Monthly Archives: December 2016

Part 2: Efficient Engineering Innovations

There were many specific breakthroughs in the field of architectural engineering during this period of the Middle Ages. These breakthroughs, though some of them did nothing more than increase building efficiency and safety, are also associated with the beauty inherent in the Gothic style. Many of these innovations, in fact, came about as architects and engineers became more and more daring, making ceilings higher and higher, expanses wider and wider, all to evoke feelings of grandness and awe in visitors.

The first of these, and the one most important to this goal is the rib vault, a form of ceiling construction. Now, to understand why the invention of the rib vault is significant, one must compare it to its Romanesque predecessor, the barrel vault or groin vault. Barrel vaults, much like their namesake, are shaped like a barrel. They are nothing more than a domed ceiling, sometimes supported by periodic arches. This is all well and good, but has a severe limitation. Barrel vaults are limited in height and width by simple physics. If the stones are correctly mortared together and the ceiling is in one piece, all that mass in the dome places the walls under high stress, pushing them outwards. The larger the ceiling, the thicker and stronger the walls need to be, adding tremendous expense to the construction.


In a basic barrel vault (left) the forces from the heavy ceiling push the walls outward. It works, but you need very thick walls, like this Romanesque cathedral in Rome (right).

The advent of the rib vault solved this puzzling ceiling weight problem. The ribs are of stone, arching and crossing back and forth through the ceiling’s expanse. The ceiling itself is composed of much thinner stone plates. No longer do the architects need to lift prohibitively enormous stone bricks so far up. The ribs hold these panels up with little to no trouble, since the weight of the ceiling is now supported along the ribs instead of by the walls. In addition, rib vaults tend to have more pointed inner arches rather than a semicircular dome. This also carries the weight of the ceiling more evenly, in many directions instead of one or two.


The final piece of the puzzle, easily remedied, is the support of the ribs themselves. Piers attached to the walls carry the force from the ribs down through the piers. This architectural choice is twofold: first, it allows for slightly thinner walls, since the piers take the ceiling’s weight, not the whole wall. As discussed later, this is also an important decision where stone transportation is concerned. In addition, since the piers are small relative to the wall’s area, this leaves the wall space open for other ornaments, any kind of art befitting the building.


Rib vault in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris. The columns in the center and against the walls carry the force of the ceiling ribs. Also note the several pointed arches in the ceiling. The columns leave plenty of room for the stained-glass arched windows.

The second primary innovation in Gothic architecture is the flying buttress. Now, buttressing was a common method of support since antiquity and before, but this variation of buttressing solves the specific problems medieval architects faced, correcting the outer-wall equivalents of the inner-wall and ceiling issues.

A buttress supports a wall by arranging material in such a way that a section of wall is leaning partially on it. Buttresses are used for initial support- i.e. knowing that a wall needs them, as well as replacement, if a wall is in danger of collapsing. Flying buttresses are unique in that unlike traditional buttressing, the whole flying buttress is not in contact with the wall. Instead, an arch is attached from the wall to an outside pier. Because the arch is what transfers the outward force of the wall down through the pier, and the arch is suspended in the air between the two points, it appears to be flying. Hence the name ‘flying buttress.’ Just like the rib vault, the flying buttress opened up the walls to allow for increased display of art, and as a result, beautifully ornate facades and pointed, arched windows greet visitors to the many Gothic cathedrals around Europe.

In a basic flying buttress (left), the wall is only supported by a thin, “flying” arch. The force travels down through the arch into a separate column, as in this example from the Chartres Cathedral (right).

Far from being the Dark Ages, the high medieval era was a period of vibrancy and incredible art. As sculptors and artists completed work after work, the masons, a different kind of artist, plied their own trade to build some of the most beautiful buildings ever made, despite little to no knowledge of modern engineering principles. The result of their labor certainly commands our respect today.

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Part 3: Methods, Monies and Manpower

NOTE: Removed blog post 5, and doubled the length of this one.

What is an ambition so grand as a Gothic cathedral without the workers to complete it? An effort as large as this took hundreds to thousands of people, working between the stone quarries and the work sites. In the quarries, skilled stonecutters plied their mallets and chisels to cut down limestone blocks as much as possible. Even in the middle ages, efficiency was key. The less they had to transport from the quarry to the build site, the easier it would be for them in the long run. For this reason, cathedrals were often built a short distance from a quarry. Given the number of limestone pits that existed in Europe at the time, this was not a difficult task. There were so many cathedrals constructed during this period, in fact, that “More stone was quarried in France [from 1050-1350] than in ancient Egypt during its whole history” (Gimpel).

