On the trail of light – France 2022

The vehicle glides quietly along the almost empty Normandy highway towards Rouen, where our last sleeping place for this trip will be. The sun is already very low and I feel the evening atmosphere, which relaxes and calms me. I listen to the whirring and singing of the wind as it brushes past the roof box and my thoughts circle around the experiences of this trip. Behind my driver’s seat, the fevered dog has fallen asleep, and that’s a good thing. We’re going home to give him a better chance to heal up.

It will take three weeks, the vet had said, after she had clipped his croup and tail and put a funnel around his head. What exactly caused it to leak bare is unclear. In any case, his wounds have become infected and the infection and pain, especially on his tail, dictate that he be returned as soon as possible to his usual calm environment at home, where his wounds can best be cared for.

In this case, as fast as possible means covering the approximately 1,300 kilometers from Nouvelle-Aquitaine in two stages.

I am not disappointed that I have to end the journey so suddenly, because I was able to “work off” all the stages and goals I had set for myself, all the goals except one. And this was the one I was heading for.

The national heroine

Entered in the book of human history are episodes that are extremely tragic and require healing. One of them is the story of Joan of Arc. Jeanne or Jehanne, as she was also called, had only a short appearance on the world stage, as she had to leave it again at the age of 19. But this brief appearance had such a profound impact on France at the time that she was later declared a national heroine. Her life and attitude have also inspired many writers, poets, musicians and artists.

I wanted to get a little closer to her story, which I had never fully understood, so my first stop was Domrémy, a small village in Lorraine. Beautifully situated in the countryside and nestled in meadows, fields and forests, the special significance of this place is that it is the birthplace of Jeanne, who grew up here as the child of a wealthy farming family. Not only has her birthplace been preserved and turned into a museum, but monuments have been erected to her, giving us an idea of what she may have looked like and what moved her.

Much of her life story is well documented, while some also remains obscure, such as the content of her personal conversation with the Dauphin Charles VII. The trial records of the two Inquisition trials have been preserved in their entirety. Thus, the following picture can be roughly sketched:

France in 1412, the presumed year of Jeanne’s birth, is in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. For 75 years, the English and French crowns have been at war with each other, with the English army having conquered large parts of France at that time. But it is not only the political opponents who determine the events of this time, but also the omnipresent Catholic Church, which is deeply involved in the power games and plays the decisive inglorious role in Jeanne’s story.

Jeanne’s mission

Little Jeanne grows up as a very religious child and at the age of 13 is shaken by profound mystical experiences, which she recounts in the trial she is later given. She states that in her visions she perceives the voices of St. Catherine, St. Margaret and St. Michael the Archangel. In 1428, when the war reached her village, she heard the order to liberate France and lead the Dauphin Charles VII to the coronation in Reims.

Her decision is firm and cannot be shaken by anything: she must see the Dauphin and offer him her help. In January 1429, she leaves her parental home to seek out the town commander of Vaucouleurs, who can take her to the Dauphin in Chinon. It takes several attempts and a lot of persuasion before the royal steward finally believes her and grants her wish. However, she has to put on men’s clothes and carry a sword for the trip.

In early March, she arrives in Chinon, where she is first presented with a fake dauphin. However, she immediately notices the deception and recognizes the true Dauphin in the crowd of courtiers, which is tantamount to a miracle for those present. According to tradition, a long closed-door conversation ensued between Jeanne and the Dauphin, who met her with skepticism and had her credibility tested in interviews. As a final proof, the verification of her virginity is demanded – with a positive result. It is important to know that in those times one was quickly accused of witchcraft or heresy, especially if one reported mystical experiences such as visions. However, virginal purity was a high good and a virgin was not suspected of being involved with evil. Instead, people were inclined to understand these religious experiences as divine references. In addition, in the region where Jeanne came from, there was apparently also a legend that a virgin would come out of the oak forest and liberate France.

When, after checking her credibility, the clergy now also give their approval, she has armor made and is given a military unit with the task of bringing provisions to Orléans. The troops in Orléans are motivated to attack the English. Jeanne rides in the front line and is hit by an arrow. Nevertheless, she insists on continuing to participate in combat, which is a huge motivational boost for the soldiers. They finally succeed in driving the English completely out of the city, thus liberating Orléans.

Rise and fall

Up to this point, one can only marvel at the courage, determination and self-confidence of this girl, only 17 years old, who rides ahead of the soldiers in men’s clothing and armor with short-cropped hair, holding the banner to strengthen their bravery. Jeanne is hailed as a heroine, even though her role apparently did not please some of the men.

