Jeanne d'Arc finally gets her autopsy

FRANCE: Five hundred and seventy five years seems a long wait to investigate a war crime, but Dr Philippe Charlier, a forensic…

FRANCE: Five hundred and seventy five years seems a long wait to investigate a war crime, but Dr Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist and paleopathologist at Raymond Poincaré hospital in Garches, west of Paris, believes he can shed new light on the death of Jeanne d'Arc on May 30th, 1431.

The Maid of Orléans was 19 years old when she was tried for heresy and witchcraft and burned at the stake in Rouen. When she was 13, in the midst of the 100 years war, Jeanne heard voices telling her to drive the English out of France. She led the army that liberated Orléans, Auxerre, Troyes and Châlons, then saw Charles VII crowned at Reims in 1429. She was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the English.

Legend has it that Jeanne's ashes were thrown into the Seine but her heart remained miraculously intact. In fact, her devoted followers scooped up whatever they found and passed it down through the generations. Today, the remains are the property of the office of the archbishop of Tours, which has agreed to the study.

Dr Charlier is using Jeanne of Arc as a guinea pig. "We test our methods on people from the history of France, then apply them to solving present-day crime," he says. The fact that Jeanne was canonised in 1920 intimidates no one. Over the next six months, he and his team will use macroscopy, radiology, biochemistry, toxicology, parasitology and molecular biology to tease secrets from the bone fragments and bits of cloth and charcoal.


Jeanne had two brothers, Jacques and Pierre, but Dr Charlier says he will not seek DNA from their descendants. "The only DNA check will be to determine whether the person was female. We will learn whether these remains are really from that period, what her robe was made of, and what kind of wood was used to burn her."

Bones that have burned twice present particular characteristics, which will also help confirm their origin. "There were three bonfires," Dr Charlier says. "The cardinal of Winchester wanted to be absolutely certain there was nothing left of her - English efficiency!"

The first fire burned only the tips of Jeanne's hands and feet. "She died of smoke inhalation. After the second fire, her heart, lungs and intestines remained. At the time, people thought it was a miracle, but this is something we see all the time; those organs are very moist and resist fire.

"The cardinal of Winchester was very stubborn, so he had a third bonfire built, and nothing was left but the remains we have now."

Chantal Déon, who owns a stud farm in Co Galway, is a direct descendant of Jeanne's brother Pierre. When she was growing up as Chantal Renaudeau d'Arc, each time the story was taught, other children asked her whether she was related to Jeanne.

"The teacher always said it was impossible, that Jeanne died a virgin, and I explained that we descended from her brother."

"May God forgive us; we have burned a saint," a French bishop, who witnessed the burning, said. "He might have thought of that sooner," Mrs Déon laughs. She has a parchment, with a large wax seal, signed by Charles X in the 19th century, giving female members of her family the right to pass the name d'Arc on to their children, so the name will not die out.

Mrs Déon doubts whether her great aunt some 30 generations removed was really from a poor peasant family. "Her parents went to Rome to see the Pope, and at her trial, she defended herself eloquently, which implies a degree of education."