In addition to shaping the stone, stonecutters would often make a mark on it indicating that they were the ones to cut the stone. Being paid by the piece, this was a convenient way to both show off one’s workmanship and tally your payment. When the stonecutters finished cutting their stone in the quarry, they would usually move on to another job. Being skilled labor, these masons could find work elsewhere, since there were usually several construction projects going on at one time.


Mason’s mark on a stone in the Durham Cathedral.

Of course, the stone needed to get to the build site somehow. Some construction crews had horses or other animals to lug the cut stone up the roads, but the church would also hire average citizens to pick up the slack in transportation. Because the church funds were always tied up in the skilled labor and build costs, they would offer indulgences- forgiveness of sins- for those laborers who participated willingly in this work of the Lord.

The other group, those at the building site, was much more occupationally diverse. Unskilled laborers dug out foundations and removed other detritus around the site, while the skilled plaster-men, masons, glaziers and others laid the actual stones. These men used many tools in their work, including plumb lines and levels to ensure complete accuracy. In addition, based on recent research, they would also have been reinforcing walls and pillars with iron, perhaps laying stones in place in or around iron supports.


Gothic illuminated rendition of the construction of the Tower of Babel. Workers include the stonecutter, the mortar carrier and the masons laying stones.

As for lifting the heavy stones into place, any manner of windlass would do this job. Smaller stones could take a simple pulley, while larger ones worked with a setup at the top of the vault, where one person would walk inside a wooden treadmill. In this instance, they themselves were the pulleys. Everyone in the build site had a vested interest in working quickly, whatever their job, for while the stone quarry functioned year-round, the build site shut down in the winter as the all-important mortar froze and would not adhere to the stones.


Another example of Gothic construction. There is a windlass in the upper left lifting stones up to the masons. In the lower right, a stonecutter utilizes a c-square for exact corners on his stones.

Finally, once the frame of the building was nearing completion, only then would the sculptors and glassmakers do their parts. Broken statues and shattered glass do nobody any good. Their processes are covered in the section on integration of art.

While every worker had their role, hundreds of disparate workers do not a cathedral make. They needed a leader, whether they liked it or not. The master masons were those leaders. Very highly respected in the community, they were revered to the point that in some Gothic art, God was depicted as a master mason, complete with cap, gown and measuring tools. However, despite their status and mastery, early medieval master masons were also described as typical overbearing, micro managing bosses. Jacques de Vitry and Nicolas de Biard, French writers and critics are quoted as complaining that master masons did nothing but order their workers around, receiving a ludicrously high salary in exchange for no real labor.

These criticisms are not unfounded. The master masons certainly knew what they were talking about. They were the designers, rather than the builders. Your average master mason, of which there were only a couple hundred, had an average education. They knew how to read and write, but more importantly, they had an innate grasp of math and geometry and the know-how and experience to apply it. They dealt practically, most often by rule of thumb, since they had none of our modern engineering training to utilize. They designed the cathedrals on the tracing floor with nothing but their c-squares, their compasses and their minds to guide them.

Now, given all these unskilled workers, plus masons, stonecutters, glassworkers, sculptors, and master masons, and the colossal amounts of stone, glass, iron and other materials, where does all this money come from? The short answer is the church. The longer answer, of course, is much more complicated. The laws in the Catholic Church varied during the middle ages, and at first required that “all clerical beneficiaries had to give support commensurate with their means” (Scholler), when a church needed renovation or rebuilding. However, this changed with the advent of a specific fund designated for building, the ‘bona fabricae’, and only had to provide from their own salary when absolutely necessary.

Where did they get the money for the bona fabricae? Besides the obvious tithes and offerings, the Catholic Church had many methods to make money. In many cases, people would pay well to see ancient relics. Sometimes the church could elicit extra donations to build a fitting home for a relic belonging in the area, or sometimes they would even send their relics ‘on tour’, so to speak, and bring income from other regions paying to see the marvelous item. In addition, the churches brought in money from several other widespread sources, from food produced by monks to rent money off of a piece of land.

