Was Joan of Arc illiterate?

La Pucelle knew how to sign, but historians still wonder if she also knew how to read and write. But we are also talking about a time when ignorance was a singular force.

Whether or not Jeanne knew how to read and write is still an open question today. Nineteenth-century historians generally leaned towards the ignorance of the Maid. For Catholics, God inspired Joan and dictated her answers. All knowledge could be explained by voices. For the Republicans, Jeanne was an illiterate daughter of the people, especially since the primary school dated back to Jules Ferry. In the 1960s, this unanimity burst.

The school of the Annales was interested in popular culture, which it sought to isolate through tales or the examples of mendicant sermons. Jeanne and her village became mirrors of a vanished culture. However, the categories of medieval culture are neither those of the 19th century nor those of the 1960s.

In the Middle Ages, men were divided into two groups: literate clerics and illiterate lay people. The former attended Latin grammar schools, then university. They had access to organized and abstract knowledge, divided into liberal arts, theology, law, medicine. Theology is the queen of all sciences, since it allows access to the only salutary Scripture.

Secular, illiterate and woman!

Monks and priests are clerics responsible for supervising the lay people, by definition illiterate. This was the case around the year 1000 and even if, since the 12th century, poems and novels of chivalry have been written in the vernacular, the clerics consider these books as works of distraction, outside of true culture. Admittedly, the heirs of feudal families or city merchants knew a little more often how to read, write and count, but they remained nonetheless, in the eyes of clerics, illiterate. However, these two cultures do not ignore each other. Themes and motifs circulate from Latin to vulgar and vice versa. The abbot who, suddenly, at the end of a long Latin sermon, evokes King Arthur awakens the attention of his distracted monks. At the same time, the priest’s sermon ensures the dissemination of the minimum of Latin culture necessary for a Christian life. In many families where the eldest is promised to arms and the second to the clergy, literate and illiterate coexist. This was the case of Jeanne’s maternal family, which included a priest and a Cistercian monk. Jeanne herself was an illiterate laywoman, who prayed in the vernacular.

Besides, she was a woman! Reading and writing were of no use to those who were destined to keep a house and procreate. In town, the small schools had a few girls, but the rural schools had almost only a male audience. Only a few princesses like Saint Louis’ sister, Isabelle, were Latinists. Finally, access to university was impossible for women, who would never be clerics or priests. A whole abstract and speculative culture therefore escaped them, especially since the translations were few.

Women’s libraries were rare and poor in books. These were almost all in French: devotional works, poetry, novels, history books. The well-to-do bourgeoises had only one book, their book of hours, and the rural ones had none. If they sought to send one of their children to school, which was not free, they chose one of their sons. Whoever had a clerical vocation could hope for a real social rise, but these strategies did not concern girls: too much knowledge would scare away the husband.

Know how to read, but not necessarily write

There are no schools in Domrémy or Greux, which are small villages. The nearest school is located in Maxey-sur-Meuse. It has been attested since 1369 and teaches the sons of large peasants some rudiments of reading and morals. Those who plan to be mayor, dean or churchwarden need a minimum of training, even if they do not necessarily have access to writing. The medieval school, in fact, separates the two apprenticeships. Reading, which only involves the mind, allows the acquisition of knowledge and brings us closer to God. On the other hand, writing is a manual occupation, vaguely servile. It is simpler and more rewarding to dictate to a notary or a chaplain. From the village to the castle, there are clearly more readers than writers. We do not know if Jeanne’s father or her brother Jean, who later became provost, attended the school of Maxey or another, in Neufchâteau for example.

Jeanne, for her part, did not attend school. Were the years 1429–1430 conducive to the acquisition of skills? The moments to devote to possible learning, of which no witness speaks, must have been rare. No one has ever seen her write or read or use a prayer book. When she arrived in Poitiers, she told her scholarly interrogators: “Me, I don’t know A or B.” She therefore knew nothing about reading, the first learning of young children around 7 years old. A fortiori, she cannot write, a skill that medieval schools only approached at the age of 9 or 10. During the trial of 1431, she still claimed that she could neither read nor write, and the abjuration was read to her aloud.

Different ways to sign

On the other hand, Jeanne belatedly knew how to sign. But knowing how to sign, is knowing how to write? In Joan’s time, sending letters or writing them meant either taking on the task yourself or delegating it to a scribe or a messenger. When Jeanne says she writes letters, she actually dictates them to one of the three secretaries known to her: Jean Pasquerel her confessor, her Cistercian monk cousin and M. Raoul. The dictation of the Letter to the English is well known to us, notably by Gobert Thibaut.

Moreover, “signare” was a word with a broad meaning in the Middle Ages. Any authentication of a letter by affixing a sign, a seal, a signature can be called so and the use of the signature is by no means, including in literate circles, the only way of make. The king uses a monogram for a long time, the princes include their seal. The presence of a notary or witnesses has the same function. And whoever uses a scribe can have it signed in his name.

