Paul - "In Christ there is no male or female, slave or free."

Modern-day "feminism" of abortion, man-hating and sexual license has fallen far from the original ideal, and I believe is attracting fewer and fewer adherents. But there is still plenty of room in today's society for the same ideals of equal freedom and dignity for women -- a concept that is still almost unknown to large parts of the world outside of the U.S. and Europe today, including the Islamic countries. Young Catholic women SHOULD be feminists in this sense. And their is still a lot of work to do in achieving true equal rights.

And Joan of Arc is a very valid role model for them. As Pope Benedict XVI said, "This saint understood that Love embraces all things of God and man, of heaven and earth, of the Church and the world. … Liberating her people was an act of human justice, which Joan performed in charity, for love of Jesus, hers is a beautiful example of sanctity for lay people involved in political life, especially in the most difficult situations." (General audience, January 26, 2011).

This is the kind of inspiration to activism young women need!

May 30, 2014 at 4:17 pm PST
#2  Victor Sweeney - Warren, Minnesota

Clearly, Mr. Check did not come up with this description of a feminist. If you think it's "his" caricature, you're living under a rock.

It's entirely correct that the feminism of today has *some truth in it and in a pure and proper sense is a great thing. I would argue that all believing Catholics are feminists, of this pure and proper description (as you allude to), by default! There is no denying, though, that today's self-labeling 'feminist' is not one of these.

Lay off Mr. Check, a mountain out of a mole hill you're making.
In Christ,

May 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm PST
#3  Victor Sweeney - Warren, Minnesota

Clearly, Mr. Check did not come up with this description of a feminist. If you think it's "his" caricature, you're living under a rock.

It's entirely correct that the feminism of today has *some truth in it and in a pure and proper sense is a great thing. I would argue that all believing Catholics are feminists, of this pure and proper description (as you allude to), by default! There is no denying, though, that today's self-labeling 'feminist' is not one of these.

Lay off Mr. Check, a mountain out of a mole hill you're making.
In Christ,

May 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm PST
#4  Christopher Check - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


I feel certain Victor did not really mean you have been under a rock. How else would you have access to Catholic.com?!!

I appreciate your thoughts about my little reflection on Saint Joan. I am sorry that I did not do a better job in locating feminism among a larger number of ideologies the proponents of which have tried erroneously to lay claim to the mysterious story of St. Joan of Arc. I'd intended to say, "Saint Joan was not this or this or this;she was this." That's all.

She was not a feminist: not of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton stripe nor of the Susan B. Anthony stripe nor of the Naomi Wolfe stripe nor of the Margaret Sanger stripe nor of the Hilary Clinton stripe nor of the Bella Abzug stripe. I've tried, in fact, to think of a feminist who has modeled her life on the total obedience to God that was at the center of her actions. Perhaps you can help me think of one.

It is true that feminism, like capitalism, for example, and dozens of other "isms" are often in the eye of the beholder. I favor the sort of capitalism"that means a property owner can make use of his property as a means of production by which he makes a living and even builds a business by which others can make a good living. I do not favor the sort of capitalism that exploits the Asian textile worker and draws her away from the joys of motherhood because she is desperate for whatever wages she can get, a situation the outcome of which is that she could never even buy the basketball high tops she spends her days making. I do not approve of the brand of capitalism that exploits the naiveté or the greed of borrowers who sign up for more than they should simply because the bank will lend them more of a mortgage than they can manage. I reject the version of capitalism that says caveat emptor and exonerates the merchant or the manufacturer from the moral obligation to deliver a good product for a just price.

In other words, there may be a version of "feminism" of which I am unaware that accords with the Gospel, but I don't know it. Was Mary's fiat feminism? I'm also having a a difficult time locating the origins of feminism in St. Paul, who, in his letter to the Corinthians was explicit about unique and complimentary sex roles. Nor do I find in the excellent quote you take from Benedict XVI any defense at all of the negation of sex roles that is central to feminist ideology.

I encourage you to have a look at Casti Connubii, Pius XI's encyclical on marriage. It is the modern document that I have most relied on on drawing clear distinctions concerning the roles of the sexes.

Peace and All Good,


May 30, 2014 at 8:19 pm PST
#5  Christopher Check - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger


Re above, Ephesians is the Pauline letter I intended to cite.



May 31, 2014 at 5:52 am PST
#6  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Dear Chris,

Thanks for taking the time to answer me. I wrote in very great haste in my first comment, so let me explain further.

I understand perfectly what the Church means by the complementary role of the sexes, and I accept it all. I agree that denial of this has led contemporary feminism astray. I never said that Catholics should accept all the negatives of contemporary feminism, or that St. Joan's beliefs were identical with those of early feminists or contemporary ones. I didn't mention these distinctions because I thought they would go without saying.

What I objected to was that you only spoke of the negative aspects of feminism. Surely a historian like you can think of some positive ones? I'm a historian as well, and I certainly can. I think
it's fair to say that if the modern feminist movement had not arisen and women had not spoken out, women would still not have the vote, or the right to sit in Congress, or any other civil rights to speak of. In fact, if the Church had taken the lead in urging full civil rights for women, the negative aspects of feminism might not have taken so firm a hold. But we were really late to that party.

You mentioned that you are in favor of capitalism, but that some forms of it are flawed. In fact, many are. You would surely accept that in determining how to manage capitalism, we should take our lead from the teaching of the Church? The same with feminism. And in fact, the Church has spoken.

Vatican II spoke approvingly of the progress of women in society in a few places (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 52, and 60). Many women are taking the teachings of John Paul II in Mulieris
and applying them to discussion of the role of women in society. More and more women are speaking out about this.

Some of these women might not call this feminism, because of the bad associations of the word, but I also know Catholic women who do think of themselves as feminists, as I do, because we believe in the core of feminism, which is not denial of complementarity, but the search for the equal dignity and genuine rights of all women, indeed all people. These women look for a wider space of activity for women and their full participation in civil life and work for the rights of poor and marginalized women and women being pressured into abortion (cf. Feminists for Life of America, many of whose members are Christian and yes, Catholic). Surely all this hasn't gone completely under your radar? These women can and do look to St. Joan and St. Catherine of Siena as role models for their action in the world, just as Pope Benedict said.

I made my original comment into a blog post, which might explain my reasoning better.



June 1, 2014 at 8:02 pm PST
#7  joanne cole - buffalo, New York

Well, all I can say is that this article has moved me to find more on St. Joan, who I have taken for granted all my life, and of whom I apparently know little of! I just ordered Mark Twains' book! And am reading the "this Rock" article AND, I am looking into these other books Chris has recommended! Thank you so much!!! Also, your blog, dialog here has been most interesting, and inspiring...

June 2, 2014 at 2:26 am PST

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