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Seven Men and Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness
by Eric Metaxas
Learn More | Meet Eric Metaxas
Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness
As most people would concur, the idea of manhood has fallen into some confusion in the last decades. This book hopes to help correct some of that by asking and answering two vitally important questions: First, what is a man? And second, what makes a man great?
And you’ll forgive me if I begin with John Wayne. “The Duke” is obviously not one of the seven men in this book, but many men of my generation have thought of him as something of an icon of manhood and manliness. We still do. But why? What is it about him? Is it the toughness and the swagger? Is it just that he comes across as big and strong and that most men aspire to those qualities? Well, that all has something to do with it, but I actually think his iconic status is because he usually played roles in which his size and strength were used to protect the weak. He was the good guy. He was always strong and tough but never a bully. Somehow watching him on the silver screen said more to generations of men (and women) about what made a man great than endless discussions on the subject. Sometimes a living picture really is worth a thousand words. And what we think of John Wayne is a clue to the secret of the greatness of the men in this book.
So this is a book that doesn’t talk about manhood—at least not after this introduction, which you may skip if you like, although you’ve already come this far, so why stop?—but that shows it in the actual lives of great men. You can talk about right and wrong and good and bad all day long, but ultimately people need to see it. Seeing and studying the actual lives of people is simply the best way to communicate ideas about how to behave and how not to behave. We need heroes and role models.
Now, my own personal greatest role model is Jesus. And you may have noticed that he didn’t just talk. Of course he said a lot of extraordinary things, but he also lived with his disciples for three years. They saw him eat and sleep and perform miracles. They saw him live life and suffer and die. They saw him interact with all kinds of people, including themselves. He lived among them. That’s the main way that he communicated himself to the men who would communicate him to the world. That’s how he made disciples—who would make disciples, who would make disciples. So from the gospel stories of Jesus’ life, you get the idea that seeing a person’s life is at least as important as getting a list of lessons from that person. Yes, sermons are important, but seeing the actual life of the guy who gives the sermon might be even more powerful. And you get the idea that how you live affects others. It teaches them how to live.
Historically speaking, role models have always been important. Until recently. The ancient Greeks had Plutarch’s Lives, and in the sixteenth century we got Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The message in these and similar books was that these lives were great and worthy of emulation. Having role models and heroes was historically a vital way of helping a new generation know what it should be aiming at. This is one of the main reasons I wrote biographies of William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). By the way, one of the last books that Bonhoeffer himself was reading just before he died was Plutarch’s Lives.
So the idea of having heroes and role models has historically been very important; but as I say, somehow this has changed in recent years. What happened?
Part of what happened is that—since roughly the late 1960s—we’ve adopted the idea that no one is really in a position to say what’s right or wrong. So we’re loath to point to anyone as a good role model. “Who am I to judge anyone?” has almost become the mantra of our age.
But how did that happen? Well, it’s complicated. But it probably has something to do with the Vietnam War and with Watergate. Without a doubt these events helped accelerate a trend toward suspicion of the “official” version of things and of our leaders. Until Vietnam, all previous wars were generally seen as worthy of fighting, and the overwhelming cultural message was that patriotic Americans must do their duty and pitch in and help defend our country and our freedoms. With Vietnam, all that changed. Ditto with Watergate: for the first time in history—thanks mainly to the taped conversations in the White House—we saw and heard a US president not acting “presidential” at all but acting ignobly and venally and shamefully. We heard him use words we wouldn’t want our children to use.
So the authority of that president, Richard Nixon, rightfully came under intense scrutiny. But since then, all our leaders have been held in deep suspicion. And we’ve tended to focus on the negative things about famous people. Every negative sound bite of a TV preacher that can be aired will be heard a thousand times more than the good things he’s said. It’s hard to have heroes in a climate like that.
