Domrémy: in the footsteps of Joan of Arc

House where Joan of Arc was born.

In spite of its impressive name, Domrémy-la-Pucelle is just a tiny village. Nowadays it has less than a hundred inhabitants. Nevertheless, Domrémy is world-famous, as it is the birthplace of Joan of Arc (ca. 1412-1431), the “Maid of Orleans” who managed to raise French morale during the Hundred Years War with England and won the French king Charles VII his crown. The words La Pucelle, “the maid”, were officially added to the name of the village in the sixteenth century. Joan’s maison natale, the house where she was born, is still extant and can be visited. Around the corner is the medieval church of Saint-Remy, where Joan was baptised and frequently prayed. Those who want to learn more about the life of Joan of Arc can visit the Centre Johannique, a museum and information centre. Lastly, just south of Domrémy there is the imposing Basilica of Bois-Chenu, built on the spot where Joan supposedly first heard her famous voices.

Joan of Arc’s childhood

Jeanne or Jehanne d’Arc – commonly anglicised as Joan of Arc – was born in Domrémy around the year 1412. Her father Jacques d’Arc was a laboureur, i.e. a farmer working his own property. He was also a sort of village chief and levied taxes, which meant that the family certainly did not live in poverty. Joan was not a little shepherdess who heard her voices while tending to her flock of sheep. It is true she was a farmer’s daughter, but she is likely to have mainly worked in and around the house. Joan’s childhood was a time of great unrest in France. The country had been involved in the Hundred Years War with England since 1337 and France was not doing well at all. Charles VI had been on the French throne since 1380, but he was called Charles the Mad for a reason. He had bright moments at times, but was mostly utterly insane. France furthermore had a problematic relationship with Burgundy, which was formally an apanage of the French crown. Because of this apanage Philip the Bold, the youngest son of King John II of France, had become duke of Burgundy in 1363. In 1407 his son and successor John the Fearless had Louis of Orleans murdered, who was his own cousin and also a younger brother of the aforementioned Charles VI. John the Fearless was in his turn assassinated in 1419.

Church of Saint-Remy.

In the meantime France had suffered a crushing defeat against the English at Agincourt in 1415. During that battle the Burgundians had fought for the French, but the murder of John the Fearless changed everything. His son and successor Philip the Good held the dauphin (crown prince), the future Charles VII, responsible for the murder and made an alliance with the English. He also became a party to the so-called Treaty of Troyes, which stipulated that upon the death of Charles VI the French throne would pass not to Charles VII, but to the English king Henry V. Charles VI and Henry V both died in 1422, but since Henry died about two months earlier, the English claimed the throne for his infant son Henry VI, who was not even one year old at the time. Henry VI of course needed a regent, and John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, was appointed. France was now split into three parts. The English controlled large parts of the north, including Paris, the capital. The Burgundians had a tight grip on the east and only in the centre and south of France Charles VII managed to stand firm. His enemies mocked him as the “king of Bourges”, Bourges being a city that is almost 200 kilometres south of Paris.

Joan and her voices

Joan would later state that she heard her first voices when she was thirteen years old, so in about 1425. She firmly believed these were the voices of Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, as well as the voice of Saint Michael the Archangel. God used these saints as intermediaries to speak to her. At some point the voices started commanding her to save France. After three years Joan decided to leave Domrémy, which was officially part of the Holy Roman Empire, and travel to Vaucouleurs, which is situated about 20 kilometres to the north. The local commander initially considered her stark raving mad and sent her packing, but she became ever more popular with the population of Vaucouleurs because the people did believe her stories about the voices. In the end the commander gave in and Joan was put on a horse wearing men’s clothing, sporting a short haircut and carrying a sword on her hip. She was then sent to Chinon, where Charles VII was residing.

Basilca of Bois-Chenu.

Small statue of Saint Margaret of Antioch in the church of Saint-Remy. Joan was said to have often prayed to this statue.

The distance between Vaucouleurs and Chinon is over 400 kilometres, so it can never have been an easy journey. Joan nevertheless arrived at her destination safely and was able to get into contact with the dauphin. Charles had her interrogated by scholars, while women examined her to establish whether she was still a virgin, which was crucial for her credibility. Joan passed the test and the dauphin allowed her to come to the relief of the city of Orleans. At the time that city – between Paris and Bourges – was under siege from the English. And lo and behold, although Joan probably did not participate in the fighting herself, she did manage to raise French morale so much that the French troops managed to rout the English at the beginning of May of 1429. The story of the “Maid of Orleans” had been born. The French subsequently won a decisive victory at Patay on 18 June of the same year. The victory gave Charles VII an opportunity to prove that the Treaty of Troyes was nothing but a worthless piece of paper for him. In order to become king of France, and not just king of Bourges, he now needed to be crowned, just like his predecessors, in the cathedral of Reims, a city northeast of Paris. A dangerous journey through enemy territory was necessary to get there, but Charles and his entourage arrived in Reims unscathed. On 17 July 1429 the coronation took place.