As incredible as the cathedrals are, some believe that the overwhelming political power of the Catholic Church had an economically detrimental effect on the middle ages. In her thesis on the costs of Gothic cathedrals, Amy Denning discovers that “over this 150-year period [in the high Middle Ages], on average, 21.5 percent of the regional economy was devoted to the construction of these Gothic churches, 1.5 percent of which is directly related to the implicit cost of labor… during the period known as the High Middle Ages, between 1100-1250, the Catholic Church built over 1400 Gothic churches in the Paris Basin alone.” This is certainly a colossal investment, and Denning argues that sinking such incredible amounts of money into these projects had an economic impact that prolonged the Middle Ages by several hundred years.

Whether this is true or not, it is unarguable that the Catholic Church had highly effective methods at its disposal to pay for everything they needed, be it materials or skilled labor, and these monies were not carelessly spent- the countless Gothic cathedrals still standing after over 500 years are a testament to that.

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Part 4: Spirituality and the Integration of Art

Geometry is at the heart of Gothic architecture. Believing that God is a God of order and logic, the master masons reflected that attribute heavily in their designs. “Only by observing geometrical principles did architecture become a science in Augustine’s sense; by submitting to its laws, the human architect imitated his divine master and in doing so his calling acquired metaphysical significance” (von Simson). The most obvious factor here is the symmetry in construction. While the Romanesque style was symmetrical, the ornate facades and window decorations give the Gothic style many, many more layers of symmetry. In other words, it’s not just the architecture, but also the complex patterns that mirror themselves, providing a beautiful visual experience.

The basic symmetry (left) of a Romanesque window on the Saint Sulpicius Marignac Charente church, contrasted with the multifaceted symmetry of a Gothic window on the Church of St. Mary in Norfolk.

However, geometry and symmetry were not just for show. As with the rib vault and flying buttress, the artistic value of this design has immense practical value as well. “The square- along with the other polygons, such as the famous π/4 triangle, which the medieval architect derived from the square- and the proportion ‘according to true measure’ have determined Gothic design to a remarkable extent… they were practical rather than artistic devices of which the observer usually remains unconscious” (von Simson). Master masons only had access to their special compasses and tools on the tracing floor, not in practice in the building. They had no real measurement tools. To make their buildings as exact as possible, perfect geometry required that they build symmetrically. With each side equal, it is much easier to match a completed side- whatever size- to its opposite without messing anything up.

One of the most iconic images connected with Gothic architecture is its expansive stained glass and rose windows. These windows depict beautiful scenes from the Bible, with Jesus Christ as the centerpiece in the largest of the windows. While stained glass has existed since Roman times, it was only in the Middle Ages that its use as an art form intensified and perfected. We do, in fact, have an accurate extant source describing the process of glass window making: entitled On Diverse Arts, the author, a monk by the name of Theophilus details the processes of glassmakers and glaziers as they worked, in order to complete this ‘manual’ for windows of ‘inestimable beauty,’ as he puts it.


Rose window in the Reims Cathedral. The ‘rose’ description refers to the round, almost petaled shape of the panels, not the color of the glass.


Undecorated outside portion of a rose window on the Lusanne Cathedral in Switzerland. Rose windows are distinct from wheel windows, due to their intricacy. Wheel windows are characterized by spokes, whereas these two examples have highly complex flowery designs.


Western stained glass windows in the Chartres Cathedral. To assemble a stained glass window, glassmakers had to take great care. The making of the colored glass was simple enough for a skilled craftsman, the difficult part came in setting each individual piece of glass in its lead frame (visible below) called a came, and securing it all by waterproof putty and soldering. Given the height of the windows, setting the group of panels in an iron frame and lifting it up into the window-well must have been a very precarious job.


More stained glass in the Chartres Cathedral. This detailed portion shows scenes from the Passion window, detailing some of Jesus Christ’s actions such as washing His disciples’ feet and eating with them at the Last Supper.

All these factors- the geometry, the symmetry, the stained glass, the statuary, the engineering, and more- they all came together to form a cohesive whole, inspiring awe in parishioners of the time and other visitors today. As the light creeps in, covering the walls and floor in a rainbow of color, as footsteps echo in the vast ceiling expanse sweeping higher and higher upward, the mindset of the designers and the workers is clear. Gothic cathedral architecture is one of the most incredible works of art and science ever produced, and a gift of light and life from the Dark Ages.



Works Cited (Cumulative)

Gies, Frances and Joseph. (1994). Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel. Harper- Collins, New York.

Chapuis, Julien. “Gothic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002). Accessed December 1, 2016.

Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Stained Glass in Medieval Europe.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001). Accessed December 1, 2016.

Von Simson, Otto G. “The Gothic Cathedral: Design and Meaning.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 11.3 (1952): 6-16. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. <;.

Scholler, Wolfgang. “Funding the Construction of Gothic Cathedrals: Financial and Legal Realities of the Middle Ages.” Athena Review 4.2. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <>.

Martindale, Andrew Henry Robert. “A History of the Gothic Period of Art and Architecture.” Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <>.

Denning, Amy. “How Much did the Gothic Churches Cost? An Estimate of Ecclesiastical Building Costs in the Paris Basin between 1100-1250”. Diss. The Wilkes Honors College, 2012. Print.

Clark, Laura. “Europe’s Great Gothic Cathedrals Weren’t Built Just of Concrete.” SmartNews. The Smithsonian, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <;.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Gothic Architecture.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 12 December 2016. Web. 29 November 2016.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Flying Buttress.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 17 November 2016. Web. 30 November 2016.

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Galla Placidia: The Pious Empress

Throughout her life, Placidia was devoted to her religion.  Her father Theodosius I was influential in spreading Christianity and attempting to defeat paganism.  In 380 Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica which declared that the “Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and the only one entitled to call itself Catholic (Wikipedia, 2016).  This is one of the many efforts that Theodosius made to convert the Arians to Christianity.  Growing up in her father’s household, Placidia learned the benefits of promoting and supporting religion in an empire.

One of the first demonstrations of Placidia’s devotion occurred when she arrived back in Ravenna after being held hostage by the Goths.  In 417, Placidia commissioned a church to be built in the northwest section of the city dedicated to the Holy Cross (Salisbury, 2015).  Only a small chapel has survived but it gives beautiful examples of mosaics and images of Christ.  An architectural achievement of this church is the large dome that rests on the square structure; Placidia hired workers to innovate on a solution.  The structure is supported by pendentives, triangular pieces that allow the dome to float above the foundation.  This building is known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, however we know that she never meant it as a mausoleum and she is also not buried there (Salisbury, 2015).

Wikipedia. (2016). Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

Placidia’s most significant involovment in the religious courts was during the unrest over the pope election.  On December 27, 418, Pope Zosimus died.  While his funeral was taking place, partisans at the Lateran basilica elected Eulalius as the new pope.  However, the next day at a different church, priests elected Boniface, who was an advisor to Pope Zosimus’ predecessor (Salisbury, 2015.  Two different factions of Roman clergy had elected their own popes thus creating chaos in the city (Wikipedia, 2016).

A letter was sent to the imperial court asking for help by a prefect in Rome named Symmachus.   History names Placidia as the one who received this message and turned it to Honorius.  Upon hearing that there was two elected popes, Honorius called a meeting with the two parties and some other churchmen on February 8th.  However, this council was ineffective and consequently, Honorius instructed both Eulalius and Boniface to stay out of Rome while he summoned another meeting to be held in June at Spoleto (Salisbury, 2015). It is during the preparation for this council that we see Placidia’s influence.

Placidia wrote two letters to invite African bishops to the council, one was addressed to Aurelius of Carthage and the other to seven additional bishops.  Placidia writes:

“We would have wished for another cause to see you and to benefit from your august presence.  But since unbridled ambition had ushered a battle over the papacy wholly incommensurate with the holy mode of life of such an office, a gathering of bishops, smaller in size than that the number that synodal customs decree, deferred a decision regarding this matter to a larger assembly of the most learned men of whom your sanctity is the foremost.  Nor should the rewards of purity and merit be revealed through anyone other than such men, once the faults that the sacred precept of the divine faith are eschewed.  Although the letters of the emperor, my blood brother, would have sufficed, I have adjoined my own request for the prompt arrival of your sanctity.  I am asking you, holy master and venerable father, that you would grant this double benefit, namely your benediction that we so desire and your much needed opinion, and laying aside all matters deign to exert your effort over confirming the bishop that none would contest.” (Sivan, 2011)

In this letter, we can surmise several things about Placidia.  She does not mention that she is the mother of an heir, or that she is the wife of the master general, but only that she is sister to the reigning emperor which grants her every authority.  Furthermore, the fact that she is writing the bishops after they have already received an invitation from Honorius suggests that Placidia was very much involved in the religious issues of the day (Salisbury, 2015).

