The Secrets of Life of Joan of Arc. Part 3: Language, Pronunciation and “illiteracy”

In our first text of Joan of Arc ( “The Passion of Joan of Arc” ) we mentioned among other things, that Joan of Arc spoke a certain  dialect. Now we will look at this issue a little closer.

Basilica of Joan of Arc in Bois Chenu

In the 1970’s an archivist from Luxembourg, Alain Atten, undertook the reconstruction of the language spoken in Domremy. Atten collaborated with historians and linguists to determine what language was spoken there in the fifteenth century. Often quoted in this context is the proposal of Professor Michel Francard  (University of Louvain), that there was a palpable difference between the patois (or dialect) in Domremy and dialects in other parts of France in the fifteenth century.

Interior of the basilica in Bois Chenu

At one time even a special recording was created containing fragments of sentences spoken once by Joan in the reconstructed language and dialect. The recording was sold on discs, and the profits allocated to the Basilica of St. Joan of Arc in Bois Chenu near Domremy.

Many scholars have expressed themselves positively, even enthusiastically, about the result obtained.  Several of these people then admitted to an influx of emotions while listening.

As to whether indeed this was the language spoken by Joan herself, there is considerable controversy. Attention is often drawn to the differences between this dialect and Joan’s statements and her dictated letters. Those letters and the recorded statements contain  sentences and words that do not originate from this dialect but are in “pure French”.

Besides, the thesis that Joan spoke a dialect, is implicitly countered by the testimony by one of the clergy who, by order of Charles VII, interrogated Joan in Poitiers. The priest was a Professor of Theology, a Dominican, and Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Poitiers Seguin de Seguin. During the rehabilitation trial of Joan he said, inter alia:

“On my part, I asked Joan what dialect her voice spoke to her  (meant are the “voices” allegedly heard by her – editor MM). ‘better than yours “, she said. I personally speak Limousine dialect. “

(“Je lui demandai quelle parlait sa voix. ‘Une langue meilleure que la vôtre’, me répondit-elle. Je parle limousin »)

It is rather unlikely that this somewhat disparaging comment could have been used by a person who herself spoke a distinct dialect which, according to the scientists, clearly differed from the dialects of other regions of France.

In addition to all this there is the issue of the scope of the vocabulary used by Joan, which is already more directly the question of her general sophistication and education:

“Linguistic analysis performed on the letters by Joan and the answers given by her in the process of Rouen allows us to note that Joan had a very extensive vocabulary covering the areas of semantic diversity of her  time: religious, military, diplomatic and political. She used this vocabulary, which could not have been that used by the villagers of Domremy, with the precision to enable the formulation of sentences that are syntactically flawless. According to existing records, Joan received a solid intellectual education. She spoke perfectly in French, which was spoken in France, and perhaps had some understanding of Latin, so she felt comfortable in the presence of each interlocutor, “ (Marcel Gay, Roger Senzig. “L’Affaire Jeanne d’Arc” )

On the other hand, there remains the style in which some of her letters were written. Take for example the first of her famous letters, the “Letter to the English”, written March 22, 1429, for which the full text in English translation we have concluded elsewhere ( “Claude, the second face of Joan of Arc” in footnote 8). One gets the impression that its style is “roughly hewn.” But perhaps the effect was intentional and dictated by militancy.

There remains also the famous cry to William Glasdale, commander of British troops besieging Orleans:  „ClasdasClasdasren-tiren-ti au Roi des cieux !” (“Glasdale, Glasdale, surrender, surrender to the King of Heaven!”). It is, of course, the word ‘ren-ti “ , which is dialect-slang origin, the “pure” French version would sound “rends-toi” .

While in Sully-sur-Loire, March 16, 1430 Jeanne dictated a letter to the inhabitants of Reims. There’s a sentence: “I give you again a little news, but not those that can make you joyful .  “Je vous mandesse anquores auqunes nouvelles de quoy vous series bien joyeux…». French for “joyful” is “joyeux”. But in the text the word appeared first as “choyeux” and only later it was corrected. This can be seen in the penultimate line, the two words (crossed “choyeux” and adding “joyeux” are just above the signature).

Joan's letter to inhabitants of Reims, 16 March 1430

During the trial of Joan in Rouen, on February 21, 1431, she provided the name of her father as “d’Arc,” but the court in the original protocol recorded it as “Tarc” .