Fall, death and resurrection

Joan of Arc had now reached the height of her fame, but her relationship with the king quickly deteriorated. Charles was first and foremost a diplomat, while Joan wanted to fight on. Unfortunately an attempt to retake Paris from the English was a failure and in September of 1429 Joan was even wounded in the fighting. Next, in the spring of 1430, she tried to prevent the town of Compiègne, north of Paris, from falling into Burgundian hands. Joan managed to reach the town, but during a sortie on 23 May 1430 she was taken prisoner. Shortly after, the English reported to the Burgundian commander John of Luxemburg and requested her extradition. In the end, with the full consent of duke Philip the Good, John sold Joan to the English for 10,000 pounds. Charles VII did absolutely nothing to prevent the transaction. Perhaps he by now considered Joan, still hugely popular, a nuisance and was happy to be rid of her. She had proven her value in the past, but now she was mostly in the king’s way.

Coronation of Charles VII in Reims, mural by Lionel Royer.

The English took Joan to Rouen in Normandy, where she was dragged before an ecclesiastical court. Since she claimed to be receiving orders from divine voices, the charges were, among other things, blasphemy and heresy. She also wore men’s clothing, which was a violation of the rule from Deuteronomy 22:5. A man who played an important and extremely dubious role during the trial was Pierre Cauchon. He was the pro-English bishop of the town of Beauvais, which is situated about 50 kilometres west of Compiègne. It was through his efforts that Joan was extradited to the English, and in the ecclesiastical court that convicted her he also took centre-stage. Later the French hated him so much that they used to call him cochon, or ‘pig’. The trial against Joan of Arc lasted from February until May of 1431. After 56 sessions she was found guilty. On 30 May 1431 the “Maid of Orleans” was burned at the stake. It was a horrible death: Joan screamed for Jesus until she lost consciousness.

Joan of Arc burned at the stake, mural by Lionel Royer.

Charles VII remained on the French throne until 1461. During the final years of his reign, in 1455 to be exact, Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458) ordered a revision of the trial against Joan of Arc. On 7 July 1456 she was found innocent and completely rehabilitated. Furthermore, she was from now on considered a martyr. In 1909 Joan was beatified by Pope Pius X (1903-1914) and in 1920 she was canonised by his successor, Pope Benedictus XV (1914-1922).

Joan of Arc by Antonin Mercié.

Domrémy-la-Pucelle

Visitors arriving at the car park in Domrémy-la-Pucelle will immediately see that the village is closely connected to Joan of Arc. Opposite the car park is a statue of La Pucelle raising the sword of France. Behind Joan is a crowned woman with the familiar three lilies on her dress. She is the personification of France. Joan herself is wearing women’s clothing and by the looks of it also still has long hair. This was probably how people liked to see women at the end of the nineteenth century. The statue was made in 1893 by the sculptor and painter Antonin Mercié (1845-1916). It was placed here in 1902.

The house where Joan of Arc was born is quite spacious by medieval standards. We should, however, keep in mind that Joan had at least three brothers and a sister. The house has four rooms: the room used by the parents, where Joan was born, the room used by Joan and her sister, the room of the brothers and a storage room. The house remained in the possession of the family until it was sold somewhere in the sixteenth century. During the reign of King Louis XII (1498-1515) descendants of Joan’s brothers had the royal coat-of-arms and the coats-of-arms of two families added above the door of the house. Above these coats-of-arms we see a statue of a praying and kneeling Joan in a niche. Joan’s maison natale is otherwise quite empty, and visitors have to remind themselves all the time that this is the spot where one of the biggest heroines in French history was born. We nowadays see a house that is freestanding, but this was originally not the case. The house was surrounded by the farm owned by the Gérardin family (that acquired the house in the eighteenth century) and by other buildings, which were all demolished in 1820.

Altar retable with Saint Nicholas.

The Centre Johannique is located practically next to the maison natale. It has a number of works of art on display, such as busts of Joan, and allows visitors to watch documentaries about the heroine and saint. After visiting the centre, you should definitely go to the small church of Saint-Remy. The Gothic building dates from the thirteenth century, but was extensively remodelled in the nineteenth century. Remarkably, the orientation of the building was also reversed in this project, the choir becoming the façade and vice versa. The church is dedicated to Saint Remigius, the bishop of Reims who baptised the Frankish king Clovis at the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century. The name of the village, Domrémy, obviously also refers to this Remigius.