Unfortunately, this council never took place in Spoleto.  In March Eulalius entered Rome, in violation of Honorius’ decree, to preside over the Easter ceremonies (Salisbury, 2015; Wikipedia, 2016).  Although both Honorius and Placidia favored Eulalius as pope, since he was elected first, this act of disobedience showed that he was unsuitable for the position.  The summer council was cancelled and Boniface was recognized as the new legitimate pope on April 3, 419 (Salisbury, 2015).  This election crisis demonstrated the power and leadership capability of Placidia in extending her influence over religious leaders as well as her brother.

The final example of Placidia’s devotion to Christianity was during her flight to Constantinople with her children.  After the death of her husband Constantius and an argument with Honorius, Placidia traveled across the Adriatic Sea.  As they sailed before the shipping season begun, they encountered a terrible storm that threatened their safety.  Placidia prayed to John the Evangelist that if he would keep her and her children safe, she would build a church in his honor (Salisbury, 2015).

Years later, when she was safely back in Ravenna, Placidia started construction on the basilica.  Though the structure is all that stands from bombings in 1944, we have records of the beautiful mosaic portraits of Placidia’s family.  Additionally, above these portraits is the inscription, “To the holy and most blessed apostle John the Evangelist, the Empress Galla Placidia with her son the Emperor Placidus Valentinian and her daughter the Empress Justa Grata Honoria fulfill the vow of liberation from the dangers of the sea” (Salisbury, 2015).  The church is now known as the San Giovanni Evangelista (Wikipedia, 2016).  Placidia led her life with the principle of “buildings for blessings”.  Since she was blessed with riches and wealth, Placidia generously supported the Catholic Church by building many churches over her lifetime. 250px-ravenna_1978_037

Wikipedia. (2016). San Giovanni Evangelista

Before she died in 450, Placidia wrote a letter that describes how she thought of her life.  She addressed the letter from “Galla Placidia, most pious and prosperous, perpetual Augusta and mother” (Salisbury, 2015).  By noting her peity to God before her imperial rank demonstrates the importance of religion and church in the empress’ life.  Learning from her father, Placidia led a life of religious devotion that was demonstrated in her church building, constant prayers, and pursuit of a holy life.




Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sivan, H. (2011). Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 15, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016). Theodosius I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 15, 2016 from

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Galla Placidia: Reign as Empress and Regent

Placidia moved into the palace with her brother, Honorius, when she entered Ravenna in 416.  As Honorius made no effort in the last 7 years to retrieve his sister as a hostage in the Goth’s camps, their relationship must have been somewhat awkward.  To make matters worse, Honorius still promised Placidia’s hand in marriage to his general, Constantius.  On January 1, 417 Honorius, to appease his general, forced Placidia to marry Constantius (Wikipedia, 2016).  Coercion on the side of Honorius is interesting seeing that it was Roman law and tradition is to not force women into marriage.  It may have been that Honorius was acting as Placidia’s legal guardian as she might not have been at the legal age of maturity (Sivan, 2011).  There was no formal ceremony or celebration, which would occur later, but only Honorius placing Placidia’s hand in Constantius’, making the marriage legal (Salisbury, 2015). By all accounts, Placidia severely disliked her new husband, he being particularly old and ugly.


Wikipedia. (2016). Honorius.



Wikipedia. (2016). Diptych of Constantius III

Around 418, Placidia gave birth to a girl named Justa Grata Honoria, hereafter called Honoria, being named after the reigning emperor (Salisbury, 2015).  Shortly thereafter, Placidia became pregnant and produced a male heir on July 2, 419, Flavius Placidus Valentinianus.  Since Honorius had produced no offspring, Valentinian was raised by his mother with the expectation to rule and reign as the next emperor of the Eastern Empire.

Reaching the pinnacle of his leadership in Rome, Constantius was appointed co-emperor of the Western Empire with Honorius in February of 421 (Salisbury, 2015).  Additionally, Placidia was finally awarded the title of Augusta or empress, and her son Valentinian was proclaimed “most noble” (Salisbury, 2015).  Curiously, Theodosius II, Placidia’s nephew (Son of Arcadius) did not approve or accept any of these titles.  This will be found significant later.  Although Placidia enjoyed her long-awaited title, Constantitus did not like this change.  Constatntius despised the “constraints of court ceremonials and greatly missed the parties that he used to enjoy” (Sivan, 2011).  However, Constantius’ reign did not last long when 7 months later, he died.