It does not remain with the liberation of Orléans on May 8, 1429. By June, the British are driven out of all positions south of the Loire. On July 17, 1429, the Dauphin was anointed King Charles VII of France in Reims, and Jeanne was given the honor of standing by his side.

Thus, it would have actually fulfilled its mission. Now, however, a power tussle begins. While Jeanne repeatedly begs the king to allow her to advance to Paris and continue the victorious campaign against the English, the royal advisors work against her and strive to undermine her influence over the king. The king is interested in peace with Burgundy. Although he eventually gives his approval for an attack on Paris, when this attempt fails in September 1429, he withdraws his troops and withdraws Jeanne’s further support.

Betrayed and sold

Meanwhile, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip III, allied with the English, revived the war and besieged the town of Compìegne in May 1430. Jeanne, who rushes to the aid of the king with a small army without consulting the king, is arrested by the Burgundians and, after seven months of captivity and two failed escape attempts, is finally sold to the English for 10,000 francs. In order to weaken the reputation of the French king, it is decided to try them before an Inquisition court instead of a military tribunal, and the Bishop of Beauvais is charged with organizing and conducting the trial. If Jeanne were to be condemned as a witch and heretic, it would also mean that Charles VII had taken advice from a highly dubious person.

At this point I wonder if the king, to whom Jeanne swore allegiance and who owed so much to the “Maid of Lorraine,” at least considered standing by her and making an attempt to save her. Opportunities to buy her back from captivity, or to exchange her for another prisoner, such as the British commander-in-chief Talbot, might well have existed. The fact is, however, that Jeanne is being abandoned, and it is obvious that she is being sacrificed in the tug and pull of various power interests, regardless of her mission, fame, and merit.

Trial and execution

With the new year 1431, the Inquisition trial now begins in Rouen. Jeanne has no lawyer and must defend herself. Trial records show that she handles this with great quick wit and intelligence, especially when it comes to trick questions. For example, they want to nail her on the fact that she does not bow to the authority of the church, and she makes it clear that God’s word is authoritative for her.

The trial lasts five grueling months, during which Jeanne endures despite harsh and degrading prison conditions. Finally, she is threatened with torture and death by fire and led to the stake in the churchyard of St. Ouen, where crowds of onlookers have already gathered. The desired effect is achieved, as Jeanne breaks down and makes a “confession” by signing a paper that has already been prepared (assuming that she could not read and write, so did not know the content of the text). So she officially renounces. As a result, they commute her sentence to life imprisonment.

Wearing men’s clothing, which after all offered her some protection from rape, had been an issue during the trial. Jeanne now continues to be in captivity and wears women’s clothing, as is expected of her. However, after a few days, the situation changes abruptly: Jeanne recants her “confession” and also wears men’s clothes again, stating that the other things had been taken away from her. This is obviously a trap, especially since the English, who are out to kill her, are not satisfied with the outcome of the trial.

Now everything happens very quickly. In a new shortened trial, it is determined that she has relapsed and is now proven to be a heretic. On the morning of May 30, 1431, she was taken to the marketplace of Rouen and burned at the stake, a 19-year-old girl. To ensure that no one can venerate her remains as relics of a martyr, they throw them into the Seine.

The fact that she was rehabilitated in a later trial and even canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920 does not change the cruel crime that was done to her.


My next stop is a small town in the Pyrenees, close enough to the fabled Montségur mountain. Here I stay a few days on a small, shady campsite and read up a little on the history of the Cathars.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but just list a few points that I find interesting and provide some insight into their history. The Cathars, sometimes called Albigensians, were a surprisingly large religious community in the 12th century, 13. and 14th century, which were very common not only in the south of France, but also in Italy, Spain and Germany. When Joan of Arc entered the world stage, the time of the Cathars was already over. They too fell victim to the Inquisition, an instrument of power that the Catholic Church developed for their sake around 1200 and which then terrified the people of Europe for another 600 years.

There are many myths surrounding the Cathars and their story not only inspired writers but was also instrumentalized by ideologues for their political agenda. But what were the reasons for their persecution?

Similar to other groups before them, such as the Bogomils in Eastern Europe, the Cathars aspired to a Christian life in the spirit of early Christianity. The teachings of Jesus were central to their thoughts and actions. While the behavior of the representatives of the Catholic Church, with their claim to power and their often bad behavior, distressed many people, it was the way of life of the Cathars that had a convincing effect. Their followers included many nobles, especially in the Languedoc region of southern France, which is still referred to as Cathar country today. For a time, the Cathar group existed peacefully and unmolested alongside Roman Catholic followers. In the areas they dominated, for example, people did not have to pay tithes, people were allowed to express their opinions freely, and women had equal rights. Cathar thought was dualistic and the diet was vegetarian.

