Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena
by Francis C. Lowell, 1896
From "Joan of Arc" by Francis C. Lowell, published 1896 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
IN order to understand Joan of Arc, it is desirable to compare her with the visionaries and religious enthusiasts living near her time. Of these, St. Catherine of Siena is the most distinguished.
Catherine Benincasa was the child of a dyer, a respectable citizen of Siena, neither rich nor poor. Her brothers and sisters, as well as her parents, were commonplace people. Before she was ten years old she saw visions and heard voices, and, guided by them, she earnestly desired to follow the religious life. At one time she wished to disguise herself as a man, and become a Dominican monk. [Acta Sanctorum: Vita S. Cat., 870 B, 871 B, 872 B.] Opposed by all those about her, she did not desert her father's house, but by a sweet passive obstinacy, drudging by day, watching and praying by night, before long she conquered her parents' consent, and was received as a Penitent of the Third Order of St. Dominic. Her vigils, fastings, and self-mortifications increased as her visions multiplied and became more intense, but she did not give herself up to a life of seclusion. If a man or woman were sick of a disorder so loathsome as to drive away all other help, Catherine became nurse, and aggravated the horrors of her nursing by the most fantastic self-torture. Her fame soon spread through her city and through Tuscany. She stopped the feuds of her townsmen, and made peace between cities. [Vita, 903 E, 964 F, 921 A.]By the counsel of her voices, she sought to end the Babylonish captivity of the church, traveled to Avignon, and helped bring the pope back to Rome. Though she had the most exalted notions of papal and ecclesiastical authority, she addressed individual popes and cardinals with the utmost boldness, and everywhere denounced the corruption of the church. She died in 1380, more than thirty years before Joan was born, but the world in which she lived, in its ideals and habits, was essentially the same as Joan's.
The resemblance of Catherine's career to that of Joan is striking. Both were members of large families of prosperous workpeople. None of the relatives of either had any quality of distinction. At an early age both girls had sensations of sight and of hearing which were not felt by their companions. Both were intensely religious. The parents of both tried to hinder their obedience to the heavenly vision. Both stood before kings, and were not ashamed. In the language of Catherine may be found an assurance not unlike that which is so characteristic of Joan. Both were inspired by the most unselfish zeal. St. Catherine undoubtedly is the perfect type of the sainted woman of the Middle Ages, and many have supposed that the same type is exemplified in Joan of Arc.
The difference between the two women, however, was considerable, both in body and mind. Joan was a sturdy peasant girl of good physique and sound constitution, keeping her health in spite of severe bodily and mental distress. Catherine was very frail, always ailing, and for many years unable to digest her food, that which was originally self-mortification having become at last a disease. Worn to a skeleton, she died before she was thirty-five. The ecstasies of Catherine, in which she saw her visions and heard her voices, have been described by more than one eye-witness. She used to fall into a swoon or trance, and was utterly unconscious of what went on about her, even when spoken to, or shaken; her body became quite rigid, and seemed so brittle that her friends feared she would break in two if handled roughly. Precisely what was Joan's appearance when her voices spoke to her is not known; no one has described it particularly, but this very fact shows that it cannot have been extraordinary. Among her neighbors at Domremy, while she was waiting at Vaucouleurs, Chinon, and Poitiers, on her campaigns, in prison at Beaurevoir, and many times a day at Rouen, even before her judges, Joan's voices spoke to her when curious people were watching her, and, if her visions had been accompanied by any physical disturbance, this certainly would have been recorded.
The mental difference between the two women was quite as considerable. Catherine was an extreme ascetic. The monk who wrote her life was undoubtedly credulous, but when ample allowance has been made for his exaggerations, there remains a true story of ingenious self-torture. As a child she flogged and starved herself. When a little older, she plunged herself into hot water. She constructed for herself a bed on which sleep must have been painful, and fastened a chain about her waist next to her skin, in order to guard against passions which in her must have been imaginary. Ordinary neatness she considered a sin, and she was in great distress because she believed herself to love her sister too much. The punishments which she inflicted on herself for shrinking from loathsome disease cannot be told, they are themselves so loathsome. [Vita, 872 F, 876 F, 877 D, F, 879 D, 878 F, 888 D, 873 D, E, 901, 902, 898.]