Being left without the co-emperor and general, Rome was in commotion.  During this time, there are several speculations to a new found relationship between Honorius and Placidia.  Some sources state that the emperor was showing unwanted affection towards his sister (Wikipedia, 2015).  However, some historians argue that Placidia welcomed the attention without complete incest to acquire an ally (Salisbury, 2015).  Olympiodorus records that “Such was Honorius’ affection for his sister after the death of her husband Constantius that the absence of restraint in their love for one another and their constant kissing on the mouth caused many people to entertain infamous suspicions about them” (Salisbury, 2015).  Either way, due to the rebellions in Rome and an argument with Honorius, Placidia took her two children and fled to Constantinople in 423.


Wikipedia. (2016) Portrait of Placidia and her children.

Placidia, Honoria, and Valentinian were greeted in Constantinople by her nephew the emperor, Theodosius II, his wife Eudocia, and his sister Pulcheria.  Back in Ravenna, Honorius died in 423 (Wikipedia, 2016).  Consequently, to avoid another usurper for the West, Theodosius II proclaimed Valentinian as the emperor.  However, because of his young age at the time, Placidia was made regent from 425-437 until Valentinian’s 18th birthday (Wikipedia, 2016).

This time period as regent allowed Placidia to finally extend the arm of leadership and control over her empire as empress.  Though Placidia was very successful in reign, her main motivation was to prepare Valentinian for his throne.  Early in his childhood, Valentinian was betrothed to Theodosius II’s daughter, Eudoxia which was most likely brought by the fruition of Placidia, Pulcheria, and Eudocia, each who were empresses as the time, to ensure the Theodosian dynasty (Salisbury, 2015).  Through accounts of new laws and establishment of dozens of churches, historians know that Placidia was in the center of the political and religious circles.   For example, we have many records of constitutions being presented to the Senate under Valentinian’s name that were clearly sent by Placidia.  One such constitution in 426 was meant to preserve the rights of the senators (Salisbury, 2015).  For her religious successes, see next blog.  Throughout her time as regent, Placidia was influential in imperial Rome.

One of Placidia’s last roles as mother before she died was protecting her daughter Honoria.  As her brother Valentinian had only produced daughters, Honoria desired to threaten Valentinian’s throne.  She devised to accomplish this by producing an heir of her own with an affair with the steward Eugenius in 449 (Salisbury, 2015).  However, after being discovered, Eugenius was put to death and Valentinian was close to executing Honoria before Placidia stepped in.  They came to a compromise by stripping Honoria of her title as empress and betrothing her to a high-ranking senator named Flavius Bassus Herculanus.

Enraged by her brother’s decision, Honoria decided to write to Attila the Hun, asking that he “avenge her marriage.  In addition she also sent a ring pledging herself to the barbarian, who made ready to go against the western empire” (Sivan, 2011).  As the most feared barbarian, Attila the Hun needed no excuse to invade Italy so he readily used the reason of claiming his bride to prepare his army.  Attila’s advances would only be stopped by the persuasive Pope Leo in 452 at the famous Battle of Catalaunian Plains in Gaul (Salisbury, 2015).

Placidia’s last days were consumed by current Catholic Church’s controversy.  A reemerged argument was the incarnation of Christ.  A popular monk was stating that although the reestablished doctrine said that Mary was the mother of God, Christ was more divine than human, making Him not like us.  After much debate and council, the church leaders agreed with Pop Leo on the nature of Christ, that He was both human and divine (Salisbury, 2015).  However, many people, particularly those in Egypt, were angered by this decision, many leaving the empire to keep their views; Placidia was never able to see the resolution of this controversy.  The pious empress and mother died peacefully in her sleep on November 27, 450 at the age of 62.  She was buried in the family mausoleum, which is estimated to now be the Chapel of Saint Petronilla.




Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sivan, H. (2011). Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 13, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016). Theodosius II. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 13, 2016 from


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Galla Placidia: Sack of Rome and Wedding Bells


For Galla Placidia’s entire lifetime, barbarians, particularly the Goths, fought against the Roman Empire for two particular purposes: to obtain food and land.  As they traveled throughout modern day Europe, they plundered villages and towns in search of food to sustain their massive numbers.  Starting in 395, Alaric became the King of the Goths (Wikipedia, 2016a).  Placidia’s cousin’s husband, Stilicho and Alaric had many encounters throughout their military careers, fighting over these precious commodities.  However, due to the incompetence of Emperor Honorius, the Goths would soon take advantage over the Romans.

