Propaganda during the Hundred Years’ War
The Hundred Years’ War is typically remembered from the English perspective as a time of conquest and glory, but from a French perspective, it is fundamentally a story of a kingdom fractured and dissolute, torn apart from the inside by warring factions and menaced on all sides by enemies. By 1428, the war had been raging for over ninety years, and the French had largely suffered tremendous losses. The battles of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356),and Agincourt (1415) are familiar to most with an interest in the Middle Ages, but what is perhaps less well known about the Hundred Years War is the devastating raids conducted in France by the English army. England’s allies as well as numerous mercenary companies they employed would take to plundering the surrounding countryside when there were no battles to be fought. By the fifteenth century, France’s agricultural-based economy had been broken as vast swathes of the entire country were burned and looted, and the country was about to be menaced once more by the factions of Burgundy and Orleans (later known as Armagnac), both fighting for control over the king and over France. In a world with two factions, two potential kings, and only one throne, propaganda became one of the many tools used to convince the populace of the legitimacy of one cause or the other.This article aims to introduce the reader to the usage of propaganda in the Hundred Years’ War, and to the poetry of Christine de Pizan, specifically the ‘Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc’ and the political, religious and military background which led up to it. Additionally, it will show that the Ditié was produced specifically with the citizens of Paris in mind, to persuade them of the legitimacy of the Armagnac cause through its endorsement by Joan of Arc herself, whose stunning victories and popularity were incontestable.
Armagnacs vs Burgundians
The origin of the Armagnac/Burgundian conflict can be traced back to the early fifteenth century, when Charles VI’s increased mental instability caused a power struggle within his own family for the governance of France. The principal instigators of the conflict were Louis, Duke of Orleans, and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, both relatives of the increasingly unstable king. After their disagreements had escalated into outright political assassinations, it soon became apparent that there was no reconciling the two parties, and after the assassination of John the Fearless at Montereau in 1419, the Burgundian faction were persuaded to support King Henry V of England as the rightful heir to the French throne, rather than the Armagnac-controlled dauphin who would become Charles VII. The Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420, offered an end to the lawlessness and turmoil of both the Armagnac/Burgundian civil war and the Hundred Years’ War itself – through the creation of a dual monarchy, whereby Henry V’s son would be King of England and France.
Now Charles VI seemed to have two heirs, both set about legitimising their claims: Henry V was soon married to Katherine of Valois, and surviving cultural evidence from that time indicates that there was a wealth of Anglo-Burgundian propaganda in support of the dual monarchy that would be embodied in their son, the future Henry VI. A prominent example is John Lydgate’s poem on the subject of Henry VI, written in both English and French, and designed to accompany a coloured chart depicting Henry V’s lineage and thus his claim to both the thrones of England and France.
‘The peedegre doth hit specifie,
The figure lo of the genelagye,
This figure makith clere demonstracione
That this Herry . . .
is justly borne . . .
For to be kyng of Englond and of Fraunce’
Additional material evidence designed to promote Henry VI’s legitimacy included the manufacture of an ‘Anglo-Gallic coinage’ and street pageants in both Paris and London. The pageants were magnificent and costly affairs, and included such spectacles as pantomime acts, processions and magnificent costumes. Awash in political symbolism, one such pageant undertaken by a young Henry VI in Paris included ‘an actor disguised as a deer (seeking) Henry VI’s protection from a pack of dogs’ – the deer being a symbol of the Anglo-Burgundian government in Paris.
The propaganda sought to reinforce the idea of Henry VI as a strong and able king, supported by the Burgundians, and the citizens of France and England, but in truth his extreme youth and requirement to be present in London meant that Charles VII and his Armagnac supporters were presented with an opportunity to reinvigorate the war.