With such examples, some French authors (and we are strongly emphasizing that they are French ) conclude that Joan could speak French with some influences of German pronunciation.

Personally I’m not an analyst of texts. Moreover, I’m not an expert in the French language, which I do not speak. Therefore in my comments I can only reflect the opinions of those who  engage in an analysis of texts and are well informed in the French language and its history. My own guess is that Joan could use both  dialect and slang on the one hand and the language of the more educated layers of the society in France on the other. Perhaps some writers try too hard to argue for any of the versions about how Joan used to express herself and fall short in taking into account that those who came to live in linguistically mixed regions, and later frequently change their place of residence, can sometimes borrow from a variety of ways of speaking. In Poland similar cases are also not unknown. In Upper Silesia, even to this day there are people who use – to varying degrees –  Polish and German beside the Silesian dialect. Sometimes they even construct a sentence consisting of elements of all three components of their language. Many times such people deliberately alter the way of expression, depending on who they talk to at any particular moment. And this applies to people who do not even have a formal higher education. But surely such people are well acquainted  with a wide range of vocabulary, which may mean that they are socially  well polished or even pretty well-read .

And here we come to the last and most significant question in this part: if such a person can be illiterate ? We will not say that they “certainly” can not, but in their case it seems particularly unlikely. All the more so if they can use the “pure” variety of their language.

According to the “official” version, Joan of Arc was supposed to be illiterate. I personally no longer  feel so convinced by this version. This version is based essentially on two “pillars”: that Joan did not write her letters herself, but dictated them and only signed them and that she said, according to someone’s testimony that she “knew neither A nor B”.


Let us thus consider the very context in which there is this little excerpt. It is a testimony of Gobert Thibaut, made ​​during the collection of material for the rehabilitation trial  of Joan. The minute of his testimony, referring to the time, when Joan, at the command of Charles VII, had been tested through interrogation by the clergy, theologians and experts in canon law at Poitiers, says:

“She was, as he said above,lodged at the home of the said (Jean) Rabateau , in which house de Versailles and Erault talked with Jeanne  ​​in the presence of the witness. When we arrived at her house, Joan went out to meet them and hitting the witness’ shoulder, she said that she would gladly see many people with such good character as his. Then (Maitre Pierre) de Versailles, said to Joan that he  was sent to her by the King; She replied: ‘I guess that you have been called to question me “, adding:” I know neither A nor B ”

(“Elle était, comme il l’a dit plus haut, hébergée dans la maison dudit Rabateau, ou les susdits Versaiiles et Erault s’entretinrent avec Jeanne en présence du témoin; et alors qu ’ils parvenaient à cette maison, Jeanne vint au-devant d’eux, et frappe de témoin sur l’épaule, en lui disant qu’elle voudrait bien avoir beaucoup d’hommes de son caractere. Alors ce Versailles dit à Jeanne qu’ils étaient envoyés auprès d’elle par le roi; elle répondit: ‘Je crois bien que vous êtes envoyés pour m’interroger’, ajoutant : ‘Je ne sais ni A ni B’ »)

As you can see, the whole context has absolutely nothing to do with reading or writing. It’s just the way Joan, in her own way of expression (so-called ‘idiolect’) said, “I know nothing.”

Joan's signature, 16 March 1430

On the question of dictating letters, many personalities from history dictated their letters – that is the official ones, we are not talking here about personal letters – rather than write them personally. So did the kings, dukes and counts, so did Napoleon, so did the czars of Russia. And of course it does not follow that they were illiterate… But a closer observation of Joan’s letter of March 16, 1430, presented above, raises doubts as to whether she really could not have written this letter personally: Please note Joan’s signature at the bottom of the letter and the phrase “Jehanne la Pucelle” in the first line. The name “Jehanne” in both cases looks as if it could have been written by the same hand…

Joan's signature (letter to inhabitants of Riom, 1429)

By the way: our attention draws also the fact mentioned by Thibaut that Joan “hit” him on his shoulder. After all it must have looked curiously in the fifteenth century that a “simple peasant”, “illiterate shepherdess” pats intimately a shoulder of a landowner who remained in the service of the king… Let us be frank: we do not have a single piece of evidence that Joan was illiterate, indeed , we do not even have  a scrap of evidence that she in any way made anyone understand that she was.

