“Then occurred a miracle, or the nearest thing to an attested miracle in recorded history.” –Historian Morris Bishop on the story of Joan of Arc
She is the smallest person on this list, and she died the youngest. With no formal education or military experience, this teenage peasant turned the tide of a war that began over 70 years before she took her first breath. As a result of her heroics, she altered the course of French history and, by consequence, English history, and, by consequence of that, world history as well. Her unique legacy and iconic image have served as inspirations ever since.
If there are such things as miracles, then Joan of Arc, the 27th most influential person in Western history, was surely one.
Joan of Arc was born to Jacques Darc and Isabelle Romée in 1412. She was raised in Domrémy, a village in northeast France. Like most late medieval Europeans, the Darcs were a peasant family. They worked 50 acres of land and hoped for little more than to outlast famines, wars, malnutrition, and plagues before getting into heaven after merciful death ended their short, brutal lives.
Young Joan — a description that could be used for her entire life — helped in the fields, minding crops and herding animals. She spun and wove like a good girl. A formal education was impossible for a vast majority of medieval Europeans, to say nothing of a female peasant. She stayed illiterate except for memorizing the alien shapes that were the letters of her name.
Yet, somehow, this uneducated peasant girl would redirect the momentum of the interminable Hundred Years’ War. Before we get to the legendary voices in Joan’s head or the teenager’s miraculous leadership of the dwindled and demoralized French army, we must first establish just how poorly things were going for the Kingdom of France in the 1420s.
The term “Hundred Years’ War” is misleading in a couple ways, though it does lend an accurate portrayal of a miserable century. First, the beginning and end dates are actually 116 years apart — the war started in 1337 and ended in 1453. Moreover, it wasn’t one continuous war; there was the Edwardian War (1337-1360), the Caroline War (1369-1389), and the decisive Lancastrian War (1415-1453).
The conflict began over competing inheritance claims for the French throne; the King of England claimed it, and the people of France resisted. Ninety years later, long after the original competing claimants and their children were dead and buried, the battle for France’s crown raged on.
Though the length of the war shows it was not totally one-sided — indeed, it was a back and forth conflict for much of the 116-year struggle — the overall trend for France was negative. In 1415, by Joan’s third birthday, all of northern France was in enemy hands. Fought exclusively on French land, the war had taken over a million French lives. Among the many fallen French cities were the capital of Paris and the city of Reims, whose cathedral was the coronation site of French kings dating back to the late fifth century.
War wasn’t the only scourge to visit the kingdom. The virulent Black Death made itself right at home. Across the continent, it killed somewhere around a third of the population, with a city like Paris losing half its population of 100,000. Indeed, between plague and war, the population of France is thought to have fallen from 17 million before the war to half that by its end. Imagine it — losing half a country’s population in just over a century’s time.
If war and plague weren’t enough, the French government was in utter shambles. Joan’s birth, and the first ten years of her life, came under the reign of King Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). Bouts of madness and delusion mired Charles’s reign. Toward the end of his rule, he earned the moniker “Charles the Mad.”
In 1415, the Battle of Agincourt seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of France. King Henry V of England (he of Shakespeare fame) spurred his army to overcome the French’s superior numbers to win the field. An estimated 40 percent of France’s nobility rallied to Agincourt’s cause and were among the thousands killed. Henry, whose outnumbered army captured thousands more, felt the prisoners were too numerous to control and ordered their deaths. He used the victory as a launching point to conquer more land.
The situation grew bleaker still. By 1419, Henry brokered an alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy; its presence east of France further encircled the dying French Kingdom.
Then, adding insult to injury, Henry married Charles’s daughter. He forced Charles to sign the Treaty of Troyes, which acknowledged that a future son of Henry and his French bride was heir to the French throne. However, when Charles and Henry coincidentally both died in 1422, many French ignored the treaty. After all, Henry’s son, Henry VI, was but an infant, and France still didn’t want to be ruled by an Englishman. Thus, many believed that Charles’s 19-year-old son, also named Charles, was the true heir, so there was confusion as to whom the crown legally belonged. The war thundered on.