We’ve even extended this idea backward through history, so that much of what we hear about our past presidential heroes is negative. George Washington is no longer thought of mainly as the heroic “Father of Our Country,” but as a wealthy landowner who hypocritically owned slaves. Many of us have forgotten the outrageous and spectacular sacrifices that he made and for which every American ought to be endlessly grateful. This is not only disgraceful; it’s profoundly harmful to us as a nation. Columbus isn’t held up as a brave and intrepid visionary who risked everything to discover a New World. He’s considered a murderer of indigenous peoples. It’s true that thoughtless idol worship is never a good thing, but being overly critical of men who are otherwise good can also be tremendously harmful. And it has been.
So the very idea of legitimate authority has been damaged. Since I was a kid in the seventies, we have had bumper stickers that said “Question Authority.” But this didn’t just mean we should question whether authority is legitimate, which would be a good idea. No, it seemed to me to go beyond that. It seemed to say that we should question the very idea of authority itself. So you could say that we’ve gone all the way from foolishly accepting all authority to foolishly rejecting all authority. We’ve gone from the extreme of being naive to the other extreme of being cynical. The golden mean, where we would question authority in order to determine whether it was legitimate, was passed by entirely. We have fled from one icy pole to the other, missing the equator altogether. We are like the person who was so wounded by a betrayal from a member of the opposite sex that he no longer trusts anyone of that sex. Instead of looking for someone who is trustworthy, we’ve entirely dispensed with the idea of trustworthiness. No one is trustworthy.
This is a very bad place to end up, and in our culture we are paying a harsh price for it. As I’ve said, people need heroes and role models. Those of us who take the Bible seriously believe that mankind is fallen and that no one is perfect except Jesus. But we also believe that there are some lives that are good examples and some that are bad examples. Can we really believe that certain lives aren’t worthy of emulation? And that others are cautionary tales? Are we really unwilling to say that we shouldn’t try to get our children (and ourselves) to see that Abraham Lincoln is worthy of our emulation and Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are not?
Recently I watched an old rerun of The Rifleman, starring Chuck Connors. The series ran from 1958 to 1963 and its audience was largely boys. I was absolutely stunned by how the story was clearly trying to communicate what it means to be a real man, a good man, a heroic and brave man. And it was showing the difference between that and being a coward or a bully. This is vital in raising up young men who aspire to do the right thing. But one look at TV today will tell you that this is entirely gone. This book is for everyone, but in writing a book about these seven men, I’ve thought that young men especially need role models. If we can’t point to anyone in history or in our culture whom they should emulate, then they will emulate whomever.
Young men who spend their time watching violent movies and playing video games aren’t very easily going to become the men they were meant to become. They will drift. They will lose out on the very reason they were brought into this world: to be great, to be heroes themselves. What could be more tragic than that? They won’t understand who they are, and they will have no idea how to relate to women, and they will hurt themselves (and probably some women) along the way. So it is vital that we teach them who they are in God’s view, and it’s vital that we bring back a sense of the heroic. The men in this book are some of my heroes and I am thrilled to be able to share them with others. I hope they will inspire young men to emulate them.
At the beginning of this introduction I said that there was a general confusion about manhood. This confusion relates to the larger idea of authority itself coming under attack, which we’ve just mentioned. Since the father has traditionally been seen as the leader of the family, it only follows that if we’ve taken the very idea of authority down, we’ve taken fatherhood down with it.
Can anyone doubt that the idea of fatherhood has declined dramatically in the last forty or so years? One of the most popular TV shows of the 1950s was called Father Knows Best. It was a sweet portrayal of a wonderful and in many ways typical American family. The father, played by Robert Young, was the unquestioned authority, but his authority was never harsh or domineering. His strength was a quiet strength. In fact, he was gentle and wise and kind and giving—so much so that just about everyone watching the show wished their dad could be more like that! But of course today we tend to see fathers depicted in the mainstream media either as dunces or as overbearing fools.
There is something vital in the idea of fatherhood and it gives us a clue to the secret of a great man. But we have to point out that a man needn’t be an actual father to bear the traits of every good father. Two of the men in this book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Paul II, never married or had children. Even George Washington, who married, never had children of his own. And yet we Americans call him the father of our country. And in the case of Pope John Paul II, the root word from which we get “pope” is papa—father. Being a father is not a biological thing. If we think of the fatherhood of God, we get a picture of someone who is strong and loving and who sacrifices himself for those he loves. That’s a picture of real fatherhood and real manhood.
