Canonization of Joan of Arc

Nearly five hundred years after her execution as a heretic by an ecclesiastical court, Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who was inspired by voices she claimed were emissaries from God, was canonized in an elaborate ceremony that not only paid homage to her heroic virtue but also signaled a diplomatic milestone between the Vatican and France.

Summary of Event

During the Hundred Years’ War, a bloody dynastic conflict between England and France that occurred in intermittent phases during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Joan of Arc, a shepherdess in the farm country of Lorraine, began hearing voices she later claimed were divinely directed. These voices commanded her to deliver France from the relentless incursion of marauding English troops. At the time, France was dispirited: Its army was in disarray, most of its northern half was occupied, and its leader was a vacillating dauphin, still in his teens, who struggled against rumors of his illegitimacy. Joan was barely sixteen, but she was convinced of her divine mission and hastened to the dauphin’s court in Chinon, where she convinced him to support her enterprise. In May of 1429, under a banner inscribed “Jesus, Mary,” Joan led ten thousand soldiers in a successful siege of the fortified city of Orléans and then against English camps at Patay. Her courage and moral certainty inspired the men, and Joan stood next to the dauphin at the cathedral at Reims when he was crowned King Charles VII on July 17, 1429. Roman Catholic Church;saints
Saints, canonization
[kw]Canonization of Joan of Arc (May 16, 1920)
[kw]Joan of Arc, Canonization of (May 16, 1920)
Roman Catholic Church;saints
Saints, canonization
[g]Italy;May 16, 1920: Canonization of Joan of Arc[05120]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;May 16, 1920: Canonization of Joan of Arc[05120]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 16, 1920: Canonization of Joan of Arc[05120]
Joan of Arc
Pius X
Dupanloup, Félix-Antoine-Philibert
Calixtus III
Benedict XV
Charles VII

When Joan pursued English soldiers in order to liberate Paris, however, Charles denied her critical military support, and she was wounded and forced to retire for the winter. During a spring campaign near Compiègne, Joan was captured by French troops sympathetic to the English and subsequently sold to her enemy. Abandoned by Charles, whose throne she had helped secure, Joan was not treated as a military prisoner. Instead, she was turned over to ecclesiastical court at Rouen, the seat of the English occupational government, where she was held on charges of heresy and witchcraft. After a lengthy show trial by a tribunal made up of French clerics sympathetic to the English, Joan, an illiterate, signed a recantation of her claims of divine communication and was condemned to life imprisonment. After sentencing, Joan realized what she had signed, rescinded her recantation, and was summarily condemned as a relapsed heretic. On May 30, 1431, at the age of nineteen, she was burned alive at a stake in the marketplace at Rouen.

Almost immediately, a cult grew among the French surrounding the “Maid of Orléans.” Her fidelity to the French monarchy, her brave acceptance of a gruesome death, her love of France, her piety, and her claims of direct communication with God caused her to be embraced as both a mystic and a national hero (her efforts helped expel the English from France, a feat accomplished less than twenty years after her death). In 1455, Charles, his throne now secure, petitioned the Vatican to reexamine the court findings. The rehabilitation trial, convened in Paris, concluded that the first trial had been deeply flawed, that court records had been tampered with, that Joan had been imprisoned in conditions that had caused mental confusion, that jurisdiction between the secular and ecclesiastical courts had not been consistently maintained, that tribunal judges had been threatened, and that Joan’s repeated request to petition the pope had been ignored. On July 7, 1456, Pope Callixtus III annulled the verdict, but he did not endorse Joan’s claims of direct communication with God.

With the French monarchy established and the Catholic Church its de facto state religion, Joan remained a French cult figure and was the subject of legends and epic literature. Following the French Revolution, however, Joan’s legacy was eclipsed, and she was dismissed as a monarchist and a religious zealot. Napoleon I recognized the importance of the Church in French life and restored Joan’s place in French military history as a symbol of national pride whose stand against the British was particularly heroic. Given the anticlerical agendas adopted by of a succession of post-Napoleonic governments whose legislation limited the Church’s traditional privileges, the Vatican saw Joan of Arc’s legacy as a tool that could be used to increase the Church’s popularity and buttress its increasingly precarious position among the French.