The church has nice stained glass windows made in 1955 by Pierre Gaudin (1908-1973) and several older objects. Examples include the baptismal font that was supposedly used for Joan’s baptism in 1412 and a statue of Saint Margaret of Antioch before which Joan is said to have often prayed. Also notable are two retables from the sixteenth century. One has a statue of Saint Nicholas with three children in a tub; these children were according to tradition murdered by an evil butcher and then sold as pies, but the saint managed to bring them back to life. Saint Nicholas is considered the patron saint of Lorraine. The other retable has a statue of the Madonna and Child. The objects date from the time when Claude du Lys, a great-nephew of Joan of Arc, was a priest (curé) in Domrémy. Much older is a fresco of Saint Sebastian which was discovered in 1904.

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Basilica of Bois-Chenu

If you first follow the Rue and then the Côte de la Basilique from Domrémy-la-Pucelle, you will arrive at the impressive Basilica of Bois-Chenu. The church was built between 1881 and 1926 on the spot where Joan of Arc supposedly first heard her voices.[1] Bois Chenu means something along the lines of ‘grey wood’ and there are indeed a lot of trees on the hill on which the basilica was built. In the valley there are lots of grazing sheep, but I already mentioned that the story of Joan as a shepherdess is a myth. Unsurprisingly, the basilica is dedicated to Saint Joan herself. As was already mentioned above, she was not made a saint until 1920, so originally the idea was to dedicate the basilica to Saint Michael the Archangel, one of the sources of Joan’s voices (apparently Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria were not considered). When the basilica was completed in 1926, Joan had been a saint for six years, making a dedication to her unproblematic.

Basilica of Bois-Chenu.

Sheep in the valley.

The first architect of the building was Paul Sédille (1834-1900). He passed away long before the basilica was finished. Upon his death the project was first continued by Georges Demay and then by Georges’ sons Émile and René Demay. The result of their efforts is an edifice which betrays mostly neo-Romanesque influences. Inside the basilica eight large murals immediately catch the eye. They were made by Lionel Royer (1852-1926) and represent events from the life of Joan of Arc. We see Joan on the battlefield, Charles VII’s coronation in Reims and the death of La Pucelle at the stake in Rouen. Below the murals quotes have been added that are attributed to Joan. Below the scene with the stake she for instance solemnly declares “mes voies étaient de Dieu” (“my voices came from God”). In excruciating pain – see the three exclamation marks – she then invokes Jesus.

Interior of the basilica.

The apse mosaic is a brilliant piece of work. The central figures are Saints Michael (centre), Margaret (right) and Catherine (left). The archangel is wearing golden armour and his halo is a flaming sun. With one hand he points at a scroll that has the words DE PAR LE ROY DU CIEL and in the other he is holding a banner with the words JESUS and MARIA. Above him God the Father, the dove of the Holy Spirit and the symbols of the four evangelists have been depicted. The thought behind the mosaic is that the words of Gods are first channelled to the archangel and the two female saints, and then to Joan, whose statue adorns the high altar.

Apse mosaic.

To the left of Saint Catherine (the woman with the black hair) we see a scale model of the basilica. On this side we also find an image of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). The basilica was completed during his pontificate, and he furthermore made Joan the second female patron saint of France, after the Virgin Mary. On the other side are two men behind a plan of the basilica. One of them is wearing civilian clothes. He is probably Paul Sédille, as the plan mentions the year 1881, being the year in which the construction of the basilica started. The military man on the far right is possibly Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929). Foch served as a general and field marshal in the French army during World War I. In November of 1918 he negotiated with the Germans about an armistice, which was ultimately signed on 11 November 1918. The signing took place in the forest of… Compiègne, so close to the place where Joan had been taken prisoner. Foch visited the – still uncompleted – basilica in 1920 and on that occasion thanked Joan (who had just been canonised) for the Allied victory in the war.

Dome mosaic.

Notre-Dame de Bermont.

Another mosaic, embellishing the inside of the dome, is also worth closer inspection. It features the apotheosis of Joan of Arc, who is of course part of the mosaic. We see the saint rising from the flames of the stake. She is surrounded by, from top to bottom and from left to right, the Virgin Mary, Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, the French king Louis IX the Saint and Charlemagne. In the centre of the mosaic the Holy Trinity has been depicted: a threefold Jesus with a cross, orb and book with the Greeks letters alpha and omega respectively.

Do not forget to visit the crypt of the basilica. Here we find, among other things, the Notre-Dame de Bermont, a painted statue of the Madonna and Child. The statue was originally in a chapel a few kilometres north of Domrémy-la-Pucelle. Joan of Arc often came there to pray. The stained glass windows in the crypt are splendid.

Note

[1] What is remarkable, is that Joan herself declared that she had first heard voices in her father’s garden.

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