In a world where all authority is questioned and in which our appreciation of real leadership—and especially fatherhood—has been badly damaged, we end up with very little in the way of the heroic in general. As we’ve said, the idea of manhood itself has become profoundly confused. And as a result of this, instead of God’s idea of authentic manhood, we’ve ended up with two very distorted ideas about manhood.
The first false idea about manhood is the idea of being macho—of being a big shot and using strength to be domineering and to bully those who are weaker. Obviously this is not God’s idea of what a real man is. It’s someone who has not grown up emotionally, who might be a man on the outside, but who on the inside is simply an insecure and selfish boy.
The second false choice is to be emasculated—to essentially turn away from your masculinity and to pretend that there is no real difference between men and women. Your strength as a man has no purpose, so being strong isn’t even a good thing.
God’s idea of manhood is something else entirely. It has nothing to do with the two false ideas of either being macho or being emasculated. The Bible says that God made us in his image, male and female, and it celebrates masculinity and femininity. And it celebrates the differences between them. Those differences were God’s idea. For one thing, the Bible says that men are generally stronger than women, and of course Saint Peter famously—or infamously—describes women as “the weaker sex.” But God’s idea of making men strong was so that they would use that strength to protect women and children and anyone else. There’s something heroic in that. Male strength is a gift from God, and like all gifts from God, it’s always and everywhere meant to be used to bless others. In Genesis 12:1–3, God tells Abraham that he will bless him so that Abraham can bless others. All blessings and every gift—and strength is a gift—are God’s gifts, to be used for his purposes, which means to bless others. So men are meant to use their strength to protect and bless those who are weaker. That can mean other men who need help or it can mean women and children. True strength is always strength given over to God’s purposes.
But because men have sometimes used their strength selfishly, there has been a backlash against the whole idea of masculine strength. It has been seen—and portrayed—as something negative. If you buy into that idea, then you realize the only way to deal with it is to work against it, to try to weaken men, because whatever strength they have will be used to harm others. This leads to the emasculated idea of men. Strength is denigrated because it can be used for ill. So we live in a culture where strength is feared and where there is a sense that—to protect the weak—strength itself must be weakened. When this happens, the heroic and true nature of strength is much forgotten. It leads to a world of men who aren’t really men. Instead they are just two kinds of boys: boasting, loudmouthed bullies or soft, emasculated pseudo-men. Women feel that they must be “empowered” and must never rely on men for strength. It’s a lot like a socialistic idea, where “power” and “strength” are redistributed—taken away from men and given to women, to even things out. Of course it doesn’t work that way. Everyone loses.
The knight in shining armor who does all he can to protect others, the gentleman who lays down his cloak or opens a door for a lady—these are Christian ideals of manliness. Jesus said that he who would lead must be the servant of all. It’s the biblical idea of servant leadership. The true leader gives himself to the people he leads. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Jesus died for those he loves. That is God’s idea of strength and leadership and blessing. It’s something to be used in the service of others. So God’s idea of masculine strength gives us the idea of a chivalrous gentleman toward women, not a bully or someone who sees no difference between himself and them.
Last summer, there was a terrible shooting at a movie theater. Twelve people who had gone to a midnight showing of the most recent Batman movie were senselessly murdered by what can only be described as a madman. But of all the things that have been said about this tragic event, what struck me more than anything was that three young men died protecting their girlfriends from the madman’s bullets. Something caused them to risk losing their lives for a young woman.Why did they do that? What does that say about manhood?
In the killer, you have a perfect picture of evil, which is the opposite of love. It is a picture of someone using power (in this case his firearm) to destroy, to harm. But in the three young men, you have a picture of strength expressed as love, which is the opposite of evil. You see men using their power and their strength to protect. In the case of the first you see someone doing something that is unfathomably selfish, someone who seems to see no value in others, and whose actions reflect that judgment. In the second you see three men doing something that is unfathomably selfless. Why did they use their strength and power to help someone else? What was that instinct, and why did they follow it?