In the winter of 409, both the Romans and the Visogoths were in want of food.  Due to their allegiance to the emperor, the African provinces had cut of their grain supply (which served the majority of the empire) to Rome.  With the addition of Alaric’s plundering of Italy, all of Rome was in dire need.  As Alaric needed to feed close to 180,000 people, he sought to negotiate with Honorius (Salisbury, 2015).  Upon their meeting, a Gothic general, Sarus, who was paid by Honorius, turned and attacked Alaric and his men, causing considerable loses.  This enraged Alaric so he turned his forces toward Rome.

On the night of August 24, 410 the Goths entered the city through the Salarian Gate, which was opened from within.  As barbarians, the Visogoths mainly focused on looting the city, stealing much of Rome’s wealth.  However, that did not stop the destruction of the city.  According to excavations, many buildings were burned, including the palace of the historian Sallust and the Basilica Aemilia as well as statues and decorations.  One Biritsh monk named Pelagius who was present described the scene, “Rome the mistress of the world, shuddered, crushed with dismal fear at the sound of the shrieking trumpet, and the shouts of the Goths” (Salisbury, 2015).  Although this siege was bloody, the Goths were respectful to the Christians and their churches.  The Christians had considerable wealth but Alaric ordered his men to escort the Christians and their gold safely outside the city walls (Salisbury, 2015).


Wikipedia (2016). Sack of Rome.

Besides seeking gold, the Visogoths also sought out prized hostages.  As a potential empress and very valuable, Placidia was safely taken from her palace in Rome.  Historians believe that Placidia was 22 years old when she was taken hostage (McHardy & Marshall, 2004).  For an upper class woman to still be unmarried at this age was quite unusual in Rome.  Alaric entrusted his own brother-in-law, Athaulf, to capture and watch over her.  One chronicler wrote of Placidia’s circumstances, “she enjoyed all the honor and ceremony due to her imperial rank” (Salisbury, 2015).

While Placidia and the Visgoths were traveling, their leader Alaric died, giving the crown to his brother, Athaulf.  When Athaulf took over as leader, his initial goal was to take over Rome, with the Goths dominating and he the next Caesar Augustus (Salisbury, 2015).  According to some second-hand accounts who listened to Athaulf, his mind was changed to combining with the Romans and directing the Goths to a more legal tradition.  His attitude was altered “by the persuasion and advice of … Placidia, a woman, indeed, of a very keen mind and very good religiously” (Salisbury, 2015).  This was to be expected as Placidia and Athaulf spent most of their time together in camp, developing a strong relationship.  athaulf

Wikipedia. (2016). Athaulf.

As Athaulf sought to negotiate with Rome, he ran into several issues.  Emperor Honorius had promoted Constantius to master general in his army, replacing Stilicho.  Constantius desperately wanted to marry Placidia and convinced Honorius to arrange it with his military victories (Salisbury, 2015).    However, Athaulf kept raising the amount of grain he wanted from Honorius that it became impossible to follow through.  Knowing how much Constantius wanted Placidia, and his own admiration for her, Athualf decided to join the Theodosius dynasty and the Visogoths by marrying Placidia (Salisbury, 2015).

The wedding took place on January 1, 414 at a mansion in Narbonne (Wikipedia, 2016; Salisbury, 2015b).  Placidia was dressed in abundant royal silks, signifying her right to the throne (Sivan, 2011).  Interestingly, Athaulf did not dress as a Gothic king but as a Roman soldier in military garb (Sivan, 2011).  Additionally, Athaulf wore the paludamentum with a precious brooch fastened to one side.  This cloak was worn by generals and emperors, suggesting Athaulf’s desire to lead the Romans.  To further cement his intentions, during the wedding itself, Athaulf swore allegiance to Rome and everything it stood for (Sivan, 2011).

As described by Olympiodorus, Athaulf brought in gifts to his new bride including “fifty handsome young men dressed in silk clothes each bearing aloft two very large dishes, one full of gold, the other full of precious, or rather priceless stones” that were from Rome during its destruction (Sivan, 2011).   Finally, the epithalamia, which are verses and compositions to honor the bride and groom, were written by three men: Attalus, Phoebadius, and Rusticus (Sivan, 2011).  Concluding with typical music, dance, and food, Placidia’s wedding was a true Roman festival.

