France Celebrates Joan of Arc's (Fake) Birthday

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Image: Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet at the Place des Pyramides, in Paris. Gilt bronze, 1899. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons).

Celebrations abounded in France today to mark the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century peasant girl who led the French army to victory against the English, was burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft, and five centuries later was declared a saint.

Looking for a patriotic boost in the presidential election campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a 19 minute praise of the medieval heroine as he visited her native village of Domremy-La-Pucelle.

Although it might prove effective from a political perspective, Sarkozy's commemoration was likely made on the wrong day.

"January 6 was almost certainly not the day of Joan's birth," Nancy Goldstone, the author of the forthcoming book The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc, told Discovery News.

Indeed, there is no record of Joan's date of birth nor her baptism — after all, individual birthdays were not celebrated in the 15th century.

According to Goldstone, January 6th, the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Three Kings (or wise men/ Magi) to the infant Jesus, is actually one of the few dates that can be ruled out as Joan's birthday.

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If Joan was born on that important Christian holiday, Goldstone argues, her family might have remembered the event.

Instead, Joan herself did not know when she was born, as it emerges from her testimony at her Trial of Condemnation in January 1431.

"As far as I know, [I am] about 19 years old," she said.

So, if it is unlikely that January 6 was the day of her birth, it's pretty certain that 1412 was the year.

After six hundred years, Joan's story still resonates loud and powerful.

"Joan is the incarnation of patriotism, which is the love of one's country without the hatred of others," Sarkozy said.

"Joan is what France has singularly, and most universally," he added.

Late in France's Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the illiterate peasant girl claimed to have heard voices of angel instructing her to raise the siege of Orléans, to push the English out of France and place the dauphin (the heir to the throne) Charles VII on the throne at Reims.

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Within a year, however, the king's enemies captured, put on trial and executed the 19 year old heroine by burning.

Joan was exonerated in a second, posthumous trial 25 years later and declared a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

According to Goldstone, the January 6 date comes from a letter written on June 21, 1429 by a French courtier to the duke of Milan.

"The French aristocrat, by the name of Perceval de Boulainvilliers, knew nothing about Joan's background. He simply fabricated her birth," Goldstone said.

In order to gain the help and political support of the wealthy duke, Perceval fancifully described the girl who had amazingly ended the siege of Orléans in a week.

"It was during the night of the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6, Twelfth Night), when men are wont most joyfully to recall the acts of Christ that she first saw the light in this mortal life," wrote Perceval.

"The cocks like heralds of a new joy, against their wont, burst forth in songs not heard before, and with flapping wings for more than two hours appeared to foretell this new event," he added.

Although it was filled with picturesque and improbable details, Perceval's report has since then remained at the basis for Joan's birthday. 

"Over time, the January 6 date was accepted as historical fact," Goldstone said.