Their births separated by 71 years and about 400 miles, Joan of Arc and Martin Luther may seem an unlikely pair to compare. Joan was an illiterate who was executed at the age of 19; Luther was an academic who knew at least four languages and at 19 had no idea he was destined to become a monk, let alone a monk who would change the world. Despite their differences, Luther and Joan were similar in their unshakable faith in God and their dogged determination to follow God’s will rather than the will of earthly authorities.
Martin Luther and Joan of Arc were both born into relatively well-off peasant families. Their parents taught them about God and brought them up according to medieval Catholic tradition; Luther also attended school. Their immersion in medieval folk Christianity meant that they viewed God and the forces of good, and also the forces of evil, as having a very real presence in their everyday lives such that they attached great significance to their interactions with celestial forces. Pivotal moments in their lives occurred when they chose to make decisions based on these interactions rather than on their parents’ wishes.
Joan’s parents had every reason to expect that her life would follow the typical cycle of peasant life that had continued for generations: that she would marry in her early to mid-teen years in an arranged marriage and spend the rest of her life producing and raising lots of children. Starting at about age 12, Joan heard voices from God and believed that God wanted her to help Charles VII attain the throne of France. A marriage would greatly impede her freedom of action and her ability to go to the aid of the dauphin, so when her parents arranged a husband for her, she refused to marry. The next time she disobeyed her parents was when she ran away to meet Robert de Baudricourt in her effort to gain access to Charles. Joan did not despise her parents or want to disappoint them but she felt a higher duty to her God.
A repudiation of his parents’ wishes in favor of his duty to God was a critical experience for Martin Luther as well. Luther’s father recognized that Luther was an intellectually gifted young man and wanted him to direct his talents towards becoming a lawyer so that he could support his parents in their old age. One night when riding in a storm, Luther was nearly killed by a lightning bolt and swore to become a monk out of gratitude that his life had been spared. Soon after, Luther joined a monastery; his father was livid and the two were not on speaking terms for quite some time. Luther went out of his way to arrange for his father to be present at his first mass when he became a priest, showing that Luther respected his father and wanted his approval, but his fear of God and sense of duty to keep a promise to God were more important to Luther than his relationship with his parents.
Born into the peasant class, neither Martin Luther, nor Joan of Arc would have been able to accomplish what they did if not for the help and protection of a powerful noble. For Joan, that noble was Charles VII. Joan had sufficiently impressed Robert de Baudricourt and his companions that he sent her to Charles with a cautious endorsement. Charles, so it seems, was skeptical of the quixotic teenager, but the people of his court liked her and his situation was desperate enough that he was willing to try anything and agreed to give her command of some troops to aid in breaking the English siege of Orléans. Had Baudricourt not been sympathetic or Charles not been obliging, Joan would never have had the opportunity to become a world-changing military commander.
Luther’s dependence on leadership was for protection and he was fortunate to live in the realm of a curious duke who did not want Luther to be squelched until it could be fairly proven that he was wrong. Luther took his duties as a priest seriously and felt a deep responsibility for the souls of his parishioners. The selling of indulgences near his church led him to question the practice and eventually to post a list of 95 objections (theses) that he wished to debate. The theses, originally written in Latin and intended only for review by other theologians, were soon, and against Luther’s wishes, translated to German and distributed throughout Germany. The Pope commanded Luther to appear in Rome to be questioned but Frederick the Wise, duke of Saxony, did not think that Luther would be treated fairly in Rome and insisted that he be questioned in Germany. As Luther researched his defense, he became more and more convinced that the Church was wrong about many topics, not just indulgences. Frederick continued to protect him even though both Pope and Emperor wanted him dead. Without Frederick’s protection, Luther’s career would have been short and sad.
The most striking parallel between Luther and Joan is their uncompromising dedication to the pure word of God. The word of God came to Joan in the form of bright lights and voices and to Luther in the form of the Holy Scriptures. The Word directed Joan to liberate France from the English and Luther to liberate the Christianity from the Pope. For Luther, the mission came to a climax at the Diet of Worms. Luther came before the princes of Germany and the Emperor Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe. He was presented with a stack of his writings, many of which were blatantly heretical, and asked if he still stood by their contents. To answer in the affirmative would be an insult to the Emperor and to the Church and would almost certainly earn Luther a death sentence. Luther defended his works with a speech ending in the words, “my conscience is captive to the Word of God... God help me... Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” (Bainton 144). Ninety-two years earlier Joan of Arc had arrived at the siege of Orléans exuding an aura of confidence, inspiring the French troops, and demanding frontal assaults on English positions. She had already led a successful storming of one English fortification and now demanded an attack on Les Tourelles. Capturing Les Tourelles would essentially break the siege and free the city. Despite misgivings, the other commanders agreed to her brash tactics and, firm in her belief that God would grant them victory, Joan personally led the assault. During the struggle, Joan was hit in the neck with an arrow and forced to leave the action. Later, after the wound had been treated, the battle was becoming a stalemate. Joan took up her battle flag. Standing there in the ditch, rallying her troops, knowing she is doing God’s work, one can almost hear La Pucelle defiantly announcing, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
The siege of Orléans was broken and the French won a series of victories leading to the coronation of Charles VII in Reims. Eventually, Joan of Arc was captured by her enemies. Charles, having already benefited enormously from her efforts and viewing her now as little more than an annoyance, neglected to negotiate her release. Abandoned by her beloved king and sold into the hands of the English, Joan was accused of heresy and subjected to a kangaroo trial. During the trial, in the face of harsh conditions and certain doom, Joan displayed an intellect, eloquence, and adherence to her convictions that moved many of those in attendance and would have impressed even a master of rhetoric like Martin Luther. But it was a struggle against the inevitable and in the end she was led weeping to the pyre; she forgave her persecutors, prayed to God, and died a slow horrible death as the flames inched closer and closer—her alleged crime: the wearing of trousers.
Luther was fortunate that Frederick never abandoned him. He was excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw by Charles V, but popular opinion favored him. Frederick, unconvinced of Luther's guilt, had him spirited away to hide in an old castle. Luther continued his work as a reformer by translating the entire Bible into German and helping to guide the formation of a new church. Less admirably, and in contradiction to his earlier opposition to violence, Luther also became acridly anti-Semitic. He died of natural causes at the age of 62.
Luther was a heretic, but escaped execution; Joan was not a heretic, but was burned anyway.
Martin Luther and Joan of Arc both left a permanent mark on the map of Europe. Luther’s ideas helped legitimize Protestantism and led to a surge of nationalism in the German states. He was neither the first person, nor the last to perceive flaws in Roman Catholicism and to urge reform. His prolificity as a writer, complemented by the recently invented printing press, allowed him to rapidly gain sympathizers all over Germany and even in other countries, and made it harder to kill him without risking civil unrest. That people were so receptive to his ideas indicates that they were already frustrated with Catholicism and ready for reform. Had Luther never decided to become a monk or to rebel against the Church, without a doubt somebody else would have. Joan, in contrast, was a freak accident of history (or perhaps a miracle of God). She was not the first person in history to be directed by a voice from God, but that such a person should arise in France at that particular time with her specific goals and then have the tenacity to actually accomplish those goals is simply fantastic. If not for Joan, Charles VII would never have become king of France, which would have left much or all of French territory in the hands of the English and possibly resulted in a very different European map from the one we know today.
Spoto, Donald. 2007. Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint. New York: Harper Collins.
Bainton, Roland H. 1950. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Taylor, Craig. 2006. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle. Manchester: Manchester U P.
Oberman, Heiko A. 1989. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Yale U P.