Jeanne d’Arc, 1412-1431 Maid of Lorraine, Maid of Orleans
In a canon which already contains Charlemagne and his Paladins as well as Arthur, and a slew of Medieval Christian thinkers, Jeanne d’Arc might seem a no-brainer in an attempt to expand the canon to cover all of those female names which should have been part of the original recitation, but for whatever reason were not.
Books have been written dedicated to Jeanne, and even a brief coverage of her remarkable life is beyond the scope of this article. Her Wikipedia entry will provide a brief summary of the events, but for those totally unfamiliar with her story, she was a French Peasant who, given visions by God, inspired the French claimant and later King Charles VII and led his armies until she was captured and burned by his English and Burgundian opponents.
Certainly there is a special place within the canon of the Thelemic Order for Jeanne D’Arc. One of the founding influences on the Order was Stephanie Olmstead-Dean, and perhaps one of the first incidents that, in retrospect, formed a clear set of stepping stones to the establishment of the order were her experiences at the shrine of Saint Jeanne, at the Cathedral-Basilica of St Louis, King of France, New Orleans, Louisiana on the return trip from Austin Texas in August 2015, where she had just attended O.T.O.’s Notocon event.
The initial tendency might be to focus on the mythical Jeanne as secret Cathar, or Witch, a martyr to the patriarchy which burned tens of thousands of socially nonconforming women over the centuries as “witches.” Certainly Jeanne was a martyr to the patriarchy, but in fact it turns out that the story of Saint Jeanne is nuanced, and has elements that are particularly significant to Thelema.
It is difficult to know precisely what Jeanne thought for several reasons. First, most of what we know about her comes from her first trial in 1431, or the 1452-1456 exculpatory retrial or “nullification trial” opened at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal and Jeanne’s mother Isabelle Romee, which declared her innocent.
Both trials were politically motivated spectacle. In the first trial there is extensive evidence, not disputed in any way by scholars, that many of her statements were rewritten by the court. In some cases we know this because multiple drafts exist, but in other cases we cannot tell if the version we have is her original words or the court’s revision. The second trial took place years after the events and includes references and accounts by people who are barely referenced at the first trial. Much of the evidence at the second trial was of the legitimacy of her prophecy, and in many cases this was more an exercise in wish-fulfillment than history.
One of the most definitive 20th century biographies comes from Vita Sackville-West, who has been recognized in recent years as an important figure in queer history in her own right. It is tempting as well to lump Jeanne D’Arc in with the “Christian Mystics” of the middle ages, but 20th century and contemporary writers observe notable differences.
The standard fare of Medieval Mystics was discourse about morals, ethics and salvation. There is, among historical authors, a great deal of debate as to Jeanne’s faith in her own visions. Ruling out those authors who believe that she was insane or under the influence of substances which is countered by most of the available evidence, there are those who feel that she very much believed in her own visions, and another group which believes they were contrived to lend support to a political cause.
Certainly Jeanne’s visions were provocative beyond the norm. Renault of Chartres, who according to Marina Warner had seen Jeanne’s sign at Chinon, and crowned King Charles VII at Rheims, lost faith in her and took a new prophet, Guillame the Shepherd, from Cevennes. His visions may have been both passionate and legitimate, but the English wasted none of the pomp and ceremony they did in their show trial condemnation of Jeanne; they paraded him in chains and, according to Frances Gies, drowned him unceremoniously in the Seine without trial.
Much has been made of Jeanne being a simple peasant girl, mostly by writers with dramatic intellectualist bias. The idea that working class people, particularly through history were poorly informed or ignorant has been exploded extensively by social historians. Jeanne was illiterate at a time when literacy was a specialized skill, to suggest that she was “ignorant” on this basis is ludicrous. She was clearly someone of profound social intelligence and understood how to motivate and inform. To suggest that she was “too young” to be politically adroit is to fly in the face of evidence from people like Greta Thunberg in our own time, or to expunge rough contemporaries such as Arcangela Tarabotti. We are not astounded to learn Richard I of England commanded his own army at sixteen, putting down rebellions in Potiou. The idea that Jeanne (or Thunberg) must be “naive” comes from a patriarchal myth that young women are essentially pliant creatures who must be led, and have no aspirations or ambitions of their own. Jeanne at about nineteen was certainly sophisticated enough to know precisely what she was doing and existed in a world of communications, markets and social networking that left her well informed as to the social landscape.
That her visions, even before they were massaged at her second trial, bore out her basic will seems beyond doubt. As Thelemites it would seem rather silly to debate their “legitimacy.” Whether Jeanne talked with angels or created them, she talked with those who served her will. Her visions were pointedly political. Her digressions into morality were infrequent and precise. One might as well question how much of Edward Kelly’s visions were “legitimate” and how many contrived well in advance. In either case they accomplished a desired result.
