One of the most striking aspects of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was that her primary weapon was the cannon. Not only that, but she was very skilled with it. There are several testimonies from those who fought with her about her ability to place and aim cannons, as well as predict the target of enemy artillery (See Joan of Arc’s Military Successes and Failures).
This notion would not be hard for us to accept for someone like Napoleon (1769-1821), a man who went to school to become an artillery officer and then fought wars for more than two decades on three different continents. There is training, there is experience, and with the results of Napoleon’s campaigns, there is clear evidence of genius.
So, how do we explain the skill of a teenage, peasant girl that mastered artillery at the young age of 17 and 18? There was no artillery school available for Joan. Even if there were, she lacked education and was illiterate. In addition, her experience in warfare was short, just over a year of battles and sieges. In the past few months, I have received several emails all essentially asking the same questions. First, do I truly believe Joan was as skilled with cannons as the sources indicate? Second, if she was so skilled, then how? To the first question, the answer is yes. The contemporary sources are compelling enough for me to believe. Not only do several French commanders describe Joan studying martial topics with enthusiasm, but they also provide examples of her in action at sieges.
Remarkably, concerning the how, I have only found satisfactory answers from books written in the past decade. Most histories of Joan from the twentieth-century simply recognize that she possessed skill, but do not explain how she might have acquired it save for rigorous study. Yet, aside from desire and dedication, Joan was still a poor, uneducated, teenage girl. While these strikes appear damning at face value, recent historians argue that it was precisely because of these “handicaps” that she had an uncommon edge over her contemporaries.
In 1999, Kelly DeVries, a prolific medieval military historian, argued, “being ‘common’ may also have allowed her to listen to others, common cannoneers, for example, and to learn from them, something prohibited the more noble French military leaders.”1 DeVries indirectly touches on an earlier point about the cannoneers. Again, there was no school or official training for artillery. Those who built and operated cannons were of a lower class, not the chivalric knights of the age. When Joan arrived at Orléans, she was among nobles who had authority, but also among peasants who controlled much of the newer technology.
In 2003, Stephen W. Richey drove the point home concerning her class:
It is fair to speculate that while most noble military leaders of the day understood the importance of the new gunpowder weapons, they may have felt disdain for the social inferiors who manned the guns and who were threatening the nobles’ monopoly on military leadership. Joan would have had no such problem in her working relationship with her gunners. As a peasant and as a pragmatic person who was more concerned with what worked than with class distinctions, she may have been able to establish a rapport with the gunners more easily than her noble co-commanders.2
In the medieval world, chivalry was a means to separate the noble class from the peasants. This is why we associate the concept with knights and jousting, occupations that require a great deal of money for equipment and training. Peasants need not apply. Yet, building and firing cannons had become a new oddity in warfare that nobles were starting to tolerate, but not participate. By being poor and without nobility, Joan would have had no issues working with those who understood best how to use cannons.
Finally, in 2004, historian Jack Kelly dedicated the most ink to theorizing on how Joan mastered the cannon, touching on both her class and her youth. First, he also points out that the artisans, a commoner class, were responsible for cannons. Kelly believes Joan would have fit right in with their lot.
Like the blacksmiths of the day, they were a peripatetic lot, ready to travel to where the work was, eager to sell their expertise to the highest bidder. Joan, a peasant herself, was free to mix with these gunners, to discuss with them on an equal footing the fine points of powder and its use. Such access to information would have been valuable in helping her to gain a sense of the technology’s capability.3
This lines up nicely with the theories of DeVries and Richey, but Kelly also carries his theory into Joan’s youth.
The second facet of gunpowder was its novelty, and her youth also proved an advantage in mastering a form of energy that was beginning to upset long-held military precepts, and whose use was rapidly evolving. Military commanders versed in classical theories, for whom gunpowder weaponry was an awkward intrusion, struggled to incorporate the guns into their strategic thinking. Joan, lacking preconceptions, viewed artillery with fresh eyes and readily developed an intuition about its use. Her facility has its distant echoes in the youth of the present day who quickly grasp the technology and possibilities of computers while their parents struggle to catch up.4
Joan arrived at the Siege of Orléans (1429) at the age of 17. The commanding French nobles present at the siege were the Duke of Alençon (22 years old), Baron de Rais (24 years old), the Bastard of Orléans (26 years old), Ambroise de Loré (33 years old), La Hire (39 years old), the Marshal of Boussac (54 years old), and finally, Louis de Culan, the Admiral of France (69 years old). Although there were several nobles in their twenties, it was the men in their 50s and 60s that held the most authority at the siege. Regardless, the average age among the commanding nobles was 38. They needed some youth in their ranks, especially with game-changing technologies like cannons becoming more prominent.
The final “strike,” Joan’s gender, is probably the easiest to dispel, especially with modern-day militaries featuring female soldiers, drill instructors, and even generals. Still, there are several examples from history where women were able to rise up and lead men in battle. Joan was not the first or the last. Just as her age allowed her to see evolving technology for its full potential, so too did her gender allow her to view the same technology from a different angle.
So how was a poor, teenage girl able to become a master of cannon where noble, experienced men struggled? It was precisely because of her class, age, and gender that she possessed an uncommon edge over her contemporaries.
Below are cannons in front of the Joan of Arc monument in New Orleans.
DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999.
Kelly, Jack. Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Change the World. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Richey, Stephen W. Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint. Westport: Praeger, 2003.
- Kelly DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 56. [↩]
- Stephen W. Richey, Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint (Westport: Praeger, 2003), 92. [↩]
- The work was originally published in 2004. Jack Kelly, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Change the World (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 47. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]