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Joan of Arc

Context

Summary

Important Terms, People, and Events

Joan of Arc lived during the second phase of the Hundred Years' War, a protracted struggle between French and English/Burgundian factions for control of the French crown. Joan supported the Valois claimant to the throne, Charles VII. Her leadership helped win the Siege of Orleans (1429) for Charles, one of the decisive battles in the Hundred Years' War. If not for Joan of Arc's decisive leadership, the French crown might have fallen under the control of the English king, Henry VI, and the course of Western European history would have been quite different. Instead, Joan's victory opened the way to Charles's coronation at Reims and helped consolidate Charles's power. For centuries after her death, Joan remained a powerful symbol of French nationalism and pride. The legend of Joan of Arc, the heroic "Maid of Orleans," helped give France the sense of identity that propelled it into the modern era as a proud and unified nation-state. The story of Joan, changed and embellished over the centuries, played a vital role in the creation of France's national consciousness.

An inspiration in her own time, Joan of Arc continues to inspire today. Burned at the stake on charges of heresy, Joan was acquitted by later investigations and a papal decree, and in 1920 was canonized (made a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church. A national French holiday created by Parliament that same year celebrates her life and sacrifice.

Although Joan only lived to about nineteen years of age, she had a tremendous impact on her own time, as well as on later history and literature. She is one of the most written-about people of all time, and as a result, there is considerable debate about the details of her life. The details are all the more ambiguous because of their historical remoteness: after all, Joan lived in the 15th century (although the record of her life is surprisingly good thanks to documents from her trial at Rouen). Writers have come up with a wide variety of views on this heroic young woman: some refuse to believe that she really was a peasant from Domremy, claiming she must have been an illegitimately-born royal. Others say that she only pretended to hear the "voices" she claimed filled her head, in order to deliberately create a persona that would have power over kings, soldiers and peasants alike. Still others say that she wasn't really burned in 1431 but, thanks to a conspiracy and cover-up, lived on in hiding. Was she a saint or a lunatic, a martyr or a manipulator, an opportunistic child or a great woman? Whatever the case, Joan's life has inspired various biographies, novels and poems. Her story inspired the French population during her life, and it continues to inspire today, as the obsession with Joan of Arc continues. Each generation, more books and movies on Joan of Arc are produced in various languages, as the people of each era seek to create a version of Joan of Arc that suits their views and needs.

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