We cannot claim her as an exemplar of sexual freedom. One of her few moral issues seems to have been with the camp followers who supported Charles’ army, and she counseled the Duke of Lorraine to abandon his mistress, Alison du May. That said, her issues may have been more practical than moral. A medieval army at rest needed camp followers, who often undertook most of the tasks that would be handled today by professional support corps including food preparation, sanitation, and laundering. During the early 15th century there was a move towards professional armies that led to the limiting and exclusion of followers. In her essay “Sex and the Soldier in Lancastrian Normandy, 1415-1450,” Anne Curry discusses the issue from the other side, Jeanne’s Lancastrian opponents, only a few years later:
“A wife might even bestir a vacillating knight to action, although, of course, no true knight needed his wife’s admonitions. But more likely, a wife would soften and corrupt, and distract her husband from the task in hand. Even more deleterious was the influence of a mistress who did not even enjoy the legitimacy of wifely persuasions. The sort of woman who plied her trade as prostitute or camp-follower was doubtless considered an even more evil and worthless influence. This is implied by the association, in the 1428 and 1438 references, of such women with criminal behaviour. These widely-held views on women and sex provide the backdrop for the disciplinary ordinances of the Lancastrian occupation, but their issue was occasioned principally by concern for military discipline.”
Seen in this perspective Jeanne appears to have had few of the usual moral fixations of the mystic. Her declarations are laser focused on the political situation.
We need see her neither as a military genius nor as a naïf incapable of analysis. Ulysses Grant was probably a less tactically able commander than his predecessor George McClellan. What he had was a willingness to act quickly and directly along obvious strategic lines, and Jeanne’s victories…and defeats…harness this principal. She did the obvious without reserve and inspired others to believe in its success, but she did nothing that was particularly poorly thought out or unlikely. She was clearly intelligent, perceptive, and analytical.
The most interesting connection between Jeanne and the Gnostic and Thelemic current in Europe may relate to the Free Spirit Movement as epitomized by Meister Eckhart, whose relationship to humanism in general and Thelema specifically has been widely explored. There are, certainly, Thelemites who prefer to believe Thelema is “special” and sprang full blown from the brown of Aleister Crowley in 1904. In practice, Thelema as an important outgrowth of Western Humanism, and a legitimate spiritual and philosophical movement is far more legitimate and important than the idea of it as a “revelation,” and to understand it, we need to understand its roots.
The beliefs of the Brethren of the Free Spirit grew out of the Low Countries, France, Bohemia and Northern Italy in the late 13th century. Amalric of Bena in 1204 can be said to have articulated one of the core beliefs of Thelema, “that God is all and thus all things are one, because whatever is, is God.” After his death Amalric’s followers evinced pantheistic beliefs, making an argument that suggested humans are, of necessity, God. The Brethren beliefs found fertile soil among the Beguines, a female secular order which was originally supported but later found itself opposed by the Church, providing a path for women outside either the Church or Marriage.
The Beguine influence was exemplified by Marguerite Porete who wrote about a century before Jeanne and was burned as a heretic in Paris in 1310. Her book The Mirror of Simple Souls was an important pre-humanist work that, with its focus on agape and individual union with God is a significant strain of the intellectual ferment that led to Thelema. Important elements that would become the shape of much nonconformist Christianity and find their way into Thelema emanate from Porete’s work “the simple soul which is united with God and has no will other than God’s own.” This theology which preserves an edge of late Classical and Gnostic belief and edges towards an idea of the unity of God and the self which grows through nonconformist and humanist teaching over the next centuries. Compare “Marguerite says that the Soul must give up Reason, whose logical, conventional grasp of reality cannot fully comprehend God and the presence of Divine Love. The “Annihilated Soul” is one that has given up everything but God through Love,” to the writing on “Reason” in Liber AL, and our general understanding of the principle of Solve and Coagula, and crossing the abyss.
The influence of the Beguines waned after the Council of Vienne in 1312, but the group continued for some centuries. We cannot call Jeanne a Beguine, but we can say that the Beguines were a strong influence in the region where Jeanne was born and grew up, and that in her independence from the Church, the practicality of her visions, and some of her limited discussion of doctrine, she mirrors their beliefs. Her birthplace was well within the Rhenish sphere described in “The Ascent of the West: From Prehistory Through the Renaissance.”