Interestingly, the community grew rapidly in a short time and soon posed serious competition to the Church, which now saw its claim to power threatened and claimed that there was no Christian faith to be found outside Roman Catholic doctrine. What followed was the Cathar Crusade initiated by Pope Innocent, a campaign of extermination against all Cathars and their sympathizers, with the goal of their complete eradication. This lasted 20 years and was replaced from 1229 by the now established Inquisition. Cities like Béziers and Carcassonne were brutally depopulated. Those who could escape retreated to one of the castle fortresses in the Pyrenees.

Castle Montségur was considered a safe refuge during this period and held as the last refuge of Occitania until 1244. In March of that year, however, the fortress fell after a nine-month siege. The supply of water and food had been cut off and the inhabitants were forced to leave the castle. Faced with the choice of either renouncing their faith or being burned at the stake, there was no one among the 200 or so people who left the castle who would have been willing to betray their faith. And so all of them – except for four men who managed to rappel down the night before the surrender with the mission of bringing the community treasure to safety – found death in the flames of the pyre that had been built at the foot of the mountain. This place is marked today with a memorial stele.

So much for the insight into the tragic history of Montségur.

On an already advanced afternoon of a hot summer day, I now put my plan to hike up to the castle with Mowgli into action. The path is steep and the heat is hard on us. Several times we have to pause exhausted and when I already play with the thought to give up, an older gentleman comes towards me from above, who speaks to me friendly in French and encourages me to go on. This actually gives me the strength I still need for the last stage. When I finally stand inside the castle, I can hardly believe it.

There are only a handful of people and a guide up here, who explains the history of Montségur in detail and enthusiastically to newcomers. When no one is around, he sits in the grass and waits.

So for a while I am almost alone up here and can absorb the atmosphere. The silence is enlivened and the longer I breathe in and out quietly while sitting on a thick boulder, the happier and more peaceful I feel. It is a wonderful feeling.

Every now and then I look around and wonder how there was room for over 200 people in this rather small area within the walls. What did it look like here in the past? How did they live? Was it a village on several levels with wooden buildings and platforms? Or were there buildings outside the walls? Some hints are available on this page:

While the guide is now giving his lecture to a couple who also made it up here, I step outside through the back gate and look around a bit outside the walls. There is not much room here either and it soon goes steeply downhill. However, you can actually see remains of foundation walls.

The power of the sea

A few days later, I am sitting on the beach of Messanges with my dear dog, looking at the Atlantic Ocean. What I have seen of France so far has impressed me deeply. What a beautiful country! This intense light, in which the colors acquire a special depth!

Now I enjoy the colorful beach atmosphere and leave the tragic stories behind me for the time being, even if the feeling of complete lightheartedness does not want to set in. The high waves roll in powerfully, crash thunderously, curl foaming towards my feet and retreat again. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. For hours I could sit like this and breathe with the sea, absorbing the clear blues and greens and the fresh white spray into my soul.

It is healing and energizing at the same time.

One day, an attempted swim in the surf teaches me that the force can be so strong that you have nothing to oppose it and it’s all about saving yourself.

Losing my glasses on this swim isn’t the only reason it’s time to end the trip. Mowgli is unfortunately not doing well at all, he has a fever and needs to be treated. The vast pine forests here are also becoming a hazard. A little further north they are burning this summer.

I decide to drive home via Rouen. Rouen – the place where they killed Jeanne. Here I will stop once again to see the old marketplace where the pyre stood.

O Jeanne

Some may find the square with its beautiful old half-timbered houses and cozy cafes very appealing, but I am shocked. The square is dominated by the church Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc and I have the feeling that the building with the attached portico acts like a blockade. What kind of roof is that? It looks like a hat. My first association is “witch’s hat”, but it may represent more of a helmet. Not far from the execution site, a tall slender cross is emblazoned. Here, apparently, the church once again had the last word.

On the other hand, the quote from a poem by André Malraux engraved on the wall seems dignified to me:

“Ô Jeanne, sans sépulcre et sans portrait, toi qui savais que le tombeau des héros est le coeur des vivants.”

“O Jeanne, without grave and without portrait, you who knew that the grave of heroes is the heart of the living.”

As if to confirm and to make this quote leave a lasting impression on me, a man comes up to me and declaims this saying for me with a deep dramatic feeling.

What a journey!

One day later we are back home. Mowgli’s wounds are healing quite quickly, although his fur will take a while to grow back completely. But it takes me longer to be able to put all these experiences and insights into the right words. Please forgive me…

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