Signature on a letter to inhabitants of Reims, 28 March 1430

Her signature alone, which appears on some of her letters (a signature, that led some handwriting experts to the conclusion that she was left-handed…) will not decide whether she was illiterate or not. After all, even an illiterate person can learn how to place a signature consisting of several letters. But of course it would not support the thesis of anyone’s illiteracy.

On March 12, 1431, during an interrogation, the following exchange took place between Joan and her interrogator Maitre Jean Delafontaine:

“The interrogated, asked whether she believed it was the right thing to leave the without permission of her father and mother while she must honour her father and mother, responded, that she had obeyed them in everything except for her departure: but later she wrote to them and they forgave her.”

Minutes of the trial in Rouen, 1431

Also in the original French version:

„Interrogée si elle croyait bien faire de partir sans le congé de père et mère, puisqu’on doit honorer père et mère, répondit qu’en toutes autres choses elle leur a bien obéi, excepte en ce départ ; mais depuis leur en a écrit et ils lui ont pardonné » check here ). 

Was this “I wrote to them”  merely a figure of speech used instead of “I dictated a letter to them”? Maybe. But how can this be proved? It rather supports the idea that Joan wrote that personal letter to her parents with her own hand . In any case, it confirms that what we wrote previously: that Joan never even made anyone understand she was illiterate.

Our attention has been attracted by a certain Dutch paper related to the letters by Jeanne d’Arc (these letters we will discuss  separately). We recommend it to anyone interested in the story of Joan, because it contains perhaps the best arguments produced by the group of authors, which we call the “illiteratists” (as there are other groups like the “illegitimists” and “survivists”) 1.

The authors of the paper perhaps too closely tend to assume in advance that the illiteracy of Joan is established beyond any reasonable doubt. An example of this is the way they interpret the fact that Joan signed her famous “abjuration” with a cross while on the cemetery of the Churchof St. Ouen(May 24, 1431). However, Joan had already clarified this question earlier (March 1, 1431) during an exchange with her judges on how she used to sign her letters, namely whether it was her custom of placing the words “JHESVS MARIA” with a cross on her letters. She answered:

“…responded that on some of them she did, on others she did not. Sometimes she put a cross as a sign for her party, to whom she wrote, not to do what she wrote. »

(« …repondit que les mettait dans certaines, et parfois pas. Quelquefois mettait une croix afin que celuit de son parti á qui elle écrivait ne fit pas ce qu’elle écrivait »(p. 54 ), so the Dutch attempt leads nowhere. And now it transpires that the debate about the illiteracy of Joan an additional argument is drawn whether Joan, after having signed her “abjuration” with a cross in the cemetery of St. Ouen, laughed out loudly or only smiled widely…

On the whole, there is a general weakness in the argument by the Dutch authors: instead of trying to research the status of things, they pre-suppose that it is already known, and only selectively look at individual documents in order to interpret them in this prejudiced way, while trying to “debunk” different views. For our own part we can say that our own approach is completely different. When we wrote “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” 8 years ago, then – and even a few months ago – we have represented, in principle without reservation the view of the French heroine’s illiteracy, being under the influence of the official story of her life. And even while writing the first part of this text, after our view had already evolved, we indicated merely that “we feel no longer so convinced of this version.” That was barely two weeks ago. But now we have abandoned that version completely, but please note that the opposing version still requires proof. But our “change of position” is based only on existing records. We do not have and never had any bias and as a result, it is the outcome of the principle of probability” which we will return to later on. We do not deny that it is precisely the Dutch site, which defends the “official” version, that definitely helped us to move to positions that we were not even considering the adoption of a few weeks ago.

The authors point out that a number of Joan’s letters have types of introductions and endings that are visible on the letters of the royal chancellery. From this fact they conclude that it was not Joan who wrote or dictated her letters, but that it must have been a royal official, or perhaps Joan’s confessor, Father Jean Pasquerel, who authored them at least to some extent. As for Father Pasquerel, they even seem to suggest that it might have been he who signed her letters.

The only thing this conclusion could “prove” is that all the kings of France were apparently illiterate, since their own letters are full of such introductions and endings …

A thesis suggested elsewhere that the king’s secretaries were writing drafts of Joan’s signatures and Joan was only making fair copies of them thus mimicking the scribes, is even more astounding because the letters were written in various handwritings, meaning that a range of people wrote them. But the signatures were always made in ​​one handwriting, which indicates that the author of the signatures was always one and the same person.

