Joan of Arc Considered.
By J. Grundy
Origins of this work: I wrote this piece for my own interest. It is a personal exploration of the topic and not intended to be a scholarly work. I hope readers enjoy this as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
Introduction and Context.
In the late 1420s France was in a state of despair. The Hundred Years War had been fought for almost a century and the French people had lost hope and initiative. The Dauphin, Charles, had retreated to Chinon. After so many losses defeat seemed imminent without a miracle from God. That miracle came in the form of a young maiden from the village of Domremy who turned the momentum of the war and lifted the spirits of the nation.
Jehanne, later known as Jehanne d'Arc, claimed to have been sent by 'the King of Heaven' to raise the siege at Orleans and have Charles crowned as King. She claimed to hear the voices of Saints directing her and was determined she should obey these messages from God. She never wavered in this assertion and those who knew her likewise believed she was guided by God.
In the fifteenth century acceptance of such an event is not surprising. Anything that could not be understood was attributed to an act of God, the church being central to life. In more recent times doubts have been cast on Jehanne's claims and her voices have been explained as being the result of a mental or physical disorder.
Was Jehanne's voices supernatural in origin or is there some other explanation for her experiences?
Early Life and the Coming of the Voices.
By all accounts Jehanne was noted to be an exceptional child in her conduct and manner. She was industrious, obedient and very compassionate toward the poor and sick. She was noted for her great piety, her devotion to God and to the Virgin Mary. She attended mass daily. When she heard the church bells ring she would fall to her knees. Sometimes she was teased for being too pious. While Jehanne did play with the other children she later became more focussed on chores and often chose prayer over dancing and singing with her peers. Her mother, Isabelle, stated that despite her youth she would fast and pray with great devotion for those who suffered. She was loved by all in her village for her good nature. (2)
Jehanne's first encounter with her voices occurred when she was around thirteen years old. At her trial she described this as a vision of St. Michael:
"I saw him before my eyes; he was not alone but quite surrounded by the angels of heaven" (3)
She claimed to have seen them "with my bodily eyes, as well as I see you." (4) From that time on her voices came to her often making known she was to go into France, raise the siege at Orleans, and have Charles crowned King at Rheims. At the age of seventeen she achieved all this and more. One need only read the accounts of her actions both on and off the battlefield to know how incredible her victories were.
Where did the voices that spurred her career come from? Did Jehanne suffer from a medical condition causing her to suffer delusions and hallucinations she could only interpret as being from heaven? How likely is it her voices really were external in origin? Those who are looking for an answer often claim Jehanne suffered from schizophrenia. Let us examine the evidence and ask whether this is a likely explanation for Jehanne's experiences.
There are many different forms of schizophrenia though the overt symptoms of the disease are hallucinations and delusions. Auditory and visual hallucinations are the most common and although rare, some also experience olfactory (smelling), kinesthetic (feeling) or gustatory (tasting) hallucinations. If Jehanne did have schizophrenia she suffered all of these as she testified that not only had she seen and heard St Catherine and St Margaret but had embraced them, kissed their feet, and noted that they smelled good. (5) Patients are usually in control of their voices and can summon and dismiss them at will. While Jehanne normally heard her voices without summoning them she was able to pray and they would come.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Manual criteria for the diagnosis of schizophrenia states that there must be 'prominent hallucinations throughout the day, voices, a running commentary on the person, and two or more voices conversing with each other'. Jehanne's visions certainly fit this description.
"There is not a day when my Saints do not come to the castle and they never come without the light." (6)
(Earlier in the trial she had stated that it was rare for them to come without the light implying that sometimes her experiences were solely auditory). Her voices encouraged, commanded and conversed with her.
The delusions a schizophrenic experiences are often grandiose. They may believe they are powerful, omnipotent, or as Jehanne did, on a mission from God. There is no question Jehanne was utterly convinced God had called her to her mission and that her experiences came directly from Heaven.
