Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, a remarkable woman, was born into rather unremarkable circumstances. Her peasant family lived in the small French village of Domremy, between Champagne and Lorraine. Judging from the age she claimed to be at various parts of her life, she must have been born sometime around 1412, although the exact date is unknown. Her father was Jacques of Arc, and her mother was Isabelle Romee. Joan had three brothers: Jacquemin, Pierre, and Jean. She also had a sister, Catherine, who died before Joan left on her mission to help the Dauphin in 1429. Joan's family, and most of Domremy, supported the Dauphin. However, they lived very near a pro-Burgundy area. Conflict between villagers from the two regions often erupted in violence, which Joan witnessed throughout her childhood.
As a peasant in the 15th century, Joan had no formal schooling and probably did not know how to read, although near her death she did know how to sign her name. Whatever schooling Joan had she received from her mother, Isabelle. An extremely pious woman who may have even made a pilgrimage to Rome, Isabelle carefully taught Joan her prayers. Joan inherited her religious devotion from her mother, and throughout Domremy Joan was always known as an exceptionally pious and devout girl.
Tradition says that Joan worked as a shepherdess, tending her family's flock of sheep. Certainly she helped work the family lands, exhibiting a particular gusto for men's heavy labor, such as plowing. Her diligent work on the family farm made her strong, and many in Domremy were impressed with Joan's exceptional strength for a female. But while Joan was fond of the physical exertion of traditional men's work, she also spun thread and sewed just like any other 15th- century peasant girl, and was allegedly just as skilled in this "women's work" as in her exertions of physical strength.
Joan, although extremely hard working and unusually talented, seemed to be an essentially normal peasant girl. The one thing that set her apart was her intense religious devotion. Otherwise always very gentle and kind, Joan became cross if the Churchwarden was ever late ringing the church bells, and would scold the man harshly. On weekends she would sometimes journey to a small chapel in a neighboring region. She refused to dance, raising eyebrows among village girls of the same age, and she went to confession constantly.
Domremy was an extremely complicated place in terms of its loyalties and allegiances. Religiously, it fell under the control of a diocese based in the Holy Roman Empire. Politically, the majority of it did not fall under the control of any French noble as most regions did; instead, the French King ruled Domremy directly.
Joan's youth must have been fairly idyllic. She remembered playing under a favorite tree, called the "fairy tree" according to legends of the Domremy townsfolk. During her later trial, accidental mention of this tree would cause her some trouble, as her inquisitors used it to strengthen their accusations about Joan's links to magic and the occult. It may be delightful to imagine the young Joan as an isolated shepherdess tending her flock, but this legend seems to give a false impression. The major business in Domremy was cattle, and there were very few sheep, so it seems unlikely that Joan's family actually owned many sheep. There is little direct evidence either way; the account of her as a "lone shepherdess" has been widely repeated by biographers but may only be legendary. In her exceptionally well-documented trial, Joan did not talk about herding sheep, so this suggests that she may not have really worked as a shepherdess. Then again, this role would have put her out of parental control quite often, something she might not have wanted to admit to her inquisitors. Joan didn't always get along very well with her parents, in fact. She did have some conflicts with her parents, especially shown by the fact that she left home in 1429 without telling them of her plan to join the Dauphin. Joan also refused to enter into a marriage her father arranged for her.
Joan certainly was a very devoted Christian from an extremely early age. Her friends of course praised her devotion, although sometimes they found it a bit strange. Joan was never late to mass, and she would stop her work in the evening to kneel and pray in the field. Apparently, Joan sometimes confessed more than once a day. This obsession with confessing her sins disturbed some of Joan's friends, who found this excessive faith unnecessary. The priests in Domremy, however, were always impressed with her piety and righteous sense of guilt and sin. Joan claimed that a person could never cleanse his or her soul too often. One has to wonder why Joan was so obsessed with confession, especially given the extremely clean life she was reputed to live. But although her religious devotion marked her as somewhat strange, everyone in Domremy accepted her. People might have looked at her more critically if they knew that at age 13 (as she would later report) she started hearing mysterious "voices." Joan didn't tell anyone about the voices, not her friends, not her parents, and not even the priests.
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