Not too long ago, in a land not so very far away, some very strange things were happening.
In an English country field, a small group of women reported that they had witnessed a remarkable event. High in the sky, and just after sunset on April 16th, 1651, they claimed that a "battle" had taken place, complete with strange sounds and roaring noises.
After its`conclusion, a procession of "angelic beings, blue in colour and with faces like owls" had appeared.
No one laughed at or mocked these reported experiences. Today, in less magical times, we might simply say that these women had shared a hallucination .
However, when we explore this historical period a little more deeply, we may see that there is much we can learn, of social attitudes and beliefs, of spiritual expression and the hopes and fears of a people that we can only strive to understand as we sit here in our scientific and rational 21st century techno bubble.
Were these kind of experiences rare? No. Were these women ill or mentally unstable? Probably not. Were they subject to the mind disturbing properties of ergot rye infection which was to waltz its`way through middle Europe in the form that came to be known as St. Vitus Dance? Unlikely.
This was an infection that caused whole villages to become communities of madness, the people unable to sit still, dancing and shaking with wild and wide eyes and which many suspected to be acts of devilish possession and withcraft.
I wonder how many women were falsely accused and punished for "consorting with devils" and how many communities were left scarred by these seemingly inexplicable events?
Of course, we know more about plants, infections and "psychedelic experiences" these days and can place confusing experiences into an understandable framework of reference that does not include, at least in the main, the possibility of demonic possession!
Life in the middle ages certainly wasn´t easy.
If a person reached thirty years it was unusual and the people had much to be afraid of: illness, warfare, strife, uncertainty, food shortages, poor social conditions and sanitation. Thirty per cent of children never made it past five years of age.
Is it any wonder that people held fast to their faith? That belief in a supreme being or God was the only consistent factor in a life bedevilled by change and riddled with so much earthly uncertainty?
No surprise then that the good people turned to prayer for protection from what they firmly believed were evil sources. Regular appeals to the saints of the past were believed to be able to ward off the possibilities of pestilence and plague, personal and collective damnation and to atone for acts percieved as sins and individual and collective moral failures.
In an age where many believed that judgements would also come in the afterlife based on a persons`actions in the current one, there was, indeed, plenty to be fearful of.
In the 15th century, shepherds, at the end of a day in the Wiltshire fields, would burn corn seeds and rake the sign of a cross into the ash, all the while calling vocally on St. Oswald to protect them and their flock of sheep through the night, that they might all awaken, safe from harm. They fell asleep, still praying and on awaking, would give thanks, baking in their little kilns and asking the Saint to bring them beautiful bread, so that they would have no hunger throughout the working day.
Saints also had their own "specialised" areas of responsibility and dedication and the worship of them was an integral part of medieval society. Individual churches had their own patron saints, as did trades and merchants. And many shrines dedicated to long gone saints were to become popular places of pilgrimage for the devout.
Over 500 "miracles" were to be associated with Thomas Beckett and his shrine, to which the sick and infirm made long and tiring journeys in order to obtain healing and cures for all manner of ailments.
And, as William Tyndale wrote in the early 16th century: "We worship the saints for fear, lest they should be displeased and angry with us, and plague or otherwise hurt us".
And many trades had their own dedicated patron saint too:
And, if we can understand a little more of the closeness people felt in relation to the presence of God and the saints in every tiny detail of their lives, we can see how important a role these beliefs played in daily life, sometimes to an astonshing degree, ushering in social change, radicalising a disempowered people and changing the very course of history itself, for example!
Meet St. Michael and Saints Margaret and Katherine. Oh what trouble their appearance would cause for a poor village girl tasked with simply looking after her fathers`sheep and doing her best to be a good and pious daughter. What a transforming journey they would inspire her to take on!
The visions and voices that she heard spoke to and of an ancient prophecy, one that would entail huge social change. This prophecy claimed that a virgin maiden would lead a country to its´ freedom from foreign domination and place a true born king onto the throne.