Unfortunately — and importantly in the story of Joan — young Charles was not yet officially King of France, as he was not able to be crowned at Reims while the enemy controlled it. He was known, then, merely as Charles “the Dauphin,” or heir apparent to the throne. Thus, for the bulk of the decade, the French were not only losing ground, they were without a king.
Eventually, the English came across the city of Orléans, a sizeable French town on the banks of the strategic Loire River (see map above). The longest river in France, it started in the Cévennes Mountains in southeast France, cut through the heart of France, where Orléans sat, then emptied into the Atlantic. Orléans was the most important position on France’s most important river.
The English could not get inside Orléans’s defenses, so they lay siege to the city for six months. They waited for starvation, knowing that with the city’s fall, the rest of France would quickly fall with it. Orléans became the last bastion and hope of the French people. Historian Régine Pernoud encapsulates the moment perfectly: “On the fate of Orléans hung that of the entire kingdom.”
Naturally, saving Orléans and the rest of France from their once imminent demise was an illiterate peasant girl from Domrémy.
We now arrive at the entrance of our miracle main character. During the English domination of the 1420s, she began to hear, and see visions of, the saints Michael, Margaret, Catherine. They had a mission for her: they instructed that she break the siege of Orléans, take France’s land back from its English occupiers, and get Charles the Dauphin to Reims to be crowned king.
So she did.
In 1428, at 16-year-old Joan ran from home to visit a fortress captain near her town. She told him everything. He sent her home. She returned in early 1429 and demanded an audience with the Dauphin, who stayed safe in the town of Chinon. She was said to be so insistent and convincing that the captain acquiesced and sent her and two guards to see Charles.
The Dauphin, warned of her arrival, attempted to avoid her, but Joan was nothing if not persistent. She found him and told him her tale. Suspecting witchcraft or insanity, Charles had her examined. A doctor and two noble women confirmed not only her sanity, but, importantly, her virginity as well. Charles was won over. He gave her a suit of armor, a lance, and a horse. A delighted teenage Joan rode out to a nearby field to play, slaying imaginary Englishmen with her new toys. Morris Bishop writes that this was probably the only fun she would have in her short life.
With little to lose, Charles allowed her to travel to Orléans to try and lift the six-month siege. Joan and about 500 soldiers marched to the city, though ten times that many English awaited them. As per the plan, most of the French troops distracted the English enough for Joan and the remaining soldiers to sneak into the city with some supplies. For the next few days, she toured the city streets, giving out food and raising morale. She soon convinced many people of her story. Within ten days, a revitalized Orléans, who learned that France had not given up on them — and perhaps, even better, that God has sent their savior in the form of this infectiously optimistic girl — concentrated their efforts and broke the English siege. Thousands of Englishmen lay dead, their surviving comrades retreating. It was the first substantial French victory since the disastrous events at Agincourt nearly 15 years earlier.
In the following months, Joan “led” battle after victorious battle. The English hurried Paris-stationed reinforcements to meet and defeat Joan’s resurrection, but not only did they also fail, their commanders were captured. Joan then turned her sights on Reims and cut a swath to it. On July 17, 1429, at the Reims Cathedral, Charles the Dauphin finally became King Charles VII. Beaming by his side was a 17-year-old heroine. Paris was recaptured soon after. The tide of the war had been turned.
On the face of it, such a turn of events makes little sense. France was all but beaten. England had every ounce of momentum. How can one explain this reversal of fortune without surrendering to Joan’s account of divine guidance? Was this truly one of history’s miracles?
Perhaps. Leaving aside the premise that God would, for some unknowable reason, prefer a French victory, it is worth noting that Joan’s ignorance of the situation was possibly her greatest asset. A reeling France had been fighting a purely defensive war since Agincourt. As such, they only tried to slow the English attack. For example, before Joan’s arrival, only once in six months did they attempt to break the siege at Orléans. Contrarily, Joan, consumed by determination and destiny rather than defeatism and despair, took the fight directly to the English. Once France realized that they could win a few battles, the French ranks swelled. The rejuvenated French army snatched away England’s momentum and never gave it back, winning the war in 1453.