The stories in this book are the stories of men who followed that latter path, who seemed to know that at the heart of what it is to be a man is that idea of being selfless, of putting your greatest strength at God’s disposal, and of sometimes surrendering something that is yours for a larger purpose—of giving what is yours in the service of others.
I was an English major in college, and now I’m a writer—so I hope you won’t mind a brief etymological digression. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what that is, but the point I want to make is very important.
We say that the selfless acts of those men in the movie theater—and the selfless acts of most people everywhere—are courageous. Strength in the service of others is courageous. But did you know that the word courage comes from the Latin cor, which means “heart”? So to have courage simply means to have “heart.” Of course the Bible often exhorts people to “take heart” or to “be of good courage.” The meaning is effectively the same. So to have heart means to have courage. This is God’s idea of strength, to have a heart like a lion. A man who has heart can be described as lionhearted.
You may notice that the false macho idea of manliness sees having “heart” as a weak, soft thing. It misses the true idea of what it is to have heart. Instead, the false macho concept of manhood substitutes having something else. Hint: it starts with a “b.” Second hint: the Spanish word is cojones. But notice that this concept of manhood reduces God’s idea of a noble and heroic man to a sexual level. It puts us in mind of apes and goats, but not of lions. Did you ever read theC. S. Lewis essay titled “Men Without Chests”? Lewis understood that large-hearted men, men “with chests,” were real men. It’s about having a chest and a heart. Until we realize that God is concerned with the size of our hearts and not that of our genital apparati, we can never understand God’s idea of true masculinity.
So what is “heart”? It’s courage, but courage to do what? The courage to do the right thing when all else tells you not to do it. The courage to rise above your surroundings and circumstances. The courage to be God’s idea of a real man and to give of yourself for others when it costs you to do so and when everything tells you to look out for yourself first.
Anyone reading this book must wonder why I chose these seven men. Of course this is not a definitive list. There is great subjectivity in these choices. There are many, many more whom I would have liked to include and whom I hope to include in future volumes. But in this first volume I was looking for seven men who had all evinced one particular quality: that of surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept. All of them did this in one way or another. Doing this is noble and admirable, and it takes courage and it usually takes faith. Each of the seven men in this book have that quality.
Let me explain briefly what I mean for each of them.
As you’ll soon see when you read about him, George Washington (1732–1799) once voluntarily gave up extraordinary power. He actually could have become a king, when being a king really meant something; but he selflessly refused the honor. Such a sacrifice is almost unfathomable to us today. But Washington knew there was something even greater than power. To do the noble thing, the heroic thing, the right thing—for him, that was greater than becoming powerful. He surrendered all that power for the sake of something nobler: he did it for the sake of his new country and for millions yet to be born. If he hadn’t done it, that country might not have lasted very long. So anyone who is an American is a direct beneficiary of what this great man did. This is not hyperbole. What he did affected you, personally. He gave up a sure thing to do the right thing, and today he is deservedly regarded to be one of the greatest heroes in the history of the world.
Similarly, William Wilberforce (1759–1833) gave up the chance to be prime minister of England. Many have said that he “put principle above party” and gave up becoming prime minister. But for what did he surrender the prize of that office? He gave it up for a cause that to him was far greater than becoming the leader of the greatest empire in the world at that time. He gave up his life for the sake of African slaves, people who could give him nothing in return. But Wilberforce knew that what God had given up for him was far greater, so he did what he did for the Africans he would never meet, and for God.
This man’s conversion to the Christian faith changed everything for him. Suddenly he saw everything differently. Suddenly he realized that everything he had been given—wealth and power and influence and connections and intelligence and a gift of oratory—was a gift from God. And he realized that it was a gift to be used for others. The choice was his, of course, but when you really know that God has given you something for others, it’s hard not to use it for others. Wilberforce knew that taking everything he had been given and using it to improve the lives of others was the very reason he had been born. And by devoting himself to this for five decades of his life, he became one of the most important human beings who ever lived. He changed the world in a way that would have been unthinkable at the time.
