The Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.

Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.

But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.

At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.

By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.

The False Maid

Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.

She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.

Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.

All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.

In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.

But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."

In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.

It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.

But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.

But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."

The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.

The Secret Sign

The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.

At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.

Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”

At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.

We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.

Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.

Afterlives

Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.

As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.

About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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