This generation saw the last instance that I am aware of, of direct angelic intervention in human affairs. It happened through a young girl living in Donremy in north-eastern France, the daughter of Jacques d’Arc. During Jeanne d’Arc’s (in English, Joan of Arc’s) lifetime France was living through a prolonged civil war among its elites.
The dukes of the two warring factions, the Armagnacs and Burgundians, were cousins. The Armagnacs controlled most of central France, an area dependent on agriculture, with its feudal hierarchies still intact. The Burgundians controlled eastern France and Flanders to the north (the area that is now Belgium). Flanders was rich because of the wool trade with England, and so the court of Burgundy was rich too, famous for its lavish style. Flanders had prosperous cities with merchants, the arts, an infrastructure – in other words, a more modern world. The king of England was also cousin to the fighting French elites. England controlled France north of the Loire, and Aquitaine in the south-west. As rulers of Flanders, it was in the Burgundians’ interests to ally themselves with England.
This map from Wikipedia shows the situation. The territories controlled by Henry V of England are shown in pink, those controlled by Philip III of Burgundy are shown in purple and the territories controlled by Charles VII, not yet crowned king of France, are shown in blue.
Joan was a devout girl. She had her first vision at the age of twelve or thirteen, in the garden of her home. She cried when the shining people left – they were so beautiful. From then on, for the next four years, she saw them often. Her friends first teased her and then avoided her. Her marriage betrothal was broken off. She said she saw Saints Catherine and Margaret and the archangel Michael. They told her to drive the English out of France and take the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned king Charles VII of France. Apart from the fact that she was an unimportant girl in an unimportant village, such ideas were in the realm of fantasy. Fifteen years previously the English had won a decisive victory at Agincourt. The last king of France, Charles the Mad, had signed a treaty disinheriting his son, the dauphin, in favour of his grandson Henry VI of England, on the possibly correct suspicion that the dauphin was a result of his wife’s affair with his brother during one of his bouts of insanity.
The full story is told in detail elsewhere: how she persuaded her cousin to take her to meet the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs, and how on her second visit she made an accurate prediction that the Armagnacs were being defeated that very day by the English. (This was the so-called battle of the Herrings). How she went to Orleans, was dressed in armour and despite superior numbers the English lifted the siege nine days after her arrival.
This was a time of rigid hierarchies. It is extraordinary that a poor girl from a small town should be in the same room as the dauphin and all those military commanders even as a servant, let alone converse with them as an equal. It would seem they maybe humoured her but they also listened to her. And after her appearance the tide of the conflict turned.
She did indeed conduct the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned. Within a generation the English were out of France and Charles VII made a peace treaty with Burgundy. Within a hundred years Burgundy and its territories were absorbed either into France or the Habsburg Empire, and within another hundred years France was the powerhouse of Europe.
Joan herself was captured, sold to the English, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But within a generation of her death the sentence was revoked, suggesting that those who remembered the events knew they had lived through something remarkable.
This image of her was painted around 1450, about twenty years after she died. (courtesy Wikimedia).
Reviewing the story, it raises contradictions. Why did the angels appear to Joan? It could be said that the zeitgeist was not finding expression in the France of Joan of Arc, but in Flanders, Florence and eastern Europe. That was where the new world, the one we live in now, was making its appearance.
For example: a wealthy merchant in Ghent in Flanders commissioned Hubert van Eyck to paint an altarpiece for the local church. When Hubert died, his brilliant brother Jan took over.
Here is the inside of the altarpiece. The reverse is similarly ornate.
For me the most remarkable parts of this painting are the images of Adam and Eve on the left and right.
Here is a close-up of Adam. It is painted with a realism that is new to the time. One can imagine Messer van Eyck asking one of his friends, family or neighbours to model for him, and then painting what he actually saw rather than an idealised image.
But the most famous painting by Jan van Eyck was for a merchant in Bruges, another wealthy town in Flanders.
The Arnolfini portrait shows the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenami in their bedchamber. From the wooden pattens on the floor to the brush hanging from the bedpost, it shows a faithful attempt to portray the world they actually inhabited. A determination to describe what is actually the case that would not be out of place in our time.
There has been discussion about what this painting represents. Does it show the wedding of this couple, or their betrothal? Or is he granting her the power to manage their business affairs in his absence? The lady in this portrait shares her name with Joan of Arc (in French, Jeanne d’Arc). I suspect that whatever it portrays, apart from that one thing in common, the two women inhabited very different worlds.
More dramas in this generation were playing out in the world of the church. The last Avignon pope (supported by the Armagnac faction) abdicated in favour of Martin V, supported by the English and therefore the Burgundians. Martin V came from an old Roman family, and moved the seat of the papacy back to the city. He started rebuilding Rome, which had fallen into ruin. This was the beginning of the end of the turmoil in the catholic church, but not the end of dissent.
In 1415 a priest and scholar from Prague University in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) had been burned at the stake for heresy. In anticipation of the grievances of Martin Luther a century later, Jan Hus highlighted the hypocrisy of the church establishment and advocated a simpler, more personal religion. Jan Hus’s followers continued his cause after his death. There were five attempts by local rulers, backed by the catholic church to stamp out the heresy. But the Hussites defeated them all, thanks to some innovative tactics and inspiring leaders. By the end of this generation a compromise had been reached and the Hussites were nominally reintegrated into the church. But Hus’s ideas continued, and a century later the Reformation found fertile ground here.
Pope Martin’s successor Eugene IV oversaw an attempt to reunite the eastern and western churches. Although this ultimately failed, it did have a side-effect. One of the entourage accompanying the elders of the eastern church to Ferrara and then (after an outbreak of the plague) to Florence was a scholar called Gemistus Plethon. Cosimo de Medici attended Plethon’s lectures on Plato and, inspired by them, founded the Platonic Academy in Florence. And so the seeds that led to the flowering of the Renaissance were sown.
One seed that was sown in Florence at this time was within the realm of humanity. The wool merchants’ guild, one of the nine major guilds of the city, commissioned the sculptor Brunelleschi to design the first orphanage that I know of, and it opened in 1427. There was a basin outside the front door where an unwanted baby could be left anonymously. The children were reared there and given an education appropriate to their gender. The boys learned a trade, the girls domestic arts. The older girls had the chance to become nuns, or were given a dowry to be married. There is a mercy, a compassion given expression here: regardless of their background, the children left at the Ospedale degli Innocenti were cared for and given a chance to play their part in the life of Florence when they grew up.