“This wave of Rhenish mysticism radiated beyond convent walls to the marketplaces and hearths of the laity. Eckhart had the gift of making his abtruse doctrines understandable to a wider public than was usual for mystics; moreover, he was fortunate in having some disciples of a genius almost equal to his own—the great preacher of practical piety, Johann Tauler, and Heinrich Suso, whose devotional books, such as The Little Book of Truth and The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, reached eager lay readers hungry for spiritual consolation and religious excitement.” These influences were in the air of the region where Jeanne was raised and educated.
Her sentiments were certainly self-reliant and secularist by the standards of the day, and echo much of the attitude of the Beguines. In film she is immortalized as saying “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera” – “help yourself, the Heavens will help you,” a sentiment not far from “God helps those who help themselves.” A more likely version is recounted as “The soldiers will fight, and God will give them victory!” which carries a similar sentiment. She is also variously cited as, when asked for proof of her divine mission, “In the name of God, I did not come here to give signs; but take me to Orleans and I will show you the signs for which I was sent.” At this remove it is difficult to know if the attributions are original, but it says something that nothing in her general narrative contradicts them. Aside from talking to Angels, Jeanne was pious but not particularly moreso than anyone else of her day, when all conversation was heavily couched in the terms of God and the Church. Nor was she made to recognize the “error of her ways.” Made captive by her oppressors, Jeanne did not passively accept her fate. Her attempts to escape included a jump, claimed at seventy feet and certainly from a height which must have been assumed to be sufficient to imprison her, into a soft dirt moat.
No discussion of Jeanne would be complete without discussion of her as a queer person. The issue of her gender identification is complicated by necessity and calumny. Ultimately she was burned not as a heretic, or sorcerer, but for wearing men’s clothes. That she died for cross-dressing is indisputable, what this means is far more ambiguous. She has been called transgender, lesbian, or asexual, and all of these may be both correct and misleading.
It is worth being realistic about the conditions of her cross-dressing. She wore male clothes as a disguise, and because it was practical and necessary in combat. Even her persecutors granted her that. That she continued to wear male clothes in prison may have been a matter of self defense. In the deposition of Guillaume Manchon, Chief Notary of the 1431 trial, in 1452 he says, “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of outrage upon her; and she had complained one or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loisleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to violate her.” Male clothing at the time was pantalets, tied off together into what we’d consider pants, and provided some protection against rape which women’s clothing did not.
The world in which Jeanne lived did not provide any axis for her to investigate her gender or sexuality. What is clear is that, like the Beguines and more adamantly and starkly even than Marguerite Porete, she rejected the gender roles assigned to women of her day. She lived, and died, as a soldier and leader, not as a few previous women generals through heritance or necessity, but through pursuit of her own will. Her rejection of conventional gender roles and insistence upon her own bodily autonomy can be seen as an assertion of her own definitions of gender and sexuality which makes her, in meaningful modern terms, queer. Nor was she made to recognize the “error of her ways.” Made captive by her oppressors, Jeanne did not passively accept her fate. Her attempts to escape included a seventy foot jump into a soft dirt moat.
In the modern ear, Jeanne’s legacy has been tainted by her embrace by the far right in France, people who would likely have opposed both her agenda and activities. It might seem politically expedient to abandon her. Many parties from the Catholic League and Napoleon Bonaparte to Marine Le Pen have tried to claim Jeanne’s enigmatic legacy. That she would have little to do with any of them seems apparent from the way in which she dealt with her detractors, and the limited use she had for the established Church, while alive. That the Church which, admittedly under threat of violence, condemned her later made her a Saint is largely irrelevant to her spiritual legacy, other than serving as a conduit for that legacy to come to many who never knew her. The Medieval Church, out of ignorance or expedience, embraced many Gnostics, but this does not make them its property.
Jeanne was a nationalist in a way that would place her at profound odds with modern nationalism. The Hundred Years War which she helped to conclude began with two feuding families and ended with modern nation-states. But the sentiment was precisely the reverse of modern nationalism which is identitarian and focuses on ethnic identity and the vilification of outgroups. In Jeanne’s time, that sentiment was those who cared more about town or clan, or “nation” in the terms of region. Jeanne’s advocacy of a French identity was about recognizing similarities rather than differences. Today that sentiment is held by those who see all humans as part of a shared identity and those petty figures whom Jeanne battled are those who care more about ethnicity and property than shared human dignity.
Jeanne d’Arc will always be an enigmatic figure, but what is indisputable is that she followed her true will, and was not a slave to the visions she experienced, but rather an architect who put them to work in the accomplishment of her true will. As an actor, rather than dreamer, who put her visions to a specific use bringing about changes according to her will, Jeanne stands as an example for Thelemites and an important part of the cultural history that led to Thelema.