JOAN OF ARC (1412-1431)

(Investigator 87, 2002 November)

Discounting biblical prophets and the ancient oracles of Rome and Greece, one of the earliest recorded visionaries in modern history was Joan of Arc, a simple country girl whose visions and voices led her to be the saviour of France and the tragic martyr of Rouen.

She started hearing the voices of the archangel St Michael and other saints at the age of thirteen, the message was always the same, that she must go to the Dauphin (the future King Charles VII), win back the kingdom, and see him crowned. Despite the ridicule and disbelief, she was finally granted an audience with the Dauphin who, wearing a disguise, stood apart from his throne with the other nobles present. The sixteen year old maid recognized him immediately* and the Dauphin listened to what she had to say.

In a France besieged by the English, the situation was desperate and the Dauphin's council was ready to try anything. They sent Joan, dressed as a knight, with the troops to the Duke of Orleans. The French troops rallied to her, the English suspecting that she was of the devil, fled, and the siege of Orleans was raised.

Joan was present at the subsequent crowning and coronation of the Dauphin at Rheims, but before her request to hang up her sword and return home was granted, the Burgundians betrayed her and handed her over to her enemies. Hounded by the Bishop of Beauvais, brought before the Inquisition, abandoned by her voices, she was tried on seventy counts of sorcery and witchcraft. Although the count was reduced to twelve by the time the trial was over and all references to witchcraft eliminated, she was convicted as a relapsed heretic and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Exonerated and rehabilitated in 1456 by the Church that had condemned her, she was beatified in 1894, and declared a saint in 1920.

Given the political climate at the time, a France facing imminent defeat at the hands of the English, it is not surprising that the Dauphin was prepared to grab at any straw, particularly in an age of religious superstition, when it was presented to him as a divine revelation.

We are far better placed today to suggest more prosaic explanations for Joan's visions, one of which is that she was an epileptic.

Accounts of possession by demons, revelations, voices and visions, proliferate in the Bible and ancient writings. Hippocrates argued in On the Sacred Disease, that the bizarre sensations, emotions and behaviours considered to be demonic possession were actually due to a brain disease, today we recognize the symptoms of epilepsy, one of many different kinds of genetic, medical, biochemical, and environmental factors which can cause "seizures", and which can manifest rarely or frequently and with varying intensity.

A grand mal seizure – violent convulsions subsiding into a coma – is the most dramatic, a petit mal seizure can result in little more than rhythmic eyeblinks and a temporary loss of consciousness, so brief in fact, as to go unnoticed even by the victim. Petit mal seizures result from epileptic discharges in the reticular system which control the arousal and attentional status of the brain, and during which, behaviour is beyond control. Stored behavioural programmes are being "read out" and favours the victim's assumption that an invisible entity has "taken over." Contact with the environment is not lost but seems unreal, and visual and auditory hallucinations interweave with the surroundings. Hearing voices and seeing visions under these circumstances are a common experience. This is borne out by those Joan saw and heard and albeit confined to those with which she was familiar in her own church, Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret.

While epilepsy would seem to offer the best explanation, it is by no means the only one, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is often associated with disturbances in the stream of logical thought, and although of political importance, the less charitable would dismiss the Maid of Orleans as a deluded hysteric subject to hypnogogic imagery.

* For those curious to know how Joan recognised the Dauphin, George Bernard Shaw makes a suggestion in scene 11 of his play Saint Joan.

The scene is set at Chinon, in Touraine, where the Archbishop of Rheims is talking to the Lord Chamberlain, Monseigneur de la Tremouille, and Gilles de Rais, known as Bluebeard. The Dauphin, aged 26, (really King Charles the seventh since the death of his father, yet uncrowned), is described as "a poor creature physically ... little narrow eyes, near together ... a long pendulous nose that droops over his thick short upper lip..."

CHARLES. "Come with me Bluebeard, and let us arrange so that she (Joan) will not know who I am. You will pretend to be me. (He exits.)

BLUEBEARD. "Pretend to be that thing! Holy Michael! (He follows the Dauphin.)

LA TREMOUILLE. I wonder will she pick him out!

THE ARCHBISHOP Of course she will!

LA TREMOUILLE. Why? How will she know?

THE ARCHBISHOP. She will know what everybody in Chinon knows: that the Dauphin is the meanest-looking and worst-dressed figure in the Court, and that the man with the blue beard is Gilles de Rais.


Beyerstein, B.L. Neuropathy and the Legacy Of Spiritual Possession. Skeptical Inquirer. 12(3):248:26 1.
Jones, Alison. 1992. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Cumberland House, Crib St. Ware, Hertfordshire. SG12 9ET.
Pernoud, R. Joan of Arc. Penguin. 1969.
Shaw, George Bernard. 1957. St Joan, Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd. Bungay, Suffolk.

(From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards)

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