Joan was not an ascetic at all. As marked holiness was then considered impossible without self-mortification, some of Joan's admirers tried to make her out an ascetic, but they had scant success. She kept the fasts of the church, was moderate in eating and drinking, and loved constantly to pray, that was all. The archbishop of Rheims was able to complain of her wearing fine clothes, a complaint which could not have been brought against Catherine by her most mendacious enemy. Perhaps the contrast between the two women appears most strongly in the vows of virginity made by both. Like every one else in the Middle Ages, Catherine believed that virginity was necessary to the saintliness for which she longed, and while she was yet a child she made her vow accordingly. Joan's beliefs were the same as Catherine's, but she thought comparatively little of her own saintliness; it was impossible for a married woman to do the work appointed her by heaven, and so she vowed to remain single until the work was done. "The pious girl," so wrote Catherine's biographer, "knew that a scanty diet and abstinence from food and drink were most useful and perchance even indispensable to the keeping of her maidenhood." [Vita, 960 E.] Joan's virginity, being a practical necessity and not a counsel of perfection, needed no such support. When Joan was disheartened she did not pine for the shelter of a convent; she longed only to go back to the valley of the Meuse and the life of a peasant girl in her father's house. Catherine would have thought such a longing earthly and gross, utterly unworthy one who desired to lead a saintly life, and Joan would probably have agreed with her, for Joan had no thought of becoming a saint, or even of leading a life especially holy. She had been bidden only to save France from the English.
Both Catherine and Joan were utterly obedient to their voices, and quite unselfish, but Catherine was morbidly self-conscious, while Joan hardly thought of herself at all. Catherine was willing to be damned to save others. [Vita, 866 A.] Joan could not have understood the idea, and so far as she could have understood it, would probably have thought it blasphemous. Catherine continually bewailed her faults in the most exaggerated language. "I know it is a sign of a well-disposed mind," wrote her biographer, "to discover a fault where there is none, and, where the fault is slight, greatly to exaggerate it." [Vita, 873 D.] This is a fair statement of the ascetic theory, and from that sort of "well-disposed mind" Joan was free. Her sin in trying to take her own life at Beaurevoir she treated with a fairness almost judicial. Only when she had been led to deny her voices, and so to give the lie to God himself, did she show the remorse which Catherine daily exhibited on no provocation whatever. Catherine was fond of telling her confessor about her visions, which generally concerned some special favor or privilege granted her by Christ, her heavenly spouse. Joan said little to any one about her voices, even to her confessor; only when it was necessary to accredit herself and to accomplish her mission did she speak. There can be small doubt that the little which she did tell her judges was told in the hope of convincing even them. That Joan was humbler than Catherine is not true,--no one could think more meanly of herself than did Catherine; but Joan thought wholly of other matters. From an agony of self-abasement Catherine passed to ecstatic visions, in which she received the stigmata, or the ring which was the proof of her marriage to Christ, or a new heart in place of her old one, having been literally heartless for a day or two. Nothing can be more remote than all this from the visions of Joan; these concerned almost altogether the work which she was called upon to do. Between the language of Catherine and that of Joan the difference is so great that no criticism can describe it; it can be appreciated only by reading both. To turn from one to the other is like passing from a greenhouse into the forest, from the Imitatio Christi to the New Testament. Catherine undoubtedly had a morbid mind in a diseased body. Unless her visions be conclusive proof of disease, Joan's mind and body alike were healthy.
From "Joan of Arc" by Francis C. Lowell, published 1896 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
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Part of a collection of etexts on women's history produced by Jone Johnson Lewis. Editing and formatting © 1999-2012 Jone Johnson Lewis.