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Neurologists speculate that Joan of Arc heard voices because she suffered from epilepsy

Neurologists speculate that Joan of Arc heard voices because she suffered from epilepsy


All through the years people have cast doubt on Joan of Arc’s morals, sanity or neurological health because she said she saw visions and heard voices of angels and saints. In the 15 th century, the English burned her at the stake for alleged witchcraft and heresy after she led French forces in triumph over English forces in several cities and restored the French king. More recently people have speculated she suffered from insanity or epilepsy. Now two Italian neurologists are saying it may have been a case of genetic, partial epilepsy with auditory hallucination.

Joan grew up in a time of fervid faith in God and coincidentally during Europe’s Hundred Years’ War. One might think during such a time of little science and much superstition, her claims to hearing divine voices and being a figure of prophecy destined to save France would be more readily accepted than if someone made such claims today.

But the English magistrates who tried her over a three-month period charged her with witchcraft, heresy and dressing in male attire. They would go on to burn her at the stake. They questioned her closely about the voices and visions, whether she was in a state of God’s grace and why she wore men’s clothing.

The cardinal of Rochester interrogates Joan in her cell, a 19th century painting by Paul Delaroche.

The cardinal of Rochester interrogates Joan in her cell, a 19 th century painting by Paul Delaroche. (Wikimedia Commons)

The two Italian neurologists, Guiseppe d’Orsi and Paola Tinuper, in a letter to the journal Epilepsy and Behavior, say Joan may have had a condition called “idiopathic partial epilepsy with auditory features.” In other words, her epilepsy was caused by a genetic anomaly (idiopathic) that affected just one part of the brain.

 Auditory and visual hallucinations are symptoms of this type of epilepsy, the researchers say. Joan told her inquisitors that she heard the voices daily. Other researchers have cast doubt on such a diagnosis, saying daily hallucinations are too frequent for idiopathic partial epilepsy with auditory features, the two Italian doctors wrote, according to Live Science.

After nearly 600 years, the doctors say it’s impossible to make a firm diagnosis, but they hold out hope of finding her letters, which history says she sealed with her fingerprint and a hair. If they obtain one of her hairs, they could do a test to see if she had idiopathic epilepsy.

Joan’s signature. If researchers can find her letters, they may be able to obtain a hair to do a genetic test for epilepsy.

Joan’s signature (Wikimedia Commons). If researchers can find her letters, they may be able to obtain a hair to do a genetic test for epilepsy.

From transcripts of her trial, Joan seems lucid, which would be possible if she suffered from epilepsy but not with psychosis.

Her judges asked her a trick question: whether she believed she was in a state of grace. If she said yes she would be claiming infallibility because no one can truly know the answer to this. If she said no she would undermine her claims to a divine calling.

In a reply that thwarted their trickery, she stated: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

A 2008 article in the Telegraph states: “Other replies did not help her case. She boldly refused to swear a blanket oath, declaring she would answer only questions relevant to her trial. She insisted that she knew for certain that the voices she heard were not those of evil spirits but belonged to St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret.”

"Joan of Arc Asleep" (1895) by George William Joy

"Joan of Arc Asleep" (1895) by George William Joy (Sofi / Flickr)

“Her judges knew it was possible that these saints had in truth spoken to her. Modern historians tend to look for other explanations. It is hard for anyone who has read the trial documents to find any convincing alternative to hers. She is clearly honest and not mad in the sense of suffering from schizophrenia, or experiencing temporal lobe epilepsy. Her voices come regularly, and they calm, embolden and inform her.”

There were three main pillars of society in medieval Europe—the Church, the military and nobility. Joan was an outsider to these circles of power. She came from a peasant family. But in 1428 she still was able to get a meeting with and convince the crown prince of France, Charles of Valois, that she could expel the English from France, per a prophecy that a virgin maiden would save France. Joan told Charles that she would see him crowned king of France, a title held by Henry VI of England since 1422. Charles had been deemed illegitimate in 1420 and so was denied accession.

In 1429 Charles was crowned king after the battle of Orleans and after French forces, led by Joan, took several other towns. She failed to recapture Paris, and was taken prisoner at Compi gne after she fell off her horse and accidentally got left outside when the villagers locked the gates.

Joan at the coronation of Charles VII, 19th century painting by Dominique Ingres

Joan at the coronation of Charles VII, 19 th century painting by Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons)

English and Burgundian forces imprisoned her in a castle, where she was held for a year and tried over a three-month period. After her conviction, she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. In 1920, the church made her a saint, but for centuries before that she was a legend and inspired many people.

Her old friend King Charles VII of France? An article on tells the sad truth about him:

The Anglo-Burgundians were aiming to get rid of the young leader as well as discredit Charles, who owed his coronation to her. In attempting to distance himself from an accused heretic and witch, the French king made no attempt to negotiate Joan’s release.

It seems he repented because 20 years later Charles ordered a new trial, where Joan was acquitted.

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake, by Hermann Stilke (1843)

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake, by Hermann Stilke (1843) (public domain)

Top image: Painting by Eugène Thirion (1876) of Joan of Arc having a vision of being visited by the Archangel Saint Michael

By Mark Miller



Joan described visions of physical entities that she (and other people) could see and even touch, rather than just "voices”, and she didn’t exhibit any seizures (which would also rule out epilepsy), which is why this “diagnosis” has been refuted by both doctors and historians.

I don't agree with people who drag out a bit of science to explain everything out of the ordinary. Human knowledge is in all areas very limited. It is possible that epilepsy is one thing and communication with spirits is another, is it not?
I believe it is true that all societies as a whole believe in some form of a spiritual world. That doesn't mean they are right but it certainly doesn't mean they are wrong. I would like the epilepsy conclusion to be posited as a possibility that is no more correct than what Joan said about herself.
Thank you,

I don’t want to offend you, but in Indigenous culture, people who suffer epilesy are percieved as individuals who have the ability to become the tribal shaman or medicine person who works in the spirit world to make the necessary transformations in the spirit world so that the good can manifest into physical reality and disharmony can be transformed to harmony in the physical world. If you were living in an Indigenous tribe your epilepsy might be seen as a sign and a gift, instead of being viewed as a disabling illness the way it is percieved in Western Society. I am sorry to hear you had a stroke. We all perceive the world differently, I know shamans that see full body people that have been ancestors in the past and they communicate with the ancestors in the spirit world. What you would see as psychopathology and hallucinations would be seen as a gift not a disease in different cultures. 

I am absolutely certain am am not "tapping into the spirit world". These are things I can distinctly connect with my past, or things I was studying just before my stroke.

Then there’s likely something else going on aside from epilepsy in your case. In any event, Joan of Arc didn’t exhibit any seizures, and she said she could physically touch (not just see) the figures and so could other people on occasion, which would also tend to rule out epilepsy in her case even if it’s an accurate diagnosis in your case. 


Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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