The 1982 movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of Eric Liddell (1902–1945) who gave up the acclaim of millions to honor God. It is one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of sports. But it doesn’t involve any athletic action. In fact, it involves deliberate athletic non-action. It was the historic decision by a devoutly Christian young man to forgo the one thing that everyone said he should want—and deserved—namely, the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal in the one event in which he was most likely to win it. But God came first, and Liddell surrendered his best chance for Olympic gold. And, as you’ll discover, that’s only half of his story.
Then there is the brilliant and heroic German pastor and theologianDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), who courageously defied the Nazis and surrendered his freedom and safety time and time again. He did that most notably in 1939 when he made the fateful decision to leave the safety of America to return to Germany, simply because he felt that was what God wanted him to do. Ultimately, he gave up his life. His willingness to do that has inspired countless people to do the right thing in thousands of situations, and Bonhoeffer’s story is inspiring them still.
Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) was given the opportunity to do something historic when he was chosen to be the man who broke the so-called color barrier in professional baseball. But in order to do this, he had to surrender something very few men would have the strength to surrender: he would have to give up the right to fight back against some of the most vicious insults against his race that anyone has ever heard. It must have taken superhuman effort, but with faith in God, and with a desire to bless unknown millions who would have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps, he did just that. He made a great sacrifice for people he would never meet. He thought of his wife and his children, whom he knew, but he also thought of all the others who would benefit from his doing the right thing, and he suffered greatly to do what he did. Because of his courage and heroism, he is in this book of great men.
Karol Wojtyla—whom we know as Pope John Paul II (1920–2005)—surrendered his whole life to God in what many would think of as the most typical way: he became a priest and decided to serve God. He became a bishop, an archbishop, a cardinal, and finally, in 1978, the pope. But he was not an ambitious man. He wasn’t in it for the power. He gave up his right to himself. He even gave up his right to dignity. When he grew old, he went before the whole world as a picture of a man weakened by Parkinson’s disease, but who nonetheless courageously continued to appear before the world, even in that weakened state. As a result, he showed in his own life what he professed with his words, that a human being is sacred in God’s eyes. Even in our weakened state, and especially in our weakened state, we are children of God. He was a picture of courage and of heroic consistency, a man who practiced what he preached.
The one man in this book I had the privilege to know personally was Chuck Colson (1931–2012). In the beginning of his life, Chuck was a man who was not exactly headed for inclusion in a book like this one. He was tremendously ambitious, but he seemed to seek power for its own sake, or for his own sake. Eventually he amassed a tremendous amount of it, as special counsel to the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. This was a heady thing for a man not yet forty, and what he did with that power was his great undoing. But when, in the scandal of Watergate, that power was finally stripped from him, Chuck Colson found the real reason for his life and for life in general. And when his role in Watergate threatened to send him to prison, he didn’t blink. His faith was so strong that he knew the only thing to do was to trust God so completely that it would look crazy to the rest of the world. And it did look crazy. But he didn’t care about what anyone thought—except God. He was playing to the proverbial audience of One and he refused a plea bargain that would have made his life much easier during that time. Then he voluntarily pled guilty when he didn’t have to—and went to prison as a result. But he knew that when you give everything to God, only then are you truly free. His is a true picture of greatness for all of us.
In my humble estimation, the men in this book are some of the greatest men who have ever lived. So if you get to know their stories, your life will be immeasurably richer. It is my fondest hope that these short biographies would lead you to read longer biographies of these great men. I hope you would want to study these lives—and not just study them but emulate them. It is my prayer that those who read this book would be inspired to become real heroes, to become great men in their own generation.
You may read the seven stories of these seven men in the chronological order in which they appear here, or you might skip around. It doesn’t matter. These chapters can stand alone as well as they can stand together.
Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness
Joan of Arc
Even to those who know it well, the story of the woman called Joan of Arc is an enigma. I knew little about her until I saw the landmark silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc some years ago. But after seeing the film and reading more about her, I quickly understood that her character and her exploits were so extraordinary as to be almost beyond belief. They are certainly without equal. But what are we to make of this woman? Those who would make her out to be an early feminist, or a religious fanatic, or a lunatic subject to strange delusions may be forgiven their confusion, because — although she was none of those things — her life stands well apart from all others. She was so pure and so brave and so singular in her faith and obedience to God that, perhaps like Francis of Assisi or even like Jesus himself, she challenges many of our deepest assumptions about what a life can be.
To get a sense of who Joan of Arc was, imagine a teenage farm girl entering the halls of the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and forcefully demanding to see the secretary of defense, saying that God had given her a plan to end all terrorism aimed at the United States and her allies, and all she required was an army of soldiers with weapons. Most people would sensibly assume such a young woman was mentally ill or perhaps simply extremely naive. The last thing we would imagine is that she was actually sent by God, and that everything she said was true and would come to pass precisely as she said it would. But this was approximately the scenario that faced French military and political figures in 1429, when a humble, uneducated seventeen-year-old girl from a small village appeared before them.
In order to appreciate what this girl was proposing, we have to understand the situation in France at that time. The war that came to be known as the Hundred Years War had been raging on and off since 1337. The English, having taken over vast tracts of France by 1429, were winning, and they now hoped to literally crown their efforts by putting an English king on the French throne. At the time, this practically seemed a fait accompli. But Joan innocently and forcefully explained to French officials that she had been sent by God to drive the English out of the great city of Orléans. What's more, she claimed that she would ensure that the proper Frenchman — Charles VII — was crowned king of France! Taking her seriously was out of the question; and yet somehow, in the end, the befuddled and desperate leaders of France did just that. They had run out of sensible options and knew they had nothing to lose. But far less bizarre than their taking her seriously is the fact that she would actually succeed in everything she said she would do. It is preposterous to consider, and yet history records that it happened.* * *
Jeanne d'Arc — or Joan of Arc, as she is called in English — was called Jeanette by her parents. She was born in 1412 into a peasant family in Domrémy, a village in northeastern France. With her parents and four siblings, she lived in a simple stone house next to the village church.
Like most peasant girls of that time, when she was old enough Joan helped her father, Jacques, in the fields. She also took care of the family's animals, weeded the vegetable garden, and helped her mother in the house. She is said to have especially enjoyed weaving and spinning. Joan was never taught to read or write, but she had a passionate interest in the church and in God. At an early age, she prayed frequently and fervently. Long after her death her childhood companions remembered how they had teased their friend for her piety.
Life was precarious for the citizens of France. The Hundred Years War had been the agonizing backdrop of their lives for as long as anyone could remember. The English firmly believed that France should be part of England, and because of much intermarrying between the royal families of England and France, the line of succession was unclear.
The confusion started around 1392, when the French began hearing rumors that the man they considered the rightful king of France, Charles VI, was suffering bouts of madness. His uncle, Philip the Good (so-called), seized the reins of the kingdom. He and Charles's unpleasant wife, Queen Isabeau, were attempting to end the war in a way that was handsomely profitable to themselves and to England, but decidedly detrimental to France.
Philip was also the powerful Duke of Burgundy, whose lands — constituting a considerable portion of France — were under English control. He wanted France to give in to English demands in order to stop the endless fighting. Queen Isabeau went along with this plan and wheedled her mentally compromised husband into signing the Treaty of Troyes. This treaty gave Charles VI the right to rule France during his lifetime, but upon his death, Henry V of England would rule both countries. To make the provisions of the treaty more palatable, Henry V married Princess Catherine, the daughter of Charles VI and Queen Isabeau, so any children they had would be half-French.
It all might have worked, but for one person: Princess Catherine's younger brother, the crown prince Charles — or the Dauphin, as the French called him — who was intent on remaining in the line of succession. In 1422, to complicate things further, King Charles VI died. But the Duke of Burgundy and Queen Isabeau's plans to have England's Henry V succeed him were no longer possible because Henry himself had died two months earlier. Who then would become the next king of France? That was the question that burned in the hearts of every Frenchman — and that burned in the heart of the inhabitants of Joan's village, Domrémy.