While schizophrenia most commonly affects women in their twenties and thirties it has been noted in children although it is rare before adolescence which is when Jehanne began having her visions. Those who develop schizophrenia are often noted early in life to stand out from their peers in some way. Jehanne stood out for her piety and devotion.
In addition to these symptoms schizophrenics often experience preoccupations, fixed ideas that take up a tremendous amount of thought time. The idea continually returns to them. Often the thought takes up so much time that the task does not get done. We could certainly say Jehanne was preoccupied with her desire to give her King his own Kingdom but she was able to turn her desire into action and was motivated with a clear sense of purpose.
Looking at these criteria it does seem a very distinct possibility that Jehanne suffered from schizophrenia. Before any conclusions are drawn I shall explore some of the other aspects of this disease.
In order to obtain a diagnosis of schizophrenia there must be an observable deterioration from a person's previous level of functioning. (7) While Jehanne's military life was very different from her life in Domremy she was as diligent and hardworking as she had been previously if not even more so. Despite having no military training she was a master strategist in war, determined, motivated and brave. Before her arrival Orleans had been under siege for months and seemed sure to be lost. Jean, Bastard of Orleans, testified at her retrial:
"She was able to execute many marvelous maneuvers which had not been thought of by two or three accomplished generals working together."
Hardly a person whose level of functioning was in a deteriorated state. Since this is a requirement for diagnosis it casts some doubt over ascribing this disorder to Jehanne.
Many schizophrenics lose their sense of self-identity, are less aware of any meaning to their existence and experience perplexity about who they are. Jehanne's words and actions show she was very definite about her role, her beliefs and the meaning of existence. Neither did she exhibit the bizarre behavior nor incomprehensible talking that can also accompany schizophrenia.
Other 'positive symptoms' that can accompany schizophrenia and are frequently associated with auditory hallucinations are depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviors and thought confusions. The sufferer is unable to think straight or concentrate. Distractibility is often present. None of these symptoms were clearly present in Jehanne. While she could become quite vexed at times this is not odd considering the position she was in and stemmed more from frustration than anxiety. I do not believe her leap from the tower at Beaurevoir was the act of a suicidal woman. Jehanne gave adequate explanation for having done this at her trial. Certainly her mind was clear and focussed or she could not have achieved all she did, won so much trust and loyalty and it is unlikely she could have passed the examinations she was subjected to. I would encourage anyone to read the words of Jehanne at her trial for evidence of her firm focus, intelligence and brilliant memory.
Schizophrenia is an illness that ebbs and flows. When the positive symptoms described above are absent the 'negative symptoms' emerge. There are periods of calm where the sufferer may become 'flat', that is, showing lack of human emotion, loss of interest, loss of energy, social withdrawal and a decrease in warmth, humor and motivation. I have seen nothing that leads me to suspect any of this in Jehanne. On the contrary, based on the testimonies of those who knew her, (8) she was extremely sensitive and showed much emotion weeping constantly for the losses on both sides during battle, during religious rites and when taunted by the English. Her sense of purpose prevailed and she showed much warmth apparently even climbing down from her horse to comfort a dying English soldier. (9) Although brave she did feel fear and was able to express and feel outrage when one of her troops cursed. Socially, it does not seem she shied away from others.
Clearly, although exhibiting the most overt symptoms of schizophrenia - 'hallucinations' and 'delusions' - the lack of supporting symptoms make it difficult to accept Jehanne was schizophrenic. While schizophrenia is not the obvious conclusion, if Jehanne's voices did come from her own mind, the vague diagnosis of 'schizoaffective disorder' may be most fitting though this is purely subjective. (10).
Let us examine other conditions that can cause an individual to hear voices.
Bipolar disorder is cyclical in nature and usually presents in the late teens/early twenties. Mood, behavior and ability to think clearly are affected. Delusions tend to be mood congruent and there are between periods where the sufferer is relatively normal. I believe this condition can be quickly ruled out in Jehanne's case. It has been established that her ability to think clearly was not impaired and it is unlikely she could have passed her examination at Poitiers and subsequently without evidence of these behaviors being detected. Surely the English in their examinations would have leapt on any behavior that might have explained her as insane? In addition, rather than coming cyclically, it appears the voices were always with her providing direction and comfort.