Joan of Arc
In 1429 a peasant girl from Domremy approached Charles VII at his court in Chinon Castle with a prophecy that foretold the defeat of the English and Charles VII’s forthcoming coronation. Within a year, she had convinced Charles VII of her divine inspirations, and conducted a largely successful campaign in the Loire, first recapturing Orleans and then moving on to Jargeau and Beaugency. Joan of Arc is perhaps the singular most well-known and popular figure from the Middle Ages, with all the romanticism of her story and tragedy of her untimely death. Perhaps one factor in explaining the enduring fascination she holds for us is the inexplicable, almost miraculous element to her story. How did an illiterate peasant girl manage all Joan managed in her short life? Against all odds – class, age and gender being the principal ones – Joan managed to lead armies, lift sieges, and persuade thousands of the legitimacy of her words and actions. The writer Christine de Pizan was among those who became great admirers of ‘la pucelle’ and her divine mission. We tend to look at Joan backwards through history as, with the benefit of hindsight, we are aware of her tragic end as part and parcel of her ultimately anticlimactic story. Yet for those who experienced the final stage of the Hundred Years’ War first hand, Joan of Arc was a living legend, a warrior maid with all the makings of a saint in the flesh; and what was especially emboldening, a saint who embodied the Armagnac cause and drove back its enemies, promising the coming of a unified France with divine blessing. This provided a perfect opportunity to vindicate Charles VII and the Armagnac cause, and this must have been on the mind of Christine de Pizan as she came out of retirement to write ‘La Ditié de Jehanne D’Arc’.
Christine de Pizan and her works
Born in 1364, Christine had come to the French court of Charles V at a young age, accompanying her father who would later become Charles V’s personal physician. She began writing in her twenties, and soon established herself as a prominent poet. As she received the patronage of Louis of Orleans and two dukes of Burgundy in her life, questions have been asked over her personal opinions of the power struggles she witnessed. Was Christine’s loyalty flexible? Or did she in fact support one faction throughout her life, and merely had to take what patronage was offered to her for the sake of earning her living? Tracy Adams offers the highly convincing thesis that Christine de Pizan had in fact been anti-Burgundian from her early writing days, through a thorough examination of most of Christine’s principal works on politics and morality.Though much of her work exalts peaceful solutions to conflict over violent ones, this tone is entirely reversed with the Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc.
There are three main elements to take note of in the Ditié – the support for Charles VII, the exaltation of Joan of Arc, and Christine’s advice to the citizens of Paris. This rousing poem commences with Christine openly declaring that she ‘wept for eleven years in a walled abbey’ and ‘lived enclosed there on account of treachery’- meaning, in this case, the treachery which had caused Charles VII to flee the city. Charles VII is described in warlike splendour, as ‘a crowned King in might and majesty, wearing spurs of gold’. Moreover, Christine alleges that he is the prophesied ‘King of France called Charles, Son of Charles, who will be supreme ruler over all kings…in the end he will be Emperor’. The language used makes Charles VII’s return and eventual consolidation of his power seem inevitable, and his physical appearance is described in terms that the reader can vividly imagine – and be in awe of.
Christine is at pains to stress, however, that none of Charles’ conquests would have been possible without the guidance from Joan of Arc, who herself is guided by God. The terms in which Joan is described are remarkable, even for a writer who was relatively progressive in regards to the role of women for her day. Joan had been given ‘a heart greater than any man’, and her coming had been foreseen by such great prophets as Merlin, Sibyl and Bede. Her achievements at Orleans constituted nothing less than a miracle, and she would continue to do God’s work by ‘(restoring) harmony in Christendom and Church’ and ‘(destroying) the Saracens by conquering the Holy Land’. Scholars such as Marina Warner and Rosalind Brown-Grant have debated whether or not Christine’s depiction of Joan of Arc can be constituted as an early form of feminist thought, and though Joan is certainly exalted in this poem, it seems evident that as all her power is shown to come from God, she was not meant to be an example for most women to follow. However, what is interesting about the way in which Christine talks of Joan’s gender is that she is fully aware of the sheer unlikelihood of a young girl performing great military feats to assure the legitimacy of Charles VII, but she acknowledges that unlikelihood and states that is is precisely because Joan is so unlikely a saviour that divine intervention can be assured in this case.
