Joan of Arc and Mental Illness
How do people distinguish heroism from madness? On January 6, 1412 in Domremy, France Jehanne d’Arc, known as Joan of Arc, was born. Many have theorized about Joan of Arc’s morals, sanity, and health because she was born around a time period in which individuals were fervid in their religious faith - in this case, of the Christian God. Joan began hearing voices around the age of twelve or thirteen. During the Hundred Years' War “she led French forces in triumph over English forces in several cities and restored the French king” (Miller). It was then after the war when Joan was falsely accused of heresy. They said she saw visions and heard voices of angels and saints. In modern day she would have been diagnosed with disabilities ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia. Recent research from two Italian neurologists Dr. Giuseppe d' Orsi and Paola Tinuper “says it may have been a case of genetic, partial epilepsy with auditory hallucination that was the cause of her health” (“What Really Caused the Voices in Joan of Arc's Head?"). “Epilepsy is a disorder in which nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed, causing seizures” ("Epilepsy"). Schizophrenia is a “disorder that affects a person's ability to think, feel, and behave clearly and hallucination is a perception of having seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled something that wasn't actually there” ("Schizophrenia"). Common disabilities during the medieval era were “the 'lepre', the 'blynde', the 'dumbe', the 'deaff', the 'natural fool', the 'creple', the 'lame' and the 'lunatick'"("Disability in the Medieval Period 1050-1485").
In the course of medieval time period, thoughts on disability were very mixed, just as they are today: “People thought it was a punishment for sin, others believed that disabled people were closer to God - they were suffering purgatory on earth rather than after death and would get to heaven sooner” ("Disability in the Medieval Period 1050-1485"). Others accepted the fact that people may be born with a disability, or could be disabled by diseases like years of backbreaking work or leprosy. In modern day America, “The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” ("Definitions of Disability").
By some, Joan of Arc was considered a holy figure, and her prophecy destined to save France was accepted and treated as divinely inspired. On the other hand, the English magistrates captured her over a three-month time period and charged her with witchcraft, blasphemy, and for dressing in male attire. In a remarkable trial that lasted altogether under “five months” they questioned her closely about the voices and visions, whether she was in a state of God’s grace, and why she wore men’s clothing. At the start of the trial she was to “swear and declare that she will answer the articles each one individually, as she believes or does not believe. And if she refuses to swear, if she is reluctant or delays overmuch after you have instructed and summoned her to do this may she be deemed at fault and contumacious in her presence; and as her obstinacy requires, may she be declared excommunicated for manifest offenses” (Hobbins 120). At the age of just nineteen year old, she was burned at the stake.
Some people may say that claims made towards Joan of Arc would have been different if she was a male. During her trial they kept referring back to the question of why she wore male clothing. Some claim that she was not deemed insane because she heard voices but the fact that she played a male role better than perhaps the men she encountered or the ones who fought alongside her during the Hundred Years' War or the fact she was able to bring the French King victory as a woman. When Joan was captured “nothing worthy to be censured was found in her, except the male attire which she wore. Her gaoler brought her none but male attire” (Pernoud 219).
Whether Joan Of Arc had a disability or not, the cause of her death was not because of her disability but because she was a female playing a male role: “Women are impaled on the cross of self-sacrifice. Unlike men, they are categorically denied the experience of supremacy and individuality” (Chesler 91). This fact causes women to be labelled as "mad." Joan of Arc serves as a example of a woman who was spiritually and physically bold. She was a leader of men.
Aberth, John. A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. Routledge, 2003.
Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness. Lawrence Hills Books, 2005.
“Disability in the Medieval Period 1050-1485.” Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1050-1485/.
“Definitions of Disability,” Disabled World, 21 Apr., 2019. https://www.disabled-world.com/definitions/disability-definitions.php.
“Epilepsy.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Aug. 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20350093.
Hobbins, Daniel, trans. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Harvard University Press, 2005.
Miller, Mark. “Neurologists Speculate That Joan of Arc Heard Voices Because She Suffered from Epilepsy.” Ancient Origins, 3 Aug. 2016. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/neurologists-speculate-joan-arc-heard-voi ces-because-she-suffered-epilepsy-020929.
Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses. Scarborough House, 1994.
“Schizophrenia.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Apr. 2018.https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms-causes/syc-2035 4443.
“What Really Caused the Voices in Joan of Arc's Head?,” Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/55597-joan-of-arc-voices-epilepsy.html.