Bishop Pierre Cauchon. Image of his sarcophagus

The authors also look at the wording of the Latin « mulier illitterata et ignorans scripturas » – this opinion by Cauchon reported in the Latin text of the Rouen trial minutess of 18 April 1431. It’s just that in the Latin “illiteratus” (feminine “illiterate”), simply means an uneducated person, so the quoted passage speaks of it as “poor uneducated, not knowing the scriptures” (i.e. The Bible). Also in the French version written record of the process at this point , „mais comme cette femme était illettré et ignorait l’écriture” ( for review here ). Let us therefore look at this fragment as well. To know what it refers to, it is better to quote the whole context again. On 18 April and 2 May 1431, after Joan responded to subsequent points of the indictment, the judges conducted a series of “charitable exhortations” with her. On Wednesday, April 18 in the presence of seven “doctors and masters” of theology and canon law, Bishop Pierre Cauchon turned to Joan:

“… In their presence We, the Bishop began to speak to Joan, who declared that she was ill.  We told her that the teachers (“Maitres”), and doctors accompanying us, came in the spirit of friendship and charity (“en toute familiarité et Charité”), to visit her in her suffering, to give her comfort and encouragement. Then we reminded her that she had been questioned over many days and at different times and in the presence of many ecclesiastics full of wisdom, on important and difficult issues of faith; that she had provided answers varied and diverse, which the wise and learned men examined with the most meticulous attention; They noted many of her words and beliefs, which from the point the Faith seemed to them dangerous. But as she is only a poor, uneducated woman, who does not know  the Scriptures , therefore, We came to her to offer her scholars and wise men, observant and honest, who will give her, according to their duty, this knowledge, which she does not have. And at the same time We also called on the present doctors and teachers, to give useful advice to Joan for the salvation of her body and soul, and this by virtue of their binding obligations to  the doctrine of the true Faith. If Joan knows others who seem to her more apt than the doctors here present, We offer  to send them to her to instruct her and advise her what she should do, observe and what to believe …

As you can see, this is not about whether Joan was able to read and write, but that – in the bishop’s view – she was not properly instructed in the arcane of the Catholic faith… Is it possible to conclude from this context that Joan was illiterate? Yes, it is. But the possible correctness of such a view can by no means be proved, which means that the case remains exactly as open to debate, as it was.

On February 27, 1431, Joan tells her judges found the sword of St. Catherine Fierbois:

“And wrote to the men of the church of the place, that they may rejoice giving her  this sword, and they sent it to her. It was under the ground, not buried deep behind the altar, she thought. She did not know whether it was at the front of the altar or behind it, but it seemed to her that she wrote that it was behind the altar. ”

(„Et écrivit aux gens d’église de ce lieu que ce fut leur bon plaisir qu’elle eut cette épée ; et ils la lui envoyèrent. Elle n’
était pas beaucoup en terre, derriére l’autel, comme il lui semble ; cependant ne sait au juste si elle était devant l’autel ou derriére : mais croit qu’elle a ecrit que ladite épée était derriére l’autel. ») ( p. 50-51 )

If there is any doubt as to whether a reference to “writing” something was meant to be only a kind of “figure of speech” or a “code” for having it “dictated”, let’s look at yet another record from the trial in Rouen, namely from the 24th  February 1431. Joan had repeatedly refused to answer some of the questions she was asked. On other occasions, she would simply ask for time for consideration. And on that very day, 24th February, she requested to be given those points in writing, which she at that  moment did not respond to . („Item demanda qu’on lui baillât en écrit les points sur lesquels elle ne répondait point présentement”). p. 42 )

Quite obviously she wanted to have time to reflect on them. Anyway, why someone illiterate would insist on getting anything in writing ? And especially while in prison, without any ‘royal secretary’ or perhaps Fr. Pasquerel, who, as some say,  wrote for Joan, and was even signing her letters for her?

There are opinions about Joan and her manner of speaking – nay, even of her education – left to us by people who heard about her or knew her personally.

Jacques Philippe Foresti de Bergame (lived from 1434 to 1520, so he rather  did not know Joan…). In his treatise “De claris mulieribus” (“On well-known women”) he wrote about Joan:

“Her words were sweet, like the speech of women of her nation … her sense was so straightforward, so just,  that it seemed that she was at the end of her life and that she was brought up in a school of highest wisdom and prudence.”

Giovanni Sabadino degli  Arienti expressed himself in a similar fashion:

“Her words are sweet, her refined sense and sensibility is that she seems not to have grown up minding a herd but instead went to the best law school, where she learned the best morality”

It is true that Arienti did not know Joan personally, as he lived between 1445 – 1510… So in contrast let us note the words of someone who had the opportunity to meet Joan at least once. Brother  Jean Toutmouillé, a Dominican, questioned March 5, 1449 (during the first investigation of the rehabilitation process), quoted Joan, who, on the morning of May 30, 1431, still in prison in the Bouvreuil castle in Rouen, complained about the judgment communicated to her:

Jeanne burned in Rouen (painting by Hermann Stilke, 1843)

“Alas! Do I have to be so horribly and cruelly treated? Alas! that my body, whole and complete, which never knew corruption, is today to be consumed and turned into ashes! Ah! I’d rather have my head cut off seven times over  than thus to be burned! Alas! If I had been in the ecclesiastical  custody, to which I submitted myself, and guarded by men of the Church and not by my enemies and adversaries, it would not have turned out so unfortunate for me. O! I appeal to God, the great judge, against this great evil and injustice caused to me.”

in original:

„Hélas! Me traite-l’en ainsi horriblement et cruellement qu’il faille (que) mon cors net en entier, qui ne fut jamais corrompu, soi aujourd’hui consumé et rendu en cendres !  
Ha ! a ! j’aimeroie mieulx estre descapitée sept fois, que d’estre ainsi bruslée. Hélas ! se j’eusse esté en la prison ecclesiastique a laquelle je m’estoie submise, et que j’eusse esté gardée par les gens d’Eglise, non pas par mes ennemys et adversaires, il ne me fust pas si miserablément mescheu, comme il est. O ! j’en apelle devant Dieu, le grant juge, des grans torts et ingravances qu on me fait. »The process of rehabilitation, page 3 )
Please note that the above quote is not opera singing or recitation of drama from a theatre stage but – at least formally – a quotation cited (and under oath!) by a Dominican for a lawsuit! Thus, if brother Jean had not embellished or dramatized here,  then Joan really kept her composure even at such a time and responded like a capable student of a school of drama… Whatever we think of this quote, it certainly does not sound like words of a simple illiterate peasant, who “does not know A or B” …
And such a person is supposed by some, after years of her contacts with the royal court and aristocracy and the erudites of her time, to have had problems with remembering some “introductions” and “endings” in her correspondence!

Do people really have such problems if they are constantly forced to correspond? After all, these 24 letters were not the only examples of Joan’s remote communication. At her trial in 1431 she speaks of “writing” letters as if it was almost her daily and customary experience.  And leading military campaigns, she wrote certainly not only letters. Mounted couriers and messengers were constantly engaged in wars transporting even short written messages (verbal messages too …). So what would a rule of probability tell us: would it not be that certain short sequences could have been easily remembered by Joan?

Was I illiterate? Hahaha! A good one!

People are capable of memorizing more than just such simple examples. We have ample evidence of this. On our own, Polish, “backyard” we have numerous examples of this. The Polish  actor Wojciech Pszoniak started, in the 1970s, his career also in French movies (he is known for his role as Robespierre in the famous movie “Danton”) without initially even knowing  French, but only memorizing his roles . The very way in which he received his first role there, might astound many. To sum up: the fact that an actor is able to memorize entire movie roles is not unknown and does not give rise to disbelief, and we argue about whether the above-average intelligent, and certainly above-average energetic and industrious, young woman could master a few lines of text … It actually sounds as ludicrous as it can sound in these circumstances.

Here a small digression: someone who can master a few lines, virtually ceases to be illiterate . Because once she manages those lines, it is much easier for her to crack other “lines” just as well…

The very title of our series “The Mysteries of Life of Joan of Arc” already suggests that we are concerned with these matters which have not yet been fully explained. Because otherwise they would not be mysteries anymore…

But a mystery or not, the existing records will be able to prompt everyone to think which one of the existing versions is more likely to be correct. And even if the current “sect of illiteratists” is the largest one, we have no doubt that their numbers will be rapidly decreasing over time.


1. The “Illegitimists” (fr. “bâtardisants”) are the authors who think that Joan was an illegitimate royal child. By contrast, the “survivists” (fr. “survivistes”) are those who believe that she did not die on the execution stake of the Inquisition, but lived on for quite a few years.




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