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Joan of Arc
Thanks to the many media representations of her, Joan of Arc has become somewhat of a household name. Also known as Jeanne or Jehanne D'Arc, this extraordinary young woman fearlessly led the French Army to victory at a time when it became obvious to all but her that they would lose. In addition to devising military strategies that would ultimately lead them to victory, Joan of Arc also boosted the morale of her soldiers to such an extent that they rapidly came from a deep depression about their possibilities as an army towards a unified front that few could defeat. In the end, however, and perhaps this is the most well-known part of her story, Joan of Arc came to her tragic end by being burned at the stake as a heretic at best or a witch at worst. Today, this story has culminated in many speculations. Joan of Arc was burned because she claimed to hear the voices of the saints telling her not only to lead the French Army, but also how to lead them. The information available to the church fathers, the highest authority at the time, led them to believe that Joan of Arc was either a witch, a heretic, or influenced by the devil. All of these "sins" could have only one outcome; to be burned at the stake. To the church leaders, this must have appeared as the logical step following Joan of Arc's trial and conviction. Today, however, the most common outcome for Joan would have been most likely being committed to a mental institution. Generally, those who hear voices are considered to be suffering from some sort of mental disorder, which is most commonly diagnosed as schizophrenia. On the other hand, some may argue that this was not the case in Joan of Arc's particular circumstances. Hence, many different speculations have begun to see the light of Joan of Arc's diagnosis and/or conviction. Can it not be said, for example, that the information we have available today is somewhat limited in the same way as what was available for Joan's initial accusers? Although we would hardly burn her at the stake today, who is to say that a judgment of schizophrenia is any more accurate than one of witchcraft? Indeed, it is well-known that we continue to learn about the brain and its functioning and that we have but scratched the surface. The psychiatric profession today is therefore based on all but vague speculation about an organ of which we do not understand very much. It is therefore very interesting to revisit the case of Joan of Arc in the light of the various speculations available today as regards mental illness and diagnosis.
One such interesting speculation can be done at the hand of G. Graham's The Disordered Mind (2010). One particularly interesting chapter considers Abraham from the Old Testament in the Bible and Jesus Christ from the New Testament to discuss the possible delusions of these characters. Being from religious Christian text, such an assessment is highly controversial at best, but nonetheless provides an interesting basis for speculating about Joan of Arc's situation as well.
In the case of Abraham, for example, the author considers the old man's conviction that God wanted him to sacrifice his only son. In the light of his history with God and the promise he made of a vast nation that he would father, this was an odd request, since Isaac, the son, was Abraham's only and final hope that this promise would come to fruition. The fact that Abraham did indeed attempt to make the sacrifice is today reported as a "triumph of religious faith" as Graham (2010, p. 210) refers to it. However, the author speculates about what such a conviction might be perceived as today. Thinking that God asked him to sacrifice his only son can be an indicator that Abraham was delusional and needed to be committed to a mental institution. He had lost contact with reality. However, Graham takes the discussion beyond the obvious by first considering the nature of delusion. Being "unrestrained by common sense or relevant background factual knowledge" (Graham, 2010, p. 210), delusional thinkers would have bizarre convictions, which certainly describes Abraham's conviction that he should sacrifice his only son. Any father would recoil from such an awful request, yet Abraham, demonstrating "faith" in God, gathers what is required for the sacrifice, including his son, and makes his way to do as told, because the voice that tells him to do so is apparently divine. By any standards today, taking such a voice at face value would be considered delusional and very far from any triumph at all. Indeed, this is the case if the common conception of delusional thinking today is applied to Abraham's situation.
When one applies this kind of speculation to Joan of Arc, one might easily refer to her as delusional. She heard voices she considered divine and acted upon them with little regard for consequences to herself or those around her. Those who consider delusions as a major component of severe mental illness such as Schizophrenia might commit her and immediately place her at least under observation, if not medication to suppress whatever chemical in her brain is causing the delusionary and disordered thinking.
However, Graham (2010, p. 211) warns us to be careful. While Joan of Arc (and indeed Abraham) would be considered highly delusional today, can one say the same of the context within which these two figures operated? The author points out that, even though Abraham's voice experience might not, in truth, really have been the voice of God himself, what cause did Abraham have at the time to believe otherwise? He used the information available at the time to make sense of the experience. Hence, although highly unreasonable within today's context, one might consider Abraham's response at the time somewhat reasonable. He used the evidence available to him and to his social and cultural context to interpret what he was experiencing. Hence, there is more logic behind his reasoning than he appears to have done at face value.
The same might be said for both the Church that convicted and burned Joan of Arc and of Joan herself. Joan of Arc experienced voices that talked to her, or so she claimed. She maintained this even at the threat of being burned at the stake. Although delusional by today's standards, what mental or evidentiary equipment did she have to believe otherwise? Nothing at all was commonly known about mental illness or the brain during Joan's time. Furthermore, she perceived the plight of the French army as something the voices asked her to alleviate. Hence, she acted on them. To denounce these voices, even at the threat of burning alive, would have meant denouncing her fundamental sense of herself and her "mission."
In the case of the Church, it has been mentioned that its representatives also used the information readily available to them at the time. Although burning someone alive today is a heinous and terrible crime and considered far too cruel and unusual as a punishment even for similar crimes, it was common practice at the time. A certain conviction, and particularly being found guilty of witchcraft or working with the devil, warranted being burned at the stake. Hence, it might even be speculated that neither Joan nor her accusers had much choice in the matter. Today, few psychiatrists worth their salt would consider having much of a choice when committing Joan of Arc to a mental institution.
The question, however, remains: Would Joan of Arc today interpret her "delusions" in the same way as she did during her time, as divine voices? What would she make of them today? Would she consider the voices to be divinely inspired or would she find another way to interpret them? Indeed, would she have been mentally ill if she had been alive today, or would she simply find a more reasonable way to interpret what was happening to her?
To return to the Graham text, the author considers delusions as "sometimes spontaneous attempts to make personal sense of bizarre or unusual perceptual experiences." (Graham, 2010, p. 211). In the light of this, Abraham's attempt to make sense of his experience with God's voice may be considered delusional. Joan of Arc's attempt to ascribe divine intervention to the voices she heard may be considered in the same light. The great challenge is to distinguish between this attempt at making sense of experience for delusional and non-delusional people. All people spend their lives making sense of perceptual experiences. When a delusion presents itself to the disordered mind, it cries out for an explanation. The only way to interpret it is to use the tools available to the individual. All of the above suggests that Joan of Arc (and indeed Abraham) must be considered as a highly delusional young woman, which would result in the diagnosis of a mental condition and subsequent…[continue]
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