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Joan of Arc: a Medical View

Medical explanations of human character and conduct are by themselves (as William James pointed out) usually “destructive and insufficient.” It seems highly possible that Joan of Arc suffered from tuberculosis. But this analysis of her medical background, write John and Isobel-Ann Butterfield, does nothing to lessen our admiration for her heroic and inspired life.

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript.
Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript.

Although many explanations for Joan of Arc’s voices and visions have been advanced, none is generally accepted. People with strong religious convictions take them for a series of miracles. By contrast, the attempts by disbelievers to find a rational explanation for her hallucinations seem weak.

For example, who today is convinced that she was a practising witch all the time, or that she was a tool in the hands of the French Church, or that she witnessed some scenes played out in the woods by wandering Franciscans, or that she was a Galtonic visualiser? And are the relatively few suggestions in the scientific literature, almost all confined to psychiatric disorders—auto-suggestion or schizophrenia—any better?

Certainly Bernard Shaw did not recognize any signs of insanity in his heroine. Writing about human achievement generally, he said in the Preface to Saint Joan, “The test of sanity is not the normality of the method but the reasonableness of the discovery ...Joan must be judged a sane woman in spite of her voices because they never gave her any advice that might not have come from her mother wit.”

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