When I was a teenager, I found a very old and tattered comic book about a young French woman receiving messages from spiritual beings. This young woman eventually became the champion of the French people against the English. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc. I do not know why but her story captivated my young mind and made a big impression on me. I proceeded to research more about her because I had questions that I wanted answered. How did she start? What was her family like? How did she become the savior of France? What was the turning point in her Life which made her become the warrior that she was. Since she came from humble beginnings, what were the circumstances that catapulted her to play the role of a military leader, a martyr and later on a saint. Did she go to school? Was she a good student?
What impressed me most about her was that at a young age of 17, she took on many responsibilities and commanded respect and fear when she led battles against the English. But those were the days when teens did not have to be told to be responsible. Since times were hard, people matured early, married early and died early due to mysterious illnesses, famines or wars.
And what about that story that she received messages directly from God or other worldly beings? Did heavenly beings really talk to her? What must a persons’ qualifications be for God to talk to her? Could that really be possible or was she just an undiagnosed bipolar hearing voices in her head? These were questions that occupied my mind and kept me awake at night until sleep finally claimed me.
Jeanne d’Arc was born to poor farmer parents in Domremy in 1412, during the ‘Hundred Year War’ when France and England were fighting over the French throne. While growing up, Jeanne lived a simple, normal peasant life learning domestic work from her mother like taking care of the animals and becoming a good seamstress. No one expected it when at age 13, she started to have visions which slowly progressed to experiencing and communicating with the presence of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret.
According to stories, she started to have these “visions” during the same year (1425) that the English along with the Burgundians attacked and burned down Jeanne’s town, Domremy. Some say that this traumatic experience brought about the onset of these “visions” when she received messages from these holy beings telling her that she will deliver France from the English, giving her instructions to seek an audience with King Charles VII so she could tell him that she will help install him as the rightful heir to the throne.
True enough, the 17 year old Jeanne d’Arc with cropped hair and wearing men’s clothes, led the French troops and won the battle over the English sites in Orleans in 1429.
In 1430, when Jeanne d’Arc was 18, she was captured in a battle in Compiegne by the French English supporters, the Burgundians who then sold her to the English. Jeanne was accused of many things including 70 counts of witchcraft, heresy and cross-dressing as a man. Nothing sticked because she was good at defending herself. Since her accusers could not find anything else, they pressed harder on the cross-dressing issue and got her tried with heresy.
In May 30, 1431, in the marketplace of Rouen, Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stakes for heresy. In 1456 however, a reinvestigation was ordered by King Charles VII and she was finally absolved and declared innocent. In 1920, she became the patron saint of France.
Finding Jeanne d’Arc
(The building at the right most portion with tall clock is the Gare SNCF train station in Rouen. This is where the train arrives from Paris and leaves for Paris.)
I thought the town of Rouen would be small. After over an hour by train ride, my daughter and I arrived in Rouen. We had to walk for a good 20-25 minutes from the train station to the tourist centre where we registered and got a map and information so that we could freely navigate and plan where we wanted to go in this big, modern town.
Located very near the tourism office in the heart of Rouen is the gothic inspired Notre-Dame Cathedral built in the 12th century. Destroyed partially by many enemies in the past, its design continued to evolve according to what needed to be reconstructed and fixed. A unique characteristic added during the19th century is the cast iron spire that rises up to 151 meters in height, by far the highest in France.
Parliament of Normandy, Courthouse (Palais de Justice)
Built towards the end of the Middle Ages, the Gothic edifice Palais de Justice was erected in the Jewish quarter of the City. Large attic windows and balustrades are also adorned with spires with gargoyle details.
With only 4 to 5 hours to explore on foot before our train ride back to Paris at 6:30pm , we homed in on the marketplace where Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The exact location is marked by this very tall white pillar cross in a garden.
Beside it is the beautiful St. Jeanne d’Arc church that was built to honor her martyrdom.
(The shape of the roof and the small hallways of the church reminds us of the flames of the stake.)
(Inside, wrapping the front of the church is a stained glass window saved and re-used from the former church of St. Vincent dating back to the Renaissance period.)
(These stained glass windows are the works of early 16th century master glaziers.)
(Standing quietly and deep in thought, as I slowly took in the beauty around me, the daylight streaming through the stained-glass windows and bathing the inside of the church with a warm, holy glow.)
Adjacent to this garden where Jeanne was burned at the stake and where the church was built in her memory, is a town square surrounded by shops and restaurants. There were stone benches in the center where we could sit down, enjoy the scenery and take photos because it was a really beautiful place. If I didn’t know that this was where Jeanne was burned for heresy with at least 10,000 spectators to witness her death, I wouldn’t have believed it. Everything was just beautiful, perfect and touristy.
(This is the town square where people usually congregate with their friends and family to rest, take selfies and plan the next step of the Rouen trip. Restaurants surround this area so there were plenty of choices on where to eat and drink. The picturesque facades of the half-timbered houses and restaurants structures had this unique look that is present all over town.)
(This is the town square area with the church of St. Jeanne d’Arc on the left side looking metallic and modern from the outside.)
Checking out this area made me very hungry and craving for Chinese sweet & sour fish. What a strange craving to have here in Rouen, France. In the middle of the site where Jeanne d’Arc perished, we followed my craving and searched high and low for a Chinese restaurant. We were referred to a fast-food Chinese restaurant where I ordered the most sumptuous sweet and sour rice dish that cured my strong craving. Perhaps because it had been weeks that I had not eaten rice and I was starting to miss it.
(The Great Clock)
We walked around the city and we saw this very handsome structure with a Gothic belfry, a Renaissance archway with a clock face and an 18th century fountain. The Great Clock was restored in 2006.
As we walked around the city of Rouen we saw these attractive structures that housed modern boutiques and restaurants. Clearly, while Rouen is a city with Gothic and Renaissance architectural heritage, it is also a modern city that embraces the future.
On our way out, we decided to make one last stop at the Jeanne d’Arc Tower and dungeon.
(Jeanne d’Arc Tower/ Dungeon)
It is a dungeon, a remaining structure from the castle built in 1204 during the reign of Philippe Auguste. Jeanne d’Arc was imprisoned and said to be tortured in the ground floor of this structure. There is a fee to go in to see scale models and representations of Jeanne d’Arc over the centuries.
After our personal tour in Rouen following the sites where Jeanne d’Arc had been, I came to a personal conclusion that perhaps it’s not spiritual beings talking to us that changes us. Yes, places and circumstances have a way of influencing and shaping an individual but I believe it is still the individual that finally decides “enough is enough”, “I will stop living life in default”. “I will change my world”. “I will change my life and live it the way I want.”