Christine concludes her poem by sharply chastising the ‘evil inhabitants’ of Paris and issuing a warning that further disobedience to King Charles VII would not be tolerated, advising the citizens to ‘make peace with (their) Prince’. She takes a clear anti-Burgundian stance, but is also careful to mention that there are many ‘good people’ in Paris who are pro-Charles and they will be unmercifully slain if they do not seek forgiveness for their transgressions. The mention of these good people who ‘do not dare to speak out’ gives the reader a chance to identify as one of them. She offers her readers a choice – saying that they can choose Charles and the Armagnacs and have peace, or continue to fight on in misery.
The Purpose of the Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc
Although the purpose of the poem has been debated among scholars, it is unlikely that the matter will be resolved unless new evidence comes to light regarding how Christine wished her poem to be distributed. Kennedy and Varty believe that as the Ditié appeared to have been placed with other documents concerning Joan of Arc, it was meant to be circulated as royal propaganda, but as the evidence is not conclusive, it remains up to historians to speculate.
It is of course possible that Christine was not trying to influence anyone, and that the ditié is merely a reflection on her personal thoughts and feelings. However, this is unlikely. The language of the poem is highly evocative and the style highly accessible. In addition to this, literary and theological works on Joan had already been produced – most prominently by the theologian Jean Gerson, who had written De Quandam Puella. It is highly probable that Christine had read this before setting pen to paper, as she and Gerson were known to be friends, and some lines in the ditié imply she was inspired by De Quandam. However, De Quandam was not explicitly propagandist in nature, as it weighed up both the pros and cons of supporting Joan and attempted to take an objective viewpoint on her miraculous appearance. Meanwhile, the tone of the ditié cannot be mistaken, and it is not impossible to imagine how Christine must have read the works of Gerson and others, and then attempted to adapt them to be more convincing to a Parisian audience.
A second factor potentially at play here is the status of Christine herself. Of course, she had by 1429, formally retired from public life, but she must have nonetheless been a semi-famous figure in Paris, as she had served two Burgundian dukes, and written prominent pieces of political and religious literature for both of them. Her normally restrained and moralistic tone is replaced in the ditié with fierce advocacy for violence, and this would have come as a surprise to those who had read her previous works. It may also have increased the likelihood that her advice in the poem would be taken – if she, a prominent authority on moral duty and French kingship, advocated the return of KIng Charles VII to Paris, that must be the correct course of action.
An additional consideration has to be the mood in Paris at the time this poem was written. It is always difficult to gauge the general feeling of the populace in any one place during the middle ages – mainly due to a general lack of sources. However, the ‘Journal d’Un Bourgeois de Paris’ could offer some clarity on this issue. The anonymous author recorded the events of note that occured in Paris between the years 1408 and 1449, from political and military movements, to the prices of common goods. The entries for the year 1429 reveal a profound sense of instability, from the increasing price of flour, to the strange, seemingly demonic acts such as ‘monstrous’ births of deformed animals. At the same time, the author revealed a profound uncertainty about Joan of Arc, possibly believing her to be an agent of the devil. In light of this, Christine’s writing of the ditié becomes ever more politically charged. It is entirely possible that she was writing to bring order and clarity to a seemingly demonic tide of chaos that seemed to come ever closer to Paris with the Armagnacs.
What conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps the most obvious is that too much is simply unknown to us to make any definitive judgements. However, from what we know about the way propaganda had previously been employed by the Burgundians, we can tell that its usage was far more prolific during the Hundred Years’ War than might be expected. And from what we know of Christine de Pizan, her belief in the righteousness of the Armagnac cause, and skill in poetry, it is my belief that she was engaging in this kind of propaganda production. Much more remains to be studied of this fascinating writer’s works, however, and so perhaps one day we will have a clearer picture.
Written by Elsa Robinson
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