There were two principal contenders: the Dauphin (Charles VII) and Henry VI, the infant son of Henry V and Catherine. The English and their allies, the Burgundians, who controlled northern France, predictably supported Henry VI, while those in southern France supported the Dauphin. So the war raged on, and now the French were fighting not only the English but each other as well.
Most of the Hundred Years War had been fought on French soil, and the French had not won any significant victories in decades. By 1429, when Joan was seventeen, the English had managed to conquer a good deal of France's northern territory, and sections of southwestern France were under the control of the Anglo-allied Burgundians. The French populace had suffered greatly during the bubonic plague pandemic (the Black Death) that first spread from China to Europe in the 1340s. French merchants were cut off from foreign markets, and the French economy was in shambles.
Joan and her fellow Domrémy villagers strongly supported the Dauphin and considered the English a foul enemy, in part because it was not unusual for English soldiers to march into French villages, killing civilians, burning homes, and stealing crops and cattle. But what could they do to ensure that the Dauphin would become king? It was not something that anyone would have thought probable. But around the time Joan was twelve, something began happening that would catapult her into the center of these events and make her the principal player in leading France to victory and making the Dauphin her rightful king: she began hearing voices and seeing visions. Joan said that messengers from heaven were visiting her in her father's garden. She believed them to be the archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. At first they didn't say anything about France or her role in saving France from the English; they just encouraged Joan in her already deep faith.
Joan looked forward to and loved her interactions with these heavenly visitors, but over time their words to her became quite specific and serious. They informed her that she had a great mission to perform. She was to rescue France from the English and take the Dauphin to the city of Reims to be crowned. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, Joan was amazed at what these heavenly visitors told her. Who was she to lead an army? She hardly knew how to mount a horse, much less how to lead soldiers into battle. But as she was a girl of deep faith, she did not doubt that these messengers were indeed from heaven and must be taken seriously.
Joan was not the only person in the family to be troubled by things difficult to understand. One night her father dreamed that his pretty, adolescent daughter would run away with soldiers. Misunderstanding its meaning, he dramatically instructed his sons to drown their sister if she ever did such a thing. He also preemptively began to plan for Joan's marriage to a local swain. Unbeknownst to her father, however, Joan had made a private vow to God never to marry. So when the time came, she refused to go through with the ceremony, despite the fact that her so-called fiancé went to court over the broken arrangement.
When Joan was about sixteen, her "voices," as she called them, told her that her time had come at last. They gave her specific instructions to travel to the town of Vaucouleurs. Once there, she was to ask Governor Robert de Baudricourt to provide her with an armed escort to the castle of Chinon, where the Dauphin and his court lived. Knowing how her parents would react, Joan told them she wished to visit her married cousin, Jeanne Laxart, who lived a short distance from Vaucouleurs. They allowed their daughter to go.
She did visit her cousin but then talked her cousin's husband, Durand, into taking her to see Baudricourt. The governor patiently listened to Joan describe how God had instructed her to lead an army in driving the English out of France and then to oversee the crowning of the Dauphin as king of France. But what was the esteemed and dignified governor to make of this simple girl's outrageous story? He did what anyone else likely would have done: he told Durand to send her home immediately but not before boxing her ears for all the trouble she was causing.
The frustrated Joan returned home, but no sooner had she arrived than the horrors of the war finally came to her own doorstep. Burgundian soldiers swept into Domrémy and cruelly laid waste to the entire village by fire. She and her fellow villagers fled to a nearby fortified town. Then, a few months later came worse news: the English had surrounded the great French city of Orléans and were laying siege to it. Joan's voices gave her an urgent new message: God intended for her to rescue Orléans.
Joan, now seventeen, returned to Vaucouleurs and spent the next six weeks attempting to see the governor again. While waiting, she spoke openly to all who would listen about her God-given mission. The Vaucouleurs townspeople remembered a famous prophecy that France would one day be lost by a woman and then restored by a maiden — a virgin. They came to assume that the woman who would lose France was the despicable Queen Isabeau and that the maiden who would restore their country might well be Joan. As for the governor, he was less encouraging and again dismissed her and her preposterous ideas.
