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Of War and Occupation
The tiny village of Domrémy, in eastern France, seems hardly to have changed in the last six centuries. At the beginning of the fifteenth century it held fewer than two hundred people living in small houses, from which they went out to work as farmers and vintners. Although on the frontier of the duchy of Lorraine, Domrémy was ruled by and loyal to the kingdom of France. Perched on the left bank of the River Meuse, the village had been mostly spared the ravages of the Black Death, but not its widespread economic effects or the depredations of mercenaries on both sides of the Hundred Years' War, that series of skirmishes great and small between England and France. When the royal purse or residual idealism was lacking to encourage soldiers, men outfitted with little more than bow and arrow simply roamed through the countryside, pillaging, raping, purloining livestock and generally terrorizing the locals, who otherwise peacefully herded their flocks and tilled the soil.
The medieval tradition of serfdom had mostly disappeared; instead of owing their labors and lives to a vassal or lord, French peasants in places like the Meuse Valley could become as affluent asaristocrats: they had property to which they paid cash rent to a local seigneur, but they enjoyed the benefits of ownership and could increase their landholdings.
In 1400 Jacques d'Arc was an enterprising, respected landowner in Domrémy; by 1423 he was also the local doyen, bearing both the honor and responsibility of collecting village taxes and supervising the defense of citizens and livestock in times of assault. He was born about 1375 in Ceffonds, twenty miles west of Domrémy, but some historians theorize that his parents must have lived in Arc-en-Barrois, farther south. Their argument is based on the assumption that this location explains d'Arc, indicating the place from which Jacques came—a nom d'origine, often given to notable or honored citizens. But if Jacques had indeed hailed from Arc-en-Barrois, the local Latin manuscripts (the first to mention the family) would have identified him as "Jacques de Arco," in the contemporary style of patronymics. Further complicating matters is the fact that before the invention of printing in 1440 spelling was not standardized, and so the family name appears variously as Darc, Dars, Day, Darx, Dare, Tarc, Tart or Dart.
After living in Domrémy several years, Jacques had what might be called middle-class status. He owned about fifty acres of farmland and pasture on the edge of the village as well as cattle, sheep and a furnished home. The house was typical, with a slate roof resting on wooden beams, a hard-packed dirt floor inside, and a few rooms, some of them with a small window; year-round, the place tended to be damp and fetid. A single fireplace, in the main room just inside the front door, was used for warmth and cooking; here too the family dined and the parents slept. Water had to be hauled up from the river, and of course there was nothing like a bathroom: instead, people found all kinds of uses for the backyard. A wooden staircase led to an attic used for storing grain. At that time the d'Arc house would have been considered almost luxurious.
The small home was sufficient to accommodate a few pilgrims (without fee) or merchants (for a modest fee) who stopped in the village on their way to more prestigious towns. According to witnesses, visitors were treated with legendary kindness and warmth by Jacques's wife, Isabelle Romée, who had come from Vouthon, four miles from Domrémy; her second name was commonly conferred on those who had completed a religious pilgrimage to Rome. For centuries, such a pious journey had indicated profound devotion: traveling to sacred sites—to Rome, for example, where the apostles Peter and Paul were believed to have been martyred—was difficult, expensive and unsafe in any season. Women, even in the company of clergy, were easy targets of brigands, rapists and highwaymen.
At home, Isabelle's primary task was to raise her children as good Christians and to see that they knew their prayers. She and Jacques had three boys and two girls: Jacques or Jacquemin; Jehan or Jean; Pierre or Pierrelot; Jehanne or Jeanne; and Catherine. Jean and Pierre appear later in the story; of Jacques and Catherine almost nothing is known except that the latter married at about the age of sixteen and died soon after.
The name Jehanne is rooted in the late Latin Johanna, the feminine of Johannes, or John; in English the name takes many forms, among them Joan, Jean, Joanne or Jane. Jehanne was often (and eventually always) written as Jeanne, which was how the name was and is pronounced (the h being silent). "In my country," she said, referring to her region, "people called me Jeannette [the affectionate diminutive for Jeanne], but they called me Jeanne when I came into France," which meant, at the time, the central part of the kingdom, where the royal court could be found and the monarch resided.
As for her established name in history, chroniclers and poets of her time (and she herself) never referred to "Joan of Arc." The appellation "Johanna Darc" was first used twenty-five years after her death, at the trial striking down the validity of the court that sentenced and condemned her. The first accounts in English simply translated what was considered to be her father's nom d'origine, and so she was identified as Joan of Arc. The use of surnames was unusual at the time, but had she assumed or been given one, it would very likely have been, as was the custom, her mother's, Romée. For her part, things were much simpler: Joan referred to herself as simply "the Maid."
It has been customary to fix Joan's birth in 1411 or 1412. Not long before her death in 1431 she was asked her age: "Nineteen or thereabouts," she replied, which was a customary . . .
Excerpted from Joan by Donald Spoto Copyright © 2007 by Donald Spoto. Excerpted by permission.
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