Skip over navigation

Joan of Arc

"Voices"

Youth

The Dauphin

Summary

In 1425, English and Burgundian forces drove off all of Domremy's cattle and burned the town. The same year of this trauma, when Joan was 13, she started hearing "voices." The first of these voices spoke to her from her father's garden, and was accompanied by a blinding white light. Joan claimed that the voices were angels and saints, through whom God was addressing her. She identified the saints as Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, all crucial French saints of whom Joan had learned through statuary in the church she attended and through her mother's careful religious instruction. Although she was initially afraid to speak to other people about them–she never mentioned them to the Domremy priests even though she was constantly at confessional–she would claim to talk to these saints and hear their voices regularly. Joan said they always spoke in French. Although frightened of them at first, eventually she came to terms with the voices, even claiming to beckon them at will. Increasingly, these voices must have become a large part of the way Joan processed and perceived reality.

Joan complained that noise or company stopped the voices and visions from coming. Also, she often heard the voices after the ringing of the Church bell. If the bells triggered the voices she heard, it is no wonder she became so irate at the Churchwarden whenever he was late ringing the bells. Saint Michael appeared to Joan as a good-looking gentleman. Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret appeared as nothing but faces, and even regarding Saint Michael she could recall very few visual details. Joan believed very strongly that the apparitions were real; she even claimed at one point to have clasped Saints Catherine and Margaret in embraces, and recalled that they had smelled wonderful.

Most importantly for Joan's life, however, was what the voices commanded her to do. She claimed that they told her to help the Dauphin by going to Orleans and breaking England's siege of the city.

Commentary

Joan's "voices" have been interpreted in a variety of ways. It seems extremely unlikely from all accounts that she simply made up a claim of hearing voices for the sake of theatricality and attention. Some choose to believe that she really was hearing divine commands from saints and angels. Others have attempted to explain the voices as hallucinations that Joan delusionally believed to be saints and angels. Under these interpretations, the messages Joan heard would really be ones she had come up with herself, subconsciously, which were now communicated to her conscious mind via visions and voices. Certainly, hallucinations are not all that uncommon, and are often intense and are commonly perceived within a religious idiom. Young adults are especially susceptible, although visual hallucinations are much more common than hallucinations of sound. If Joan did hallucinate, she experienced especially well-developed and recurrent hallucinations that combined elements of both sight and sound. During her trial she even said that she had seen a large number of angels "in the guise of certain very tiny things." The voices were always more clear to Joan when she was alone, which might explain why she became increasingly isolated from friends, preferring to spend time by herself as she became older. Initially, Joan heard simple and brief messages, but over time these became longer and more detailed. Ultimately, she may even have been able to carry on conversations with the voices. All of this follows models of hallucination development that psychologists have witnessed in the present day. Such hallucinations are often triggered by some trauma, and 1425 was a particularly tumultuous year for Domremy and Joan. The burning of Domremy in 1425 may have helped focus Joan's mind on the war, and to suggest to her the mission of ending the war. The typical adolescent tumult Joan was the going through, including her conflicts with her father, who was then trying to marry Joan off, might also help explain the voices she heard. Whatever their nature, Joan took the voices seriously and they had a dramatic impact on her life.

Appropriately, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret were both martyred virgins, as Joan would be. Furthermore, Joan's sister's name was Catherine, so if the voices were hallucinations, her constant hearing of her sister's name might account for why she saw this particular saint. Saint Margaret was familiar to Joan from a statue in the Domremy church.

Joan always became extremely upset whenever anyone asked her for details regarding the saints' appearances, and never provided very complete descriptions. Perhaps she didn't want to admit the vagueness of her own visions, which she took so seriously?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us