The end of Joan’s story is a sad one. In 1430, the Burgundians captured her in battle and sold her to the English. In 1431, a trial ensued in the English-occupied French town of Rouen. The trial was politically motivated — understandable, considering she was instrumental in crowning a rival claimant to the throne over which the entire war was fought — but was instead tried under the guise of sorcery. After all, she heard voices and saw visions. She was charged with witchcraft, magic, impiety, and, of course, wearing men’s clothes. For months she was aggressively interrogated until she final crumbled and admitted witchcraft. A later retraction could not save her, and the 19-year-old Joan was pronounced guilty in May. She was brought to Rouen’s marketplace for burning. Her final request was for a cross, so an English soldier fashioned one out of two sticks. She kissed it, held it to her chest, and called to her lord and savior no less than six times as she was burned alive.
Despite Joan’s execution, France won the war and regained almost all its land. England, which held dominion over about a third of French lands in 1429, lost all of it but the northern port city of Calais (which they coughed up in 1558).
The effect of this land loss cannot be overstated. England held large chunks of French land dating back to Frenchman William the Conqueror’s 1066 Norman Invasion of Britain. Losing it all was, perhaps, the best thing to ever happen to the country. The stripping of its continental land relegated England to an island nation. As such, England shed its European aspirations and developed a laser focus on naval development, alongside which a seafaring class soon thrived. Portugal and Spain dominated the oceans in the decades directly following the Hundred Years’ War, but by the end of the following century it was England who claimed supremacy over the seas. The Union Jack eventually circled the globe. The British claimed land on every continent, becoming the strongest power the world had ever seen. At its height, one-quarter of Earth’s land and population were part of British territory, an empire on which the sun never set.
Britain used its naval might to remain the foremost global power until the early twentieth century, guiding the world’s affairs and exporting English culture and rule of law to all corners of the globe. Its numerous colonies, though not without their fair share of conflicts with the Crown (ahem), benefited from the lessons and infrastructure provided by their overlords. Without Joan of Arc leading the French to victory, the English would have spent so much of its energy maintaining their European empire that they would have neither the inclination nor the resources to set sail and transform others in a way not seen since Rome.
The importance for France, meanwhile, was even greater — it survived as a nation. Without Joan of Arc, it is likely France would have ceased to exist as a sovereign state. The last five centuries without France yield a world without the influential Bourbon Dynasty, French colonization, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe and his modernizing Napoleonic Code. A world without France has no strong ally for the American colonists in their revolution against the British. A world without France cannot birth the the enormously important Franco-English alliance of the last century that twice fought against expansionist German empires. They have since become two separate, important polities and votes on the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the European Union.
Much more difficult to assess are Joan’s indirect effects, though they are still substantial. She has served as a symbol of inspiration and propaganda for centuries after her death. During the French Revolution, French monarchists used her as symbol of defending the king, while radicals used her as an icon of the French masses. In World War I, the British used her as propaganda, trying to get women to buy war bonds. When Germany occupied France during World War Two, German propaganda used her to remind the French of her corrupt English trial, while French resistance fighters of course used her as a symbol of struggling against foreign occupation. Clerics have promoted her relationship with the saints, while state officials prefer her rallying to the king. Suffragettes on both sides of the Atlantic, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, appropriated her image to champion female capacity in the face of a male-dominated world. Indira Gandhi is on the record as citing Joan of Arc as her reason for getting into politics. Joan has been a character in a Shakespearean play and another by George Bernard Shaw. Voltaire wrote a poem about her. Verdi wrote an opera about her. So did Tchaikovsky. Even the late Leonard Cohen paid tribute. (That’s when you know you’re big.) An inspiration across the West, she’s as much the Muse as she is the Maid of Orléans.
Of course, beyond being an inspiration, this small, young, peasant girl, in a very real way, altered the destinies of France, England, and the world. For these reasons, Joan of Arc is the 27th most influential person in Western history.
