Tag Archives: History of Empowered Women

Joan of Arc – Maid, Mystic, Heretic, Saint

joan of arc astride a horse in battle
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

What possessed, Joan of Arc, a normal, 15th century teenaged girl from a modest village, to travel for 11 days to tell the dauphin of France she needed to lead an an army to Orléans to save the country from English power?

What possessed the dauphin to grant her request, against the advice of his councilors and generals?

When I reacquainted myself with the story of Joan of Arc for this blog post, a thought kept popping into my mind: What would happen if a common girl today went to the leader of her country and claimed that God commanded only she could save her country from its enemies? The leader would probably laugh at her and then have her committed. She would not be taken seriously.

At all.

So what made the dauphin and military leaders of the time, follow the advice of this young, country peasant?

#1) Her piety.

Like other girls in the village of Domrémy, Joan helped her mother with spinning and sewing, and her father with watching the cattle and livestock. The daughter of a pious Catholic woman, Joan and her sister Catherine attended confession and mass regularly, helped to nurse the sick of her village, and often visited nearby oratories and chapels. But at age 12 or 13 Joan began to spend more time in church and in prayer. The other children took notice of this and sometimes ridiculed her for her pious ways. What they, nor her parents or sister didn’t know was that Joan had a secret. One she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else.

#2) Her visions and voices.

joan visted by Michael the Archangel
(fr.wikipedia.org)

Joan’s village suffered raids and burnings from the English and the neighboring Burgundians many times. Once, it burned to the ground and had to be re-established. When things calmed down after one of these raids, Joan, while working in her father’s garden experienced something that would change her life forever. The Archangel Michael appeared to her in blinding white light. He told her she would be visited by him again, and to prepare for visitations from St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who had an important message to deliver to her. When they appeared on several other occasions, they told her she must drive the English out of France, and bring the crown prince, the dauphin, to power as king in the city of Reims. Joan did not tell others of these visions and voices until well into her mission.

#3) Her devotion to her country.

Joan dropped everything in her life in Domrémy to save her country. She defied her father, who’d arranged a marriage for her, telling him she had a greater mission in life. She traveled to nearby Vaucouleurs to implore the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricort, to assist her in her mission to reach the dauphin, Charles. After Baudricort laughed at her, he told her to be a good girl, go back to her mother, and find a husband. Joan would not be dissuaded and 6 months later, returned to Vaucouleurs where she convinced a band of men  she was the prophesied virgin destined to save France. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and traveled 11 miles with this band of men to Chinon to deliver her message to the dauphin.

#4) Her divine prophesies.

  • When Joan traveled to Vauclouleurs she immediately recognized Baudricourt without having seen him. She later claimed her guides’ voices told her,”there he is.” She explained to him her prediction of the deliverance of Orléans, the rise of the Dauphin at Reims, and of the defeat of the French at the battle of Harengs, as it took place.
  • Once she arrived at Chinon and entered into the chamber of the dauphin, she knew him in a moment, despite his concealment behind a group of 300 people. Amazed at her detection of him, he gave her a private audience where she promised he would be crowned at Reims if she could lead an army of soldiers to stop the siege at Orleans.
  • Still skeptical, the prince told her of a sword buried in the church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, and requested she bring it to him. With the assistance of her divine guides, she found the sword behind the altar of the church. It became her most beloved sword – although she refused to carry a sword into battle, but instead carried a white flag.
  • She predicted she would be wounded at Orléans, where she was pierced with an arrow between her neck and shoulder.
  • After the dauphin had been crowned as King Charles VII at Reims, Joan stated to him she “would last a year, and but little longer.” She also explained she would be captured by mid-summer. Fourteen months later near Compiègne, Joan was pulled from her horse by a Burgundian supporter and taken prisoner. She remained imprisoned until her death.

# 5) She never relented.

Joan at the stake
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle by the Burgundians, Joan made several escape attempts, including jumping from her 70-foot tower. Unable to escape detection, her captors moved her to the town of Arras. The English paid 10,000 livres to claim her from the Burgundians and then moved her to the city of Rouen where she stood trial.

The English wanted to try Joan for heresy, but no evidence could be found. Hersey was only a capital crime if it had been committed twice, which did not stand up in Joan’s case. They initiated the trial anyway, despite the fact that no one stood to represent Joan—a requirement of the law.

When interrogated, Joan confessed her visions and her voices, stating that she acted according to God’s will. When a clergyman mocked her and asked what language her voices spoke, she claimed they spoke French—far better than he did.

Under inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns, not in a secular prison with only male guards. When captured, Joan wore her usual attire of men’s clothing. Unable to try her for heresy, the English changed the charge to “cross-dressing.” Joan then agreed to wear a dress, but after her a guard tried to rape her, she changed back to her masculine attire. After this abjuration, they claimed she relapsed into heresy by cross-dressing. The trial commenced and Joan was sentenced to death for the crime of heresy.

