Forensic science can be used for so much more than victim identification or determining cause of death in criminal cases. One such alternate use is shedding light in historical venues. An example of this was the modern day examination of the putative remains of Joan of Arc, originally discovered in 1867. Were they real? Forensic science was able to reveal the truth.
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431) was a French peasant girl who claimed that she had visions of several saints telling her to drive the invading English from her country. Four years later, she appealed to the Dauphin to allow her to lead the army into battle, saying that God himself had instructed that she do so. As the French were at a very low point in the war, the Dauphin gave his permission.
Joan’s accomplishments during battle are still under discussion, but it is believed that she was a successful strategist and tactician, allowing the French to win many crucial battles and helping to turn the tide of the Hundred Years’ War. What is generally agreed upon, however, is that Joan used her position to turn the conflict into a religious war.
Joan was captured by the English in May of 1430, and was tried for heresy and witchcraft based on her statements that God had commanded her to lead her army into battle. She was found guilty and was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 at 19 years of age. After death, her body was burned twice more until it was reduced to ashes. Then her remains were cast into the Seine to prevent their recovery by the French.
In 1867, a dusty glass jar was discovered in the attic of a Paris pharmacy. Labelled ‘Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans’, the jar contained what appeared to be a charred human rib, a chunk of burned wood, a swatch of linen and the thigh bone of a cat (it was common practice in the 14th century to throw a black cat on the pyre of an accused witch to burn with her). The Roman Catholic Church believed these artifacts to be real and included them in a museum that was part of the Archdiocese of Tours.
Dr Philippe Charlier, a Parisian forensic scientist, wanted to subject the remains to modern science to prove their validity. After receiving approval from the Church, he conducted a series of tests. The black residue that covered the rib bone was discovered through mass spectroscopy to be a vegetal and mineral matrix consistent with embalming materials used by the Egyptians centuries before the Common Era. Carbon-14 analysis of the relics dated them between the third and sixth centuries B.C.E. Odour analysis of the remains detected a vanilla-like scent. As vanillan is produced by decomposing remains, this only strengthened the argument that the remains had not been cremated. In the end, Dr. Charlier concluded that the remains were from an Egyptian mummy, dead for centuries before Joan lived. His results were published in the journal Nature in April 2007.
The Church accepted these results as fact, declaring that it is now likely that Joan’s remains are lost forever.
Painting of Joan of Arc, artist unknown, circa 1485.