Historians estimate that around 415 in January, Placidia and Athaulf gave birth to a son whom they named Theodosius.  His birth secured the unification of the Goth and Roman line.  However, in July or August of that same year, Theodosius died from unknown circumstances (Salisbury, 2015).  Another blow would strike Placidia when Athaulf was assassinated just a few months after the death of Theodosius.  A trusted servant of Athaulf’s was avenging his chief Sarus who was killed by Athaulf (Salisbury).  There is much speculation of the location of this assassination; some sources state that Athaulf was killed while taking a bath (Wikipedia, 2016), while others believe they were in the stable tending the horses (Salisbury, 2015).  Athaulf’s dying wish was for Placidia to return to her brother Honorius in Constantinople and secure friendship with Rome.  To ensure her safety, Constantius (with Honorius’ agreement) sent his representative Euplutius to accompany Placidia back to Ravenna (Salisbury, 2015).    However, spending 7 years with the Visigoths in their camp, Placidia had their allegiance and therefore brought a substantial guard of Goths with her.  As Placidia entered the capitol in 416, she was prepared to take over political and religious leadership in Rome.







McHardy, F. & Marshall, E. (2004). Women’s influence on classical civilization. Psychology Press.

Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sivan, H. (2011). Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016a). Alaric I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 10, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016b). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 12, 2016 from

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Galla Placidia: Born to Be An Empress


Wikipedia (2016). Galla Placidia


Early Life

Galla Placidia is known as the last Roman Empress.  Throughout her lifetime, she exerted much influence over the political and religious atmosphere in the imperial court.  Before a review can be given on Galla Placidia’s childhood, it is crucial to begin with her family history.  Placidia’s father was Theodosius I, who became the coemperor of the Eastern empire of Rome on January 19, 379 (Salisbury, 2015).  Although he was dedicated to his campaign and securing the safety of his empire, Theodosius wanted to secure his own dynasty.  With his marriage to the Spanish Aelia Flavia Flaccilla, he received an heir, Arcadius, and a daughter, Pulcheria, who would later die in childhood.

I believe that Flaccilla was a prominent woman figure in Placidia’s growth as a leader, although she never met her.  Theodosius, while crowning Arcadius as a young emperor, crowned Flaccilla as “Augustus”, empress.  Although it was not unusual to have a Roman Empress, Theodosius awarded her the same ceremony as her son; dressed in a “purple military cloak fastened on the right shoulder with a jeweled fibula and crowned her with a jeweled imperial diadem” (Salisbury, 2015).  Additionally, Flaccilla was imprinted onto the coinage in Rome.  This action showed no distinction between women and the status of men.  This equality founded Placidia in her search for power.  flaccilla Wikipedia (2016) Aelia Flaccilla Coin

However, shortly after the death of Theodosius’ daughter, Flaccilla also died.  As emperor, Theodosius needed to make another politically advantageous marriage, even though Flaccilla was able to produce two male heirs, Arcadius and Honorius.  Valentinian I’s son, Valentinian II was at the time the coemperor with Theodosius.  It is said by the chronicler Zosimus that Valentinian II’s mother, Justina, arranged the meeting of her daughter Galla and Theodosius to ensure the safety of Valentinian II.  Theodosius was struck by Galla’s beauty that he agreed to aid Valentinian II in exchange to marry Galla (Salisbury, 2015).

Theodosius was off conducting military affairs when Galla gave birth to their daughter, Galla Placidia.  Historians are unsure to the actual date of Placidia’s birth, however.  Due to Galla’s family circumstances, Placidia’s birth could have been as early as 388.  Additionally, Galla died in childbirth of their son in 394, so Placidia could have been born as late at 393 (Oost, 1965).  It is estimated that she was likely born in 389.  When Theodosius returned from Constantinople in 391, he granted Placidia her own household thus ensuring her financial security.  This was significant in Rome as to be granted financial independence at such a young age (Wikipedia, 2016c).

Another significant even in Placidia’s childhood occurred at the crowning of her brother, Honorius, in 393.  Placidia was awarded the title of “most noble girl” (nobilissima puella) by her father, Theodosius.  Similar to Flaccilla, this was a traditional step to becoming an empress (Salisbury, 2015).   A tragedy struck the Theodosius dynasty when Placidia was only 7 years old, Honorius at 10 years old, and Arcadius at 18 years old (Wikipedia, 2016a).  During a chariot race on January 17, 395, Theodosius died from what historians presume was severe edema (Wikipedia, