The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412—May 30, 1431)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
The story of Joan of Arc, the illiterate French peasant girl who crowned a king, is well known. Joan emerged from the French countryside to lead French troops to victory. She was successful but was captured and placed on trial. Notably, the French king she had crowned made little if any attempt to rescue or ransom her, preferring to distance himself from her instead, although he did reward others in her entourage. Joan was eventually burned at the stake; five hundred years later she was canonized. Her story continues to elicit admiration and fascination. A question guaranteed to raise hackles and passions, then as now, is whether Joan was or wasn’t a witch or a devotee of the Fairy Faith.
Joan was born in Domrémy, France. When Joan was 13, she heard a voice that she described as from God. During the next five years she heard sacred voices several times weekly. They identified themselves to her as those of the Archangel Michael and saints Catherine and Margaret.
According to the twelfth-century historian and chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin prophesied that “a marvelous maid will come from the Nemus Cenutum for the healing of nations.” During Joan’s time this mysterious Nemus Cenutum came to be identified with the Bois Chenue forest near Domrémy where a Fairy Tree was situated.
Among the accusations made against her was that Joan was in the habit of attending Fridaynight witches’ sabbats at a fountain near this oak. The opposing English forces certainly perceived her as a witch. Both sides perceived her as possessing or having access to supernatural powers.
Shakespeare’s play Henry VI Part 1 expresses the contemporary English view that Joan was a witch: “Bring forth the sorceress condemned to burn.”
Joan was captured at Compiègne on May 23, 1430 and charged with heresy and witchcraft. The bishop before whom she was brought was intent on proving her a witch. If it could be proved that Charles VII had gained the crown of France via witchcraft, the English could challenge his divine right to rule.
On what grounds was she charged with witchcraft? Her enemies charged that she spoke with evil spirits (demons) not saints or angels. They claimed that Joan had induced the voices by chewing on a mandrake root she carried tucked into her bosom. (During her trial she was asked whether she possessed a mandrake root; Joan denied this, although she admitted hearing of the practice—see BOTANICALS: Mandrake.)
The whole concept of a young girl leading an army was strange and radical; however Joan’s brief campaign had been punctuated with odd occurrences that could be interpreted as signs of magical activity:
A man on horseback once swore at Joan, who despised foul language. She retorted, “In God’s name, why do you swear and you so near your death?”An hour later, the rider fell from his horse into a moat and drowned. Clairvoyance? Divine revelation? Or witchcraft?
Joan waited two days at Chinon before being granted a royal audience. She was shown into a grand hall where Charles played a trick on her. He was hidden among approximately 300 bystanders while someone else was dressed in royal garb. Joan, who had never seen Charles before, went straight to the true dauphin, saying, “The King of Heaven sends words by me that you will be anointed and crowned…”
Other aspects could be interpreted as signs of witchcraft or Pagan faith if so desired. Joan first heard her voices at the Fairy Tree near Domrémy. The tree was situated by a healing well linked to the fairies. Allegedly fairies and witches danced around the tree together. When Joan was a child, she too had sung and danced around the tree with other village children. She hung garlands from it but claimed this was done to honor Our Lady of Domrémy. Joan denied all dealings with Fairies.
There are three ways of considering these actions:
Joan genuinely hung the garlands in honor of the Virgin Mary, although hanging garlands from trees is not exactly orthodox Christian practice.
For whatever reason Joan refused to admit to having partaken of Fairy traditions.
Through the process of Identification, traditions once associated with a Fairy Queen or Goddess were now performed in honor of Our Lady of Domrémy. Whether local peasants in Joan’s time were aware of the history of the practice is unknown.
Joan’s power to heal was also considered by some as evidence of witchcraft. Her title, La Pucelle or “the Maid,” could be interpreted as having witchcraft significance. In some covens, Maid or Maiden is a title for a high-ranking individual.
Joan refused to say the Lord’s Prayer; years later this would be considered the equivalent of a confession of witchcraft. She was reputedly the friend or even lover of King Rene d’Anjou of Provence, who narrowly escaped charges of heresy himself. Joan also chose Gilles de Rais to serve as her patron and protector. Nine years later, he too was charged with witchcraft and executed.
Joan was imprisoned in a dungeon for one year and one week, often chained to a wooden block with chains securing her neck, arms, and feet. At her formal ecclesiastical trial before 37 clerical judges, Joan faced 70 charges including being a witch, diviner, sorceress, false prophetess, conjurer, and invoker of evil spirits, in addition to various charges involving heresy. She was accused of being “given to the arts of magic.”
She represented herself and held her own with this powerful group of educated men. Most of the charges could not be substantiated and were dropped.
The Inquisitors continued with 12 charges, including the ability to see visions, heresy in refusing to submit to the authority of the Church, her insistence that she was responsible only to God and not the Church, and the one for which she was finally convicted and condemned to death: wearing men’s clothing.
During the trial evidence favorable to Joan was deleted from the official record. The court scribe, Guillaume Mauchon, later claimed that when proceedings recorded in French were translated into Latin, the judges ordered him to change meanings and language.
On May 30, 1431, Joan was publicly burned at the stake. The authorities wished to destroy her mystique and prevent any rumors of lastminute supernatural rescue as had been circulating. When her clothes were burned off, the executioner was instructed to reduce the flames so that the crowd could see “all the secrets which can or should be in a woman.”
After her death, her remains were thrown in the river so that no sacred relics could be taken, although the crowd did collect ashes. According to tradition, a dove flew from her lips at the moment of her death. How one interprets this depends upon spiritual orientation. As a sign of the Holy Ghost? Or as a visible wandering double or fetch?
Joan became an unofficial saint immediately. Peasants set up shrines to her and carried votive images. Just as she had healed the sick while alive, Joan allegedly performed miracles of healing following her death. It took five hundred years of popular pressure, however, before Joan was eventually canonized on May 16, 1920.
Long before that though, she had been legally vindicated: in June 1456, Joan was declared a martyr in France; her oppressors were in turn described as heretics engaging in a political vendetta. One theory for her retrial is that after twenty years on the throne, Charles VII was annoyed by the rumors and innuendo that he had been placed there by a witch, and so he ordered a retrial.
Margaret Murray interpreted Joan of Arc’s title La Pucelle to indicate her position as Maiden of a coven. Murray postulated that Joan was a “divine victim” who served as a substitute for a royal victim. Gerald Gardner claimed that questions of heresy would have been very easy to prove without need of questions regarding Fairies and witchcraft.