Joan of Arc surrenders her secrets to scientific scrutiny

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Half a millennium after the death of Joan of Arc, warrior maiden, saint, feminist icon and scourge of the English, she is to have a medical check-up.

Philippe Charlier, a celebrated French specialist in forensic medicine, intends to analyse fragments of bone and skin reputed to have survived Joan's burning at the stake in May 1431.

The intention is to verify, first, whether the remains, held at Chinon in the Loire valley, are genuinely those of a young woman of the early 15th century who died by burning. So little is known about the real Joan - or Jeanne - that almost anything revealed by Dr Charlier's team would be valuable to historians.

Dr Charlier said he hoped eventually to uncover enough information to attempt something close to a positive identification.

Carbon and pollen dating should be able to permit the researchers to identify the precise year and month of death, he said. In ideal circumstances, the scientific studies would match the historical record, showing that the bones and skin came from a 19-year-old woman who died in May 1431 and whose body was burnt three times on the same day.

"We would then have a bundle of arguments, so detailed and so close to the record that we would be able to say with almost complete certainty that they are the remains of Jeanne d'Arc," he said.

Last year, Dr Charlier, and his team at the Hôpital Raymond Poincaré in Garches, west of Paris, studied the remains of Agnès Sorel (1422-50), the "official" mistress of King Charles VII, the French monarch who fought the English alongside Joan. The studies confirmed the historical accounts that Madame Sorel had died of severe mercury poisoning.

Joan of Arc was reputedly a peasant girl from eastern France who was inspired by the "voices" of saints to lead the French armies and defeat the invading English.

Legend has it that she lifted the siege of Orleans, created a sense of French nationhood and changed the course of the Hundred Years War, She was burnt by the English in Rouen as a heretic and a witch.

Several historians and biographers believe much of the legend of Joan is untrue or exaggerated. The "real" Jeanne never led the French armies. Her enemies were French as much as English in a muddled and treacherous, three-way civil war.

Her trial and execution - though approved and paid for by the English - were mostly driven by extreme repressive forces in the Catholic church in France, led by the University of Paris. Her active career lasted just more than a year.

Jeanne was canonised by Rome in 1920. She is the only person burnt as a heretic to have been made a Catholic saint.

There is probably more contemporary, written material on Jeanne than any other medieval figure who has a peasant background. Much of it comes from the records of her trial and the posthumous "appeal" and commission of inquiry 25 years later.

From the trial minutes, and her letters, Jeanne's personality and voice survive the centuries: calm, driven but not really the voice of a fanatic.

We also learn, among other things, that she was a wonderful cook and a good-looking woman, with prominent breasts.