But Joan did not take his rebuffs to heart. "I must be at the King's side," she insisted. "There will be no help if not from me. Although I would rather have remained spinning at my mother's side ... yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so."
There's little doubt that Joan really did wish to remain at home with her family, doing the things she had grown up doing. But she knew that God himself was calling her to the task at hand. She would not disobey, and she would not relent until she had done what God called her to do.
Baudricourt agreed to see the persistent farm girl again, but this time, Joan told him something remarkable, something she had no way of knowing. In Mark Twain's fictional account of Joan's life, which he researched and wrote for twenty years, the outspoken religious skeptic presented this account of Joan's meeting with Baudricourt:
"In God's name, Robert de Baudricourt, you are too slow about sending me, and have caused damage thereby, for this day the Dauphin's cause has lost a battle near Orléans, and will suffer yet greater injury if you do not send me to him soon."
The governor was perplexed by this speech, and said:
"To-day, child, to-day? How can you know what has happened in that region to-day? It would take eight or ten days for the word to come."
"My voices have brought the word to me, and it is true. A battle was lost to-day, and you are in fault to delay me so."
The governor walked the floor a while, talking within himself, but letting a great oath fall outside now and then; and finally he said:
"Harkye! go in peace, and wait. If it shall turn out as you say, I will give you the letter and send you to the King, and not otherwise."
Joan said with fervor: "Now God be thanked, these waiting days are almost done."
Word arrived that the French had indeed lost the battle. The governor was flabbergasted and finally convinced.
Orléans, located along the Loire River, was the final obstacle to an assault on the rest of France and therefore of tremendous strategic importance. Given the unlikelihood that Orléans could long endure a lengthy siege, rescue of the city was essential if France were ever to rule itself again. But to see the Dauphin, Joan would have to travel to Chinon, where the royal court had relocated from Bourges.
Joan began working out practical details of her 350-mile journey. It was for her own safety when traveling across enemy territory that she decided to cut her hair short and dress as a man. The citizens of Vaucouleurs clearly saw the sense in this and provided her with masculine clothing — a tunic, hose, boots, and spurs. They also provided her with a horse, and Baudricourt himself gave Joan her first sword.
On a cold February night, Joan — who now simply called herself "La Pucelle," which translates to "the Maid," or "the Maiden," meaning a young woman or a virgin — swung herself atop her horse and began the long journey to Chinon, accompanied by six male escorts. They had agreed to travel by night and sleep by day in order to avoid enemy soldiers, whom they might otherwise encounter, as they rode through hostile Burgundian lands.
Eleven days later Joan and her escorts stopped in Fierbois, a three-hour ride from Chinon. There Joan dictated a letter to the Dauphin, asking to meet with him. The Dauphin agreed, and soon the little band clattered onto the cobblestoned streets of Chinon. Joan was met by many curious stares, for stories of the virgin who claimed she would save France had preceded her.
Like Robert de Baudricourt, the Dauphin had prepared a test for Joan. She had hinted in a letter that, although she had never met him, she would be able to identify the Dauphin. So Louis de Bourbon, Count of Vendôme, led Joan through a stone passage opening into the castle's grand hall, where she found herself in the company of hundreds of gorgeously dressed and bejeweled guests. After looking around for a moment, Joan walked straight toward the Dauphin and knelt before him. "God give you life, gentle king," she said.
"I am not the king," the Dauphin replied. "There is the king!" he said, pointing to another man.
Joan responded, "In God's name, Sir, you are the King, and no other! Give me the troops wherewith to succour Orléans and to guard you to Rheims to be anointed and crowned. For it is the will of God."
Still not quite convinced, the Dauphin took Joan aside to speak privately. In an effort to prove she had been sent by God, she told him about something he had done in private: he had prayed that God would reveal to him whether or not he was actually the son of Charles VI. His mother, hardly a virtuous woman, had claimed he was not. If he were not the son of the late king, the Dauphin prayed that God would take away his desire to rule.
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