On May 8, 1869, Bishop Félix-Antoine-Philibert Duplanloup of Orléans petitioned the Vatican to initiate the process of canonizing Joan. The Church had long avoided this issue and was made uneasy both by Joan’s claim to mystical communication and by the implications of canonizing someone the Church had executed. The process of examining the life of a proposed saint, always slow and meticulous, was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Following its humiliating defeat, France came under the political control of socialists who pursued aggressive anti-Church initiatives: They seized Church property, closed Catholic universities, forbade the public celebration of holy days, and subjected the appointment of priests and bishops to secular control. Diplomatic relations with the Holy See were severed. The Vatican repaired its relationship with the subsequent republican government, however, and on January 27, 1894, the process of Joan’s canonization was reinitiated. Evidence of four miracles directly tied to her intercession (a precondition for sainthood) was documented, although the Vatican waived the fourth, which asserted that Joan’s military victories were miraculous. On December 13, 1908, Pius X accepted the endorsement of the committee, and Joan was beatified in April of 1909.

The process toward canonization, however, was interrupted by World War I. After that horrific war—which was fought largely on French soil—the old schism between royalists and monarchists seemed unimportant. Given the French reacquisition of the disputed Catholic provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as part of the war’s settlement, the government’s restoration of limited rights to the Catholic hierarchy, and the revival of French nationalism in the wake of the war’s end, the Vatican completed the canonization process as a diplomatic move to ensure rapprochement between the Vatican and the postwar French socialist government. Canonization of France’s national heroine was pursued as a tool to help normalize diplomatic relations.

On May 16, 1920, Joan was canonized by Benedict XV at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Her feast day was designated as May 30, the date of her execution. She was canonized not as a martyr (her initial recantation as well as repeated attempted prison escapes were cited as evidence she did not fully embrace her approaching death), not as a mystic (at the time, her claims had not been officially investigated by the Church), and not as a military hero. Instead, the Church recognized in the perfect integrity of the body an exemplary victory over the pull of the flesh, and Joan was canonized as a virgin. Within two months, France’s socialist government, responding to the national fervor over the canonization, designated May 8 (the date of the fall of Orléans) a national holiday in Joan’s honor. By November, French diplomatic relations with the Vatican were officially resumed.


Traditionally, canonization recognizes unimpeachable lives of heroic virtue intended to serve as models for Christian Catholics. Joan of Arc presented an ironic case, however: She was put to death by the medieval Church as a heretic, and her trial records revealed her to be an imperfect model of humility and obedience to the Church. Centuries of devotion by the French, however, evidenced Joan’s profound influence.

Joan’s canonization proved an important point: Canonization often deals less with the religious life of a particular person and more with the cultural and political context surrounding the process of canonization. In her case, the Catholic Church wanted to establish a foothold in modern France, which was redefined by its fervent nationalism, its embrace of the atheistic doctrine of socialism, and its deep commitment to the intellectual revolution in science and rationalism. In the face of a de-Christianization that dramatically undercut the Church’s long-standing authority and in the wake of World War I’s disheartening effects on spirituality, Joan’s canonization was endorsed by Vatican authorities as a way to reignite Catholicism in France and to ensure the Church’s viability in public life. Roman Catholic Church;saints
Saints, canonization

Further Reading

  • Gies, Frances. Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. A historic look at Joan of Arc by an eminent medievalist. The closing chapters cover her canonization.
  • Gordon, Mary. Joan of Arc. New York: Viking, 2000. Accessible and illuminating account of Joan’s religious import by an important Catholic novelist.
  • Hobbins, Daniel. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. Groundbreaking reappraisal of Joan’s conviction that draws on new translations of court documents and Joan of Arc’s own testimony.
  • Richey, Stephen W. Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Biographical account that reconciles Joan’s military status with her spiritual dimension and its implications on her canonization.
  • Sullivan, Karen. The Interrogation of Joan of Arc. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. An intriguing examination of the trial record itself and its impact on the canonization process.
  • Wheeler, Bonnie, and Ann W. Astell, eds. Joan of Arc and Spirituality. New York: Macmillan, 2003. Essays examine Joan of Arc’s status as a visionary and a model of heroic spirituality.

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