Occipital Cortical Discharges.
While impossible to medically examine Jehanne now the nature of her visions rules out the possibility that her visions were caused by occipital cortical discharges. OCPs generate elementary hallucinations such as light spots, twirling objects and geometrical shapes. It is clear from Jehanne's descriptions that her visions were elaborate and voices do not result from OCPs.
Peduncular hallucinations originate from lesions in the mid-brain. These visions can be elaborate and can include faces. Jehanne described St Catherine and St Margaret as having "faces ... adorned with beautiful crowns, very rich and precious." (11) Sometimes she did see more but in this case the associated behavior patterns do not fit. Sufferers witness these hallucinations with calm amusement and emotional 'flatness'.
While collective hallucinations are not medically based I am mentioning them here, as this 'condition' is the skeptics' answer to visions and similar experiences that cannot otherwise be explained. It is purely subjective whether one attributes Jehanne's experiences to a collective hallucination but each person must be free to make up their own mind. These hallucinations are most often attributed to the religiously devoted and tend to occur at times of raised emotions. D.H. Rawcliffe describes collective experiences as follows:
"Where belief in miracles exists, evidence will always be forthcoming to confirm its existence. In the case of moving statues and paintings, the belief produces the hallucination and the hallucination confirms the belief." (12)
Skeptics may assert that Jehanne was influenced by religious hysteria and a myth she herself made reference to several times that claimed a maiden from the area of the oak wood would save France. Jehanne did state she had put no faith in these prophecies (13) though those convinced of this explanation would argue this myth was the validating factor for Jehanne making her perceived mission all the more real to her and others thus creating a self-fulfilled prophecy.
Nora Wooster, in her book 'The Real Joan of Arc?' (14), argues that Jehanne contracted bovine tuberculosis from the cattle in her area. She states that this causes physical defects resulting in seeing lights. Over time these experiences become more frequent. Given the superstitious nature of the period Wooster argues Jehanne was able to use her beliefs to rationalize her experiences as being of divine origin. (15).
On the surface this seems to be a reasonable argument however Jehanne's visions were far more complex than mere lights. If bovine tuberculosis was responsible for Jehanne's lights where did the voices and detailed images come from?
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) is a disorder attributed in recent times to a lot of visionaries. It is becoming increasingly popular to attribute this to Jehanne. The British Epilepsy Association describes the experience:
" People's perceptions can be changed: some think things are bigger or smaller than they really are; others experience hallucinations. This does not only mean seeing things that are not really there, it can also mean smelling non-existent odors or hearing something that others cannot".
Such hallucinations can occur in TLE without there being physical seizures. There may be a change in personality at the onset of TLE and hyper-religiosity is a noted symptom. When Jehanne first had her visions she became even more pious than she had already been noted to be. (Surely such an experience as Jehanne had would change anyone?). Some researchers believe that attention, concentration and memory are not affected by TLE which undermines the idea that these qualities in Jehanne are signs no physical or mental disorders were behind her experiences.
TLE is not completely symptomless however. In fact the symptoms are far from subtle. The primary symptom is 'staring spells' where the sufferer stares into space and loses contact with the world. Jehanne did not tell anyone about her visions and voices for years until she was ready to begin her mission. It seems unlikely that if she had this disorder badly enough to have hallucinations these symptoms would have gone unnoticed. Given how often her voices came when she was imprisoned surely the English would have noted something up with her. Over time TLE becomes much worse so this should have become increasingly obvious. Even if the 'spaced out' appearance, where the person cannot respond, was taken to be part and parcel of her visionary experiences surely this would have been noted somewhere? Any tiny thing they could have used to discredit Jehanne would have been jumped at and this sort of thing would have been no exception.