At the stake, she requested to wear a cross on her breast, and for someone to hold a cross before her. Her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Roman Catholic church recognized her as a saint in 1920.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria – Her Own Woman

What did a woman in history do when she had no control over her life? If strong and empowered, she rebelled. Sometimes in a big way, and sometimes as a detriment to herself. One such woman was Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.

Elisabeth as Empress of Austria, empowered woman
Elisabeth 1837-1898
Empress of Franz Josef of Austria (i.dailymail.co.uk)One such woman was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as “Sisi.”

Born, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, in Munich, Bavaria 1837, Elisabeth grew up in the Bavarian countryside far from court life, riding horses and pursuing country sports. Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, saw little merit in rules for their four children. This liberal upbringing set the stage for Elisabeth’s constant quest for individualism in her adulthood. One that proved more and more difficult as she grew older.

And it started with marriage. Indulgent with their children’s freedom in childhood, the Duke and Princess of Bavaria could no longer defy the rules of royal life when their children became young adults. The Duke and his wife made arrangements with the Duke’s sister, Princess Sophie of Austria, for their eldest daughter, Helene, and Princess Sophie’s son, Franz Joseph, to wed. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth accompanied her older sister and their mother to Austria to meet their cousin and his mother. However, Helene did not catch the young Emperor’s fancy, but Elisabeth did. Franz defied his mother and insisted he marry Elisabeth. Their betrothal was announced five days later.

Within the year, Elisabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Sophie. The Archduchess immediately whisked the child away from Elisabeth and put her in the control of her own nannies. The same followed suit with the next child, Gisela. The Archduchess never missed an opportunity to chide Elisabeth for not producing a son.

Eager to get away from her mother-in-law, Elisabeth implored her husband to let her and the two girls accompany him on a trip to Hungary in 1857. During the visit, both of the girls became ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered quickly, but two-year-old Sophie succumbed to the illness, later diagnosed as Typhus. The death of little Sophie sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.

The sixteen inch waist - a woman needing to control her destiny
(foros.vogue.es)

Heart-broken, Elisabeth began a cycle of fasting, sometimes for days on end. She shunned her responsibilities at court, spent much of her time outdoors riding her horses, and also developed some disturbing phobias and obsessions. Her marriage, not a panacea to her troubles, started to show signs of stress.

Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth took much pride in her looks. Her appearance, one of the few things she had control over, became her primary obsession. Known for her elegant height of 5’8”, and her tiny waist, measuring 19 inches in diameter, Elisabeth went to dangerous extremes to control her weight. She eventually whittled her waist down to 16 inches. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110 lbs., the next several days called for a strict fast.

In addition to extreme dieting, Elisabeth also developed a rigorous and disciplined exercise routine.  She had gymnasiums built in every castle where the royal family resided. She had mats and balance beams and mirrors installed in her bedchamber so she could practice on them each day. She rode her horses often, sometimes three to five hours at a time.  Despite the toll on her health, in 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir, much to everyone’s relief.

Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics grew. Having fallen in love with the Hungarian people during her visit there in 1857, she firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side in Austro-Hungarian negotiations. At one point, she demanded that her husband name Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman, (and rumored to be her lover) Premier of Hungary or she would leave him. The emperor complied and Elisabeth stayed in an increasingly unhappy marriage.

In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary, and  Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, King and Queen of Hungary.  The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there where Elisabeth built a riding school.

Elisabeth much preferred Hungary to Austria and rarely went back to Vienna. In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie.  Determined to raise this child herself, she openly rebelled against her mother-in-law. Soon after, Archduchess Sophie died, forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children. But, too much damage had been done, and Elisabeth had no desire to be a doting wife. She took up a life of traveling, leaving her husband and children at home.

More sadness befell the estranged couple years later when their only son and heir, Rudolf, was found dead with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in a supposed murder suicide pact. The death of Rudolf caused a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, Hungary, and Austria. The line of succession  now passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, leaving Hungary out of the picture.

Elisabeth and her lady in waiting
Supposed last photo of Elisabeth one day before her death (foros.vogue.es)

In perpetual mourning, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels. When her health prevented her from riding, she made her servants endure long hikes and walks with her. At fifty, she took up fencing with the same intensity as she had other sports. She also threw herself into writing, became an inspired poet, and wrote nearly five hundred pages of verse. She despised court life and would often travel in disguise, without her entourage, to avoid being recognized. Unfortunately, this decision ultimately led to her death.

In 1898, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting left a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch a steamship for Montreux. Wanting to avoid recognition, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train. Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, happened to be in town to kill the Duc D’Orleans. Failing to find him, Lucheni learned that a woman traveling under the name “Countess of Hohenembs” had exited the hotel. Determined to kill a sovereign, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.

Defying the rules to the end, but beloved by her people, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became an historical icon. Her limited, though significant, influence on Austro-Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire. Although unable to completely escape the binds of royal life, she will always be remembered as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else.