Joan of Arc was not from a place called Arc. Arc, in fact, was not a place at all. The family name was probably Darc, as apostrophes in French surnames did not yet exist. Instead, the English later determined they must have been called d’Arc, which gave us the “of Arc” part. Instead of in imaginary Arc, the Darcs lived in Domrémy, which has since been renamed to Domremy-la-Pucelle in honor of Joan and her nickname, la Pucelle d’Orléans — “the Maid of Orléans.” And as long as we’re talking about shaky names, Joan’s name was Jehanne, but the English Anglicized the name to their closest female approximation of John.
Historian Kelly DeVries said of Joan’s story, “If anything could have discouraged her, the state of France in 1429 should have.”
The controversy was the end of the Capetian line after the sons of Philip IV (#29 in our countdown) died without heirs. England’s King Edward III claimed the throne on account of being Philip IV’s grandson. True enough, Philip’s daughter, Isabella, had married the English king Edward II in 1308. Their child, Edward III, was therefore half Capetian through his mother, and, since there were no full Capetians remaining, he claimed the throne. The French nobility predictably opposed being ruled by an Englishman and hurriedly appointed Philip IV’s nephew, Charles of Valois, as the next king, inaugurating the Valois Dynasty.
Why Reims? I’m glad you asked. In 496, Clovis, King of the Franks — the Frankish Empire later evolved into France just as Clovis’s name later evolved into the first of eighteen “Louis”es — became the first of all the medieval European kings to convert to Catholicism, and he did so at Reims through a baptism by its archbishop. His kingdom converted with him, which would have been a blip on the historical radar if it weren’t for a later Frank by the name of Charlemagne spreading Catholicism throughout western Europe, ingraining the denomination into its culture. To say that Catholicism would not be the world’s largest denomination without Clovis’s conversion is not an unreasonable argument. (And yet, he doesn’t make my Top 30. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this list was not easy.)
Examples: he thought he was made of glass, he denied the existence of his wife and children, he randomly attacked servants, and once he ran and ran without stop until he collapsed in a heap of not-so-regal exhaustion.
What’s more, in an effort to right the sinking ship, Charles’s younger brother, Louis of Orléans, wrested some power away to manage the kingdom. In 1407, however, he was assassinated on the orders of cousin John the Fearless, who himself had dreams of the throne. John, too, became embroiled in French government, scandal, and the Hundred Years’ War before also falling victim to assassination in 1419. I’m telling you, the country was a mess.
Historian Stephen W. Richey’s analysis of his dubious decision explains Charles’s desperate situation: “After years of one humiliating defeat after another, both the military and civil leadership of France were demoralized and discredited. When the Dauphin Charles granted Joan’s urgent request to be equipped for war and placed at the head of his army, his decision must have been based in large part on the knowledge that every orthodox, every rational option had been tried and had failed. Only a regime in the final straits of desperation would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory.”
Joan, who became known as “The Main of Orléans” after the victory, was clearly a wondrous inspirer of a shattered people, but she had a lot to learn about war campaigns. After breaking the siege, she met with Charles and insisted on a direct line to Reims to crown him. Military advisers disagreed and vetoed the child, wisely opting to instead take back the Loire River. Still, Joan was pivotal in securing enough volunteers to bolster French forces. She may not have been a true warrior or military genius, but there was no better standard-bearer.
When William, the Duke of Normandy, took the English throne, he did not cede his Norman lands. The following century, English King Henry II engineered quite the coup when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the ex-wife of the French King Louis VII, who brought her enormous territory in southwest France. England would lose these lands and gain some back over the centuries, but after the Hundred Years’ War, they lost them for good.
England’s victory in the 1588 Battle of the Spanish Armada serves as the symbolic transition from the era of Spanish naval dominance to that of England.
Of the many former European colonies throughout the world, those once occupied by the British have since been, as a general rule, far more stable and successful than their Spanish and French counterparts. Think about it.
Most frightening, a world without France is a world without jokes about France.