The British Epilepsy Association tell us that "typical symptoms of epileptic activity in the temporal lobe area are flushing or sweating, going very pale, or a churning feeling in the stomach". Further, Neurology magazine (Nov 1998) tells us that these types of seizures do not respond well to medication (which in any case was non-existent in Jehanne's time.. "The seizures and their effects on the patient become more severe over time with this epilepsy." And those effects on the patient: psychological and social consequences due to the inability to drive, perform adequately in school, gain useful employment or have meaningful relationships because of the direct effect of the seizures or the stigma associated with them."
In light of this is it possible that Jehanne could have ridden and fought adequately with this disorder let alone because of it? She lived very closely with her men for at least a year - I'm sure they would have noted this, especially in light of how it may have affected her performance.
The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences featured a study on the more subtle, mild TLE contrasted with severe TLE. Mild TLE was diagnosed if the patient had no seizures for at least three years after being treated with medication. (Despite the fact Jehanne would have been unmedicated her voices were far from absent in her final three years). Also, these mild seizures tend to be purely 'staring spells' rather than hallucinatory. There seems to be no question that had Jehanne had TLE badly enough to have hallucinations the symptoms, even if these were simply the mild 'staring spells', would have been obvious and noted somewhere.
Let us examine the sequence of events typical to an episode of TLE:
During the first stage, sufferers can experience auras. This is unable to be discerned by onlookers. Hallucinations can then occur in more advanced cases. In both mild and severe TLE the physical symptoms can occur. During the second stage, the patient becomes 'spaced out' and loses mental contact with the world. If someone talks to them they may respond inappropriately. Spontaneous half-purposeful repetitive hand movements and chewing/lip-smacking movements are commonly seen during this stage.
Since the seizures described as the next stage are so uncommon in TLE and there is no record that hints Jehanne ever had a physical seizure I will disregard that stage and go onto the next one. During this stage, after the seizure described previously ends, the sufferer is commonly confused and drowsy to a variable degree for a variable duration. As noted, I recall no documentation that even suggests Jehanne was confused and where she is quoted there is no confusion. One could argue, as some have, that the letter she wrote early in her career where she alternates between talking about herself in the third and first person suggests confusion. I believe that is more likely to be either her lack of education/literacy or just one of those things that happen. I've caught myself doing similar things in the past and I know I don't have TLE.
There is some speculation regarding a ring she owned, which was like that used by epileptics to ward off seizures. It seems unlikely that more would not have been made of the ring during the trial if it were so significant. The ring was mentioned during the trial and Jehanne was questioned on why she looked at it on going into battle. Her response: "it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and
mother". She was unsure of the details as far as what featured on the ring and claimed never to have used the ring to cure anybody. The fact it was mentioned at all suggests that the English had thoughts of accusing her of hallucinating due epilepsy. This is one reason it is impossible to believe they didn't take it further and cite even the smallest of evidences she may have had symptoms reminiscent of TLE - unless of course there were none to cite which seems to be the obvious conclusion.
Given the lack of supporting evidence it is impossible to conclude that Jehanne suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Jehanne had testified that her voices came many times a day during her imprisonment. If this were the case her TLE would have had to be at such a stage it would have not escaped notice. Such patients would today be given neuro-surgery, which is an indication of how much this disorder can affect the lives of sufferers.
Whether one considers any of the aforementioned explanations possible one question always arises. How do voices and visions that arise from physical or mental problems so accurately predict future events as Jehanne did? Consider for a moment some of the events Jehanne foretold:
- Feb 1429. She announced that the French had experienced a great defeat at Orleans. This was confirmed a few days later when the official messenger came to Vaucouleurs.
- She was able to pick out the Dauphin, Charles, from among his attendants. Jehanne claimed her voices had directed her though it could be argued she might have heard a description of him during her journey to Chinon.
- In place of the sword offered to her she described in detail the location and appearance of a sword in the Chapel of St Catherine de Fierbois. It was found deeply buried exactly where she had described and the blade was so covered in rust it would have been impossible for her to describe it without having seen it before. The rust readily fell off when the blade was wiped. (16)
- She accurately told Charles to make the most of her, as she would last only a year and a little more.
- A letter dated 22 April, 1429 reads: "[The Maid said] she would save Orleans ... compel the English to raise the siege" and that "she herself would be wounded by a shaft but would not die of it, and that the King, in the course of the coming Summer, would be crowned at Rheims." (17) At her retrial Father Jean Pasquerel testified that Jehanne had said, "tomorrow blood shall flow from my body above the breast". This happened precisely as she had described. Orleans was entered the evening of 29 April and was freed by 8 May. Charles was crowned on July 17 that year at Rheims.
- Jehanne foretold, as her voices had informed her at Melun, that she would be captured by mid-Summer day (June 24) though she was not aware of the timing. She was captured near Compiegne on 23 May, 1430.
- 1 March, 1431. Jehanne announced that within seven years the English would suffer a far greater defeat than they had at Orleans losing everything in France. (18) Paris was lost to Henry VI on 12 November 1437, six years and eight months after Jehanne's declaration.
- Father Jean Pasquerel told of a man, who Jehanne heard curse and was told by her, "You did curse God, you who are so near to death!" (19). An hour later he fell into water and was drowned.
How could someone who was suffering illness-induced hallucinations have those same voices foretell future events with such accuracy?
Were Jehanne's voices ever wrong? Often during her imprisonment Jehanne talked of her expectation of deliverance though she did not know how or when this would come about. (20) Several people testified that when she realized her deliverance would not be forthcoming she claimed her voices had deceived her. If she did say this it is uncertain what she meant by it as Manchon, notary at her trial, testified that "until the last she declared her voices came from God and did not deceive her." (21) Jehanne reported her voices had told her
"Have no care for thy martyrdom; you will in the end come to the Kingdom of Paradise." (22)
It seems she may have contradicted herself here and if her voices were deceptive it casts doubt over all her claims. Jehanne interpreted her martyrdom to mean what she had to endure in prison. (23) I believe it was her interpretation that initially led her to feel deceived (if she ever did say this since she had also stated regarding any deliverance that "those who wish to get her out of the world might well precede [her]" being saved) and that this was a feeling she no longer had when she had more time to reflect on what her voices had been telling her in the new context. Certainly she did not always understand what her voices were saying to her immediately. (24) In any case it is clear that to the end she held to all her voices had told her and declared them to have been from God.
During her trial Jehanne was questioned at least twice regarding her eating habits. It is obvious that the questioner pursued this line of questioning with the intention of writing her experiences off as starvation-induced hallucinations. Jehanne's mother testified that from her youth Jehanne often fasted with great piety and devotion for the suffering of the people. I find this an unconvincing explanation as for someone who was starved to the point they were hallucinating. Jehanne's mind was too sharp and her memory almost faultless. Despite attempts to confuse her she always answered well and with good sense. In any case this idea would not explain Jehanne's prophetic abilities and I doubt she could have lived the lifestyle she did in a constant state of malnutrition.
In recent times some have suggested that Jehanne was simply a woman who wanted to be a man, a transvestite desiring a man's career. The evidence proves this to be untrue.
While Jehanne stated she preferred men's clothing (25) we need to look at this statement in context. Rather than having any desire to be a man, Jehanne was very aware of her femininity and wore men's attire not only because it was more suitable for wearing in battle but also because it helped to protect against any unwelcome advances and guarded her modesty. She testified that she wore male attire, as it was more suitable to her job and the company she kept. (26)At night she would find a woman to sleep near but when she couldn't find one she slept fully clothed. The security she found in her male dress is testified to by Louis De Contes who recalled that on her journey from Blois to Orleans Jehanne had been all bruised on account of her sleeping fully armed.
