Of all the intriguing and interesting people of medieval Europe, Jeanne d’Arc (commonly known as Joan of Arc, c. 1412-1431) lived one of the most unique lives. Jeanne was the daughter of a peasant farmer named Jacques d’Arc and his wife, Isabelle, who lived in the village of Domrémy. Jeanne was acclimated to the chaos of the age quickly, for Domrémy was situated on the frontline of the wars between the Dauphin, Charles (later King Charles VII of France, r. 1422/1429-1461) and King Henry VI of England (who was allied to the Burgundians). Despite being raised in this tense atmosphere, even sometimes being forced to flee from Domrémy because of the threat posed by Burgundians, Jeanne nevertheless persevered with the hope and confidence that she received from the Church and the scripture it preached. Yet, Jeanne’s sense of divine assurance and purpose ascended to abnormal levels when she became thirteen years of age. As she, herself, described her circumstances, teenage Jeanne suddenly began hearing heavenly voices and seeing faces of semi-obscure saints and angels. While the scientifically- and medically- inclined might attempt to write off her experiences as a condition of the mind, such as schizophrenia, Jeanne truly believed that angels and spirits were making contact with her—and they started to do so on a near-daily basis for the rest of her life. Whatever the reason for the sounds and sights that she experienced, the voices and visions served Jeanne well, successfully counseling her on how to befriend lords, win battles, and conquer towns.
Although Jeanne d’Arc claimed to have been contacted by many different angels and saints, her most frequent advisors were said to have been the spirits of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch. Interestingly, besides advising Jeanne on her daily actions, the voices and faces encouraged the young mystic to obtain certain items. For one, a buried sword was found by Jeanne at the church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, and she claimed she learned of its location through her heavenly advisors. The next item that Jeanne’s voices would direct her to obtain, however, needed to be procured in a different way than the sword. Whereas the blade was already in existence, the next object that the saintly spirits wanted Jeanne to possess had not yet been made. Instead of coordinates, Jeanne apparently received precise instructions that she was to covey to a cloth-worker. Jeanne d’Arc was instructed to commission a battle-worthy banner, made from schematics that, she claimed, came straight from heaven.
After Jeanne d’Arc was captured in May 1430, she was put on trial by bishops and theologians from English and Burgundian cities that she had recently attacked. While the inquisitors likely never intended to show mercy on her (after all, she was a military threat and a religious rival to the English and Burgundian bishops), they did spend months questioning Jeanne on all sorts of topics. Thankfully, transcripts of these ill-fated interrogations and trials were preserved, creating a treasure trove of biographical, historical, philosophical and theological information about Jeanne d’Arc. Among this horde of knowledge is a description from Jeanne d’Arc of the banner that she commissioned to be made, as well as statements about the role that the spirits of St. Catherine and St. Margaret had in the creation of the holy flag.
During questioning on Februrary 27, 1431, Jeanne d’Arc gave a fairly detailed description of the banner design that she received during a vision with her heavenly advisors. The banner material—the foundation on which all else was placed—consisted of white linen, fringed with silk. This white field, as it were, was covered in a pattern of symbols that resembled lilies. In the center of the banner, a depiction of the world was featured, and it was designed in such a way that the world looked as if it were supported or judged by Heaven. Reinforcing this divine theme were two angels, situated on opposite sides of the banner. Finally, somewhere on a side of the banner, Jeanne stitched the names Jesus and Mary onto the cloth. The medieval court record’s wording of her description read as follows: “She answered she had a banner, with a field sown with lilies; the world was depicted on it, and the two angels, one at each side; it was white, or white linen or boucassin, and on it were written, she thought, these names, JHESUS MARIA; and it was fringed with silk” (The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, Fourth Public Session). Jeanne d’Arc did not elaborate on the role of the spirits, St. Catherine and St. Margaret, in the creation of the banner until March 10, 1431. On that date, interrogation transcripts recorded, “she answered that St. Catherine and St. Margaret told her to take the banner, and bear it boldly, and to have painted thereon the King of Heaven” (The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, First Session In Prison).
Curiously, King Charles VII of France gave Jeanne’s family an entirely different banner, presumably after he declared them nobles in December, 1429. According to Jeanne, her brothers were each given banners that featured a blue shield, a sword, and two fleurs-de-lys. Although Jeanne d’Arc was apparently given leave by the French king to carry this newer banner, too, she preferred her original standard, with its world, lilies and angels.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Reproduction attributed to Neurdein Freres of Jean Jacques Scherrer’s painting of Joan of Arc’s Entry Into Orleans, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, compiled by Pierre Champion and W. P. Barret, with further translation from Coley Taylor and Ruth H. Kerr. Gotham House, Inc. 1932.