This was Catholic France, 1424 during The " Hundred Year War" with England and which had become a state of perpetual and exhausting struggle, with much of the country under the power of the English and their political and military allies, the Burgundians.
You only have to take a look at this map to understand the perilous state of French affairs. Could this situation ever really be changed? And by a young girl, Jean d'Arc, with no power except a belief somehow fostered in her by visiting saintly apparitions in her local Parish church? Surely hardly possible!
No doubt she was laughed at, scorned and initially ignored. She travelled to see the Dauphin at court to ask for men at arms to aid her quest, a task she understood as a holy one. She explained that she was on a divine mission and was aided by Angels and Saints, that she was assured of a victory and that he would, one day, be the rightful king of France.
To the consternation of some military leaders and court advisors, she was given a small number of soldiers, a horse and armour. She cut her hair short, in order to look more like a young soldier and a boy, the better to inspire the confidence of potential followers.
She even learned a little swordcraft, should it be necessary in close quarter combat.
A banner or flag was specially designed for her to carry with into action and to lead the troops.
She led the soldiers on to raise the sieges of several small towns and slowly, her reputation grew along with her numerous admirers. People flocked to the cause, to liberate France once and for all from foreign intervention and control. The divine adventure was truly under way.
She prayed fervently and constantly, having many dark days as well as bright ones. She took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder and still returned to lead her troops into battle.
Many French towns were laid to seige, surrounded by enemy soldiers and forced to survive within the walled enclosures while supply routes were cut off and food and water often running low.
Huge siege towers were to be seen being built in full view of the defenders, who could only look on in alarm, knowing that one day soon they would be subject to more than just deprivation of basic needs for survival but prolonged and bloody attack by catapult, fireballs of burning pitch and tar, flying boulders and then very likely be put to the sword by invaders.
The most famous of these battles was at Orléons, where the French forces under her control were able to force the seige to an end and to liberate the inhabitants who had suffered so much and for so long. Cue, much national celebration and relief as news travelled across the land.
Joan was, by now, fast becoming a folk heroine, an inspiration and a celebrated leader of men, throwing aside all sorts of preconceptions about the strength of women, their supposed and historically preordained role in life and what was possible when a person was filled with righteous self belief and determination to see through a project dear to her heart and to the hearts of so many others. She was an inspiration and a "godsend" and just when the country needed it most.
You likely know the rest of this amazing story. Captured by Burgundian forces, she was sold for a bounty to the English, imprisoned, put on trail for heresey and witchcraft and then burned at the stake, in public, in the market place at Rouen in 1431.
They raked over the ashes of Joan three times in order to ensure nothing remained that could be taken as a memento, nothing was left that might be treated as an heirloom treasure to inspire others or sustain more insurrections and keep her memory alive.
They likely hoped that the story of Joan would die there too, reduced to smouldering black dust in front of a wailing and watchful, stunned crowd. But they were wrong. Joan claimed that her reception of divine guidance and her trust in her voices and visions were true experiences and that she had, somehow, been selected to carry out this life changing (and eventually life ending) role.
But, the English did leave French lands. The Dauphin was crowned as a King and France was once again a united single entity in nation form and has been so ever since.
The old prophecy had, in fact, come true and no small thanks to a young girl who heard voices and saw visions. A girl that many initially considered to be mad.
Joan was subject to a commision of enquiry in Rome who, six hundred years later, found her "innocent of all charges of heresy".
She was canonised in 1920 and is the patron Saint of France, appearing on stamps, in songs, poems and stories and her liberatory tales of self belief, trust in divine providence and overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles is now woven into the tapestry of the national narrative, the story of a country regaining its` identity and its`freedom.
And all because of a girl who tended sheep. A liberator, a leader, a troublemaker, who upturned expectations, upset the odds and set a country onto a new trajectory. A girl who listened to her voices. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joan of Arc!
Activist/ Health worker/ 20 years. Specific interests : wellness/ voice hearing/ coping/ exploring/ sharing/ stigma reduction.