The form of the signature is also not fixed: should you indicate your function, the lordship with which you are invested or your name? Even if we opt for the latter solution, the use of a denomination by first name plus surname is late, especially in working-class circles. The opportunities to sign are therefore much rarer than nowadays and the form of the signing is unstable.

Joan’s provincialisms

As for its grammar, it is modeled on oral language. The repetitions are numerous. Jeanne’s language is imbued with the provincialisms of her native Lorraine. She performs miracles “in the name of Dé”, she who is “daughter Dé”; she pronounces the “j” like “ch”. It is neither the French of Paris nor that of the Loire Valley that the court and the administration speak. Jeanne’s language contributes to her strangeness, but does not prevent her from being understood by everyone. The dialects, which are numerous both in the north and in the south of France, are accepted as proof of the immensity of the kingdom and the variety of its countries. We do not fail to have fun in pranks. Jeanne herself does not deprive herself of it. But this is not a real handicap.

“Jeanne’s language contributes to her strangeness, but does not prevent her from being understood by everyone.”

Those who did not have access to writing and were until then qualified as illiterate were, at the end of the Middle Ages, brought together in a new and equivocal category, the simple people. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the simple, for they shall see God. The first Christians were all simple men, often illiterate, fishermen or carpenters. Who was not like the simple would not enter the kingdom of heaven. Simple hearts feared God and the transparency of their minds made them spontaneously choose the light. Simplicity was associated with other virtues, humility, sincerity, obedience and charity.

The simple as the child was innocent even if he was sometimes less careful and more vulnerable to temptations. During the 12th and 13th centuries, while the chapters or the Sacred College were populated by doctors, the science of the clerics was valued. The latter became the sole holders of the doctrine as well as the right to preach it and to impose it. The illitterati were gradually described as “simplices”. The laity were simple, since they did not know Latin and the doctrine.

It was the duty and the ministry of the clerics to supervise them. Preaching to the simple brought one closer to God: one had to adapt to their ignorance, multiply examples, proverbs, cut out complicated explanations; only the letter of the Bible was accessible to them, and not the allegory. But without understanding much — for the clerics, the simple are incapable of thinking alone on many subjects — they could work out their salvation, because the implicit faith (in what the Church could tell them) is enough. In other words, at the beginning of the 15th century, ordinary people were both valued and suspected.

The paradoxical status of Jeanne

Valued, because simplicity of heart and mind remains an ideal, especially among mystics. But ordinary people are also suspected, because their ignorance can lead them to credulity, even to heresy (long equated with ignorance) or rebellion, if they no longer accept clerical and seigniorial controls. The simple are good as long as they stay in their place and accept the superiority of the learned and the powerful.

Jeanne is a simple Christian or a simple Maid for her supporters, or even a simple woman for the others. Indeed, it does not belong to men, nor to the rich, nor to the powerful, nor to the learned. From this very generally shared observation, very diverse consequences were drawn. If everyone qualifies Jeanne as “simple”, this simplicity is not always correlated to the same causes. She is simple by the social milieu from which she comes, by her youthful age and by the weaker sex. In some cases, simple can even equate to humble or devout. We must therefore keep only the correlations with knowledge, knowledge, memory, and all sectors of the arts (grammar, law), since those who judge it are for the most part literate.

She knew nothing of worldly things, i.e. politics (she called the Dauphin King, she believed the English would free her for ransom) or war. It was because of this inexperience that the captains initially refused his presence at the council of war and sought to exclude him from strategic decisions. She is also absolutely ignorant in legal matters. The rules of procedure escape him. Of heavenly things she knows what God has revealed to her and which is necessary for her mission, but the abstract concepts of theologians are unknown to her.

Facing learned judges

This cultural distance between Jeanne and the others poses a problem from the examination of Poitiers. The judges are mature men who are all educated and occupy an important social position in the Church or the State. They are all scholars, doctors, men of science and endowed with offices. She is alone facing them with an opposite profile. The judges note its simplicity, but also its wisdom. The true wisdom that rests in God is not inaccessible to the illiterate, nor to the literate able to locate it.

Not knowing how to read or write, not having attended school had its drawbacks. Ignorance could lead to the sidelining of real decisions. From the ignorant, clerics and nobles expected respect. It is up to them to advise him, to explain the doctrine to him, to show him the straight path. He did not belong to their world and had to comply with the laws, since God had wanted the submission to the learned of those who knew nothing or knew what cannot be learned from books.

But ignorance was also a singular strength. Did not Saint Matthew say: “What God has hidden from the learned and the prudent, he has revealed to the simple. Through their mouths God spoke and through them, as of old, the simple could save this world. Why not Joan?



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