In prison she kept to her male dress despite intense pressure to do otherwise in order to protect herself against the many rape attempts she endured. It is likely that she was successful in this regard, although this particular issue is one of intense debate. It was not merely her chosen fashion as she repeatedly agreed to put on a women's dress if she were transferred to an ecclesiastical prison where she would have had female guards and would have been safe from the risk of attack. After she had resumed female dress she only resumed her male clothing when her woman's dress was taken from her by the English guards and her previous attire was the only option she was given. Even so, she did this under protest knowing it was forbidden her. She also expressed a strong desire to be buried in a woman's dress should she die in jail (27) - something not likely to be of concern to a transvestite.
Her behavior in no way indicated that Jehanne wished to be a man. She told Jean de Metz that she would rather stay at home with her mother and do the spinning but it was more important to her to obey what she believed to be the command of God. (28) While she did lead battle charges and rally the men in battle she found these events extremely distressing and always carried her standard to avoid killing anyone. (29) Her feminine nature shone through in her compassion towards both sides and her tearful distress at taunts from the English. Rather than fight she preferred to first seek a peaceful solution and was content to let the English retreat where her men would rather have gone after the English.
I wish to touch just briefly on the allegations Jehanne was a prostitute in any way. This is easily dismissed as she was examined a number of times and found to be a virgin. Even the English were forced to drop all sex-related charges when their own examinations found her to be chaste. This must have been a blow to their case, as they believed a virgin could not be in league with the devil and this blew their intended line of accusation away. Those who knew her testified to her modesty and virtue.
Reformation of the Troops.
While Jehanne attributed all her successes to God there is no doubt that her own qualities were a substantial part of her successes. Her presence and beliefs gave hope to the demoralized troops but she was more than a mere mascot. She had charisma, cared for her troops, was confident and courageous and sure of her belief that God was behind her. Her enthusiasm and determination were contagious. Once Orleans had been won after the hopeless situation it had previously been in people came to believe in her mission and no doubt the boldness of the troops increased many times over. What army is not going to give all they can when they believe God is backing them?
Jehanne also reformed the troops so they were fully focussed on their work. She chased away the camp followers (30), forced her men to attend confession and mass and refused to tolerate cursing and blaspheming. The righteousness of her troops was paramount to her.
All these factors were aided by the fact the English became terrified of her and cowered in their forts when she was near. The strength of her troops, their faith in God and the fear of Jehanne on the part of the English formed a winning combination!
While every reader needs to draw his or her own conclusion it is impossible to be absolutely certain as to the origin of Jehanne's voices and visions. Some will believe it could be nothing but a mental or physical condition. Others will believe the voices and visions were divine in origin. Others will believe the voices and visions are demonic in origin. There is a lot we will never know about Jehanne but from the evidence we do have it seems unlikely there were any physical or mental causes of her experiences. The one thing we can be sure of is that Jehanne herself, what she achieved, the way she did it and the person she was in itself has won her a place in the hearts of many. I leave you with this quote from C.S. Lewis:
"If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we shall always say."
1. I have chosen to use Jehanne rather than any of the other variables since this is the way Jehanne signed her own name.
2. See testimony given at her rehabilitation trial.
3. Trial Feb 24.
4. Trial Feb 24.
5. Trial March 17.
6. Trial March 14.
7. T. Costello et al. Abnormal Psychology p194 Harper Collins 1995.
8. See testimony from rehabilitation trial.
9. Testimony of Louis De Contes at her rehabilitation trial.
10. Schizo-affective disorder is the diagnosis given to those who display symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia but cannot be fitted into any of the defined categories of schizophrenia.
11. Trial Feb 27.
12. See www.skepdic.com.
13. Trial Feb 24.
14. Antony Rowe Ltd. 1992.
16. Trial Feb 27.
17. Letter of Sine de Roslaer.
19. Testimony at nullification trial.
20. Trial March 1 as well as other occasions.
21. Testified at her rehabilitation trial.
22. Trial March 14.
23. Trial March 14.
24. Trial Feb 27.
25. Trial May 28.
26. Trial May 28.
27. Trial March 17.
28. Testimony at retrial.
29. Trial Feb 27.
Copyright. 15 April 2000.