If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.


If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

Joan of Arc: who was she, really?

The myth is of a mystic peasant girl, visited by angels and saints, who acted as a standard bearer and morale-booster for the French army to such good effect that they began to win.

Here are 5 reasons why this isn’t reasonable, fair or borne out by the truth.

1. Peasant girls can’t ride a warhorse

Truly, this is the first and most laughable of the fabrications.  Girls didn’t ride astride in this era.  Peasant girls didn’t ride at all.   They spent their days herding beasts in the field, spinning, weaving, carrying water… they weren’t out learning to ride fully trained warhorses.

The girl who turned up at Chinon in February 1429 had ridden for 11 nights (not days) at speed in an unlit forest, accompanied by 2 men at arms loyal to Yolande of Aragon (who was, I believe, the instigator of all that took place).

It was the middle of winter.  The weather had been grim.  And she was being hunted by armed men loyal to France’s enemy, Burgundy.  (Nobody has yet explained to me why they were hunting a ‘peasant girl’ but that’s a separate issue).

The thing we have to realise about Joan is that she could ride very well indeed.  We’re talking Olympic dressage level well. When you examine the things she did, even the relatively trivial ones involved exceptional horsemanship. From the extinguishing of the flaming banner in Orléans to the couching of her lance on Ascension Day, to the leading of the mercenary troop at the end of her life… she was a brilliant equestrian.  She was also, I think, a good judge of horseflesh – or believed herself to be. One of the many bishops gave her a ‘black horse’ and was monumentally upset when she sold it on because it ‘wasn’t very good.’  She might have been wrong, of course, but someone who rides well enough to be able to fight as a knight against men at arms on foot, is probably a good enough judge to be right. I suspect the bishop was either palming her off with something dull or had no idea what he was doing. Either way, he wasn’t a happy man.

So – this is one of the many planks in the bridge from myth to truth. If she could ride well, she wasn’t a peasant – and she could ride very well indeed.

2. Peasant girls can’t fight like knights.

Nor do they understand battle tactics.  You might think this is self evident, but apparently not.  So let’s look at it in detail.  In mediaeval times, men of noble birth spent untold amounts of money training their sons to fight.  The boys started off around 10 years old learning to ride on something small enough and biddable enough not to kill them outright. At the same time, they learned to handle knightly weapons: lance, swords of varying size, mace, shield… you name it, they gained the strength, the skill, the tactical and strategic knowledge to make them safe on a battlefield.  When they were old enough and good enough, they got to combine weapons, armour and horse in the full knightly gear. Girls didn’t learn this.  Girls, in fact, weren’t allowed to wear boys’ clothes, never mind pick up a sword.

And yet, when the ‘peasant girl’ had presented herself to the king and picked him out of a group of identically dressed men (the original identification parade), the next day, the king was walking the battlements when he looked down and saw her running up and down in the meadow with a lance – just as the squires did when training.  She was the right age to be a squire.

The king was so impressed, he offered her a horse. When he saw her ride it, he offered to have a suit of armour made to fit.  I expect someone else paid for it because the king was bankrupt, but he didn’t have to do that for an illiterate maid who wanted to carry a banner.

Thus the peasant now had the two most expensive items in any knight’s kit: the horse and the armour (in descending order of cost).

We don’t have space here to go into the detail of her campaign – if you’re dead keen, read ‘Joan of Arc, a Military Leader’ by Kelly de Vries – but you have to trust me when I say that this woman clearly knew how to fight as a knight.  She could  – and did – couch her lance and ride down the English men at arms at the Ascencion Day , she understood strategy in the taking of Jargeau, Meung, Beaugency, Troyes. She faced down Bedford’s army at Montépilloy – and she could have taken Paris if the idiot king and his idiot/corrupt/treasonous advisers had not spent the entire summer prevaricating.  Or if the king hadn’t ordered his men to blow up the bridge that her engineers had built to allow assault on two gates of Paris.

Later, when she had been sent south to take two towns held by a bandit  – without powder or shot – and failed (the letters back to Orléans asking for supplies are genuinely heart rending) and was put under virtual house arrest, she escaped and met up with a band of 200 Piedmontese mercenaries who had crossed Europe to fight with her. She was a mercenary captain, and a good one, from March until her capture at the end of May in 1430, one year and 3 months after she first arrived in Chinon.

3. Peasant girls don’t refer to their kings as ‘dauphin’

Nor do they inform the second most powerful man in the land that they’ll have his head struck from his shoulders if he doesn’t do what they ask.

The Maid, when she appeared at Chinon, consistently referred to her king as the Dauphin. I suspect, although nobody has said so, that this is why he and his advisors hated her so.  She said she was going to get him to Rheims, to be anointed by the holy oil with which all French kings had been consecrated back into the dark ages, and only then would he be king. She was the only individual at court who held to this convention. Try to imagine a kid off a council estate turning up and referring to the Queen as Princess Elizabeth.  And then imagine it in the middle ages, where such things mattered.

In Orléans, when the Duc d’Orléans, cousin to the king (albeit illegitimate, but thoroughly recognized by his father) and one of the most powerful men in the land, refused to let her join his war councils and didn’t tell her that reinforcements were coming until he’d turned them back (he wasn’t altogether keen to fight the English who were besieging his city), she threatened to have his head struck from his shoulders unless he promised not to repeat his mistake.  If you think this is normal behaviour, you haven’t studied mediaeval Europe long enough.

4. She didn’t mention saints or angels

At least, not until she had been under intense questioning for several days by men whose job it was to find her a heretic so they could burn her.

The ‘visionary mystic’ could not be further from the truth.  We have letters she left, we have commentary written while she was still alive, we have letters sent home by diplomats of Europe, and we have the memories of the eye witnesses who were called to her ‘rehabilitation trial’ thirty years after her (supposed) death.  Nobody suggests that she mentioned saints or angels at any point before her capture.  There is one exception. She says that, like Saint Charlemagne, she will fight and win.  He had the advantage of having been a warrior-knight and a king, as well as a saint. She wasn’t invoking his holiness, she was invoking his skills in battle.  When referring to her divine instruction, it came from ‘my father in heaven.’  Once, she referred to him as ‘messire’, which is what a squire called his knight.

Once in captivity, she was subjected to conditions that today would constitute torture, and was questioned by multiple men at once, in a hostile courtroom.  They never asked her how she learned to ride, to fight, to consider strategy. They were concerned only with the veracity or otherwise of  her ‘counsel.’  In effect, we have forty or more men who were amongst the most powerful and learned in the land, who had got together and established the rules by which they might count the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, and who then keep the answer secret but use it to convict a third party for the capital crime of not being able to guess those rules.  The whole thing was a farce, but it still took them five months to convict her.

5. She knew canon law

Illiterate peasant girls are not taught the nuances of canon law.  Joan, under questioning, demonstrated a particularly nuanced understanding of the case being brought against her.  For instance, she was asked ‘Do you consider herself in God’s grace?’ which is a classic ‘do you still beat your wife’ question: damned whether you answer yes or no.

in this case, if she had said ‘yes’, she would have been claiming to know the mind of God, which is a heresy, so they could have burned her.  If she said ‘no’, she would have been denying the possibility of God’s grace, which is a heresy…. And so they could have burned her.

What she said was, ‘If God put me in a state of grace, let him keep me there and if he did not, let him put me there… ‘  The audience (which was large – she was a celebrity throughout Europe) laughed and they were laughing with her, not at her.  Thereafter, the clerics decided they had insufficient time to question her in the open court and retreated to her cell, a stone affair, in which her legs were manacled in perpetuity and the route to the privy passed out along the corridor.

 So – the last, and final reason why I am convinced that the myths of Jeanne d’Arc were begun and perpetuated, is that there’s a really rather convincing candidate for the post, a young girl whose father may well have trained her to be a knight, who knew military strategy and could easily have taught her this, and canon law, and riding, and whose attitudes and sense of entitlement might well have rubbed off on his daughter.

As Sherlock Holmes says, ‘when you have eliminated all that is impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Joan of Arc did exist. She cannot have been a peasant.  Therefore, if there’s someone in the annals of history who might wear her mantle, do we not have a duty to at least try it on?

That’s what the book’s about – two threads, one thriller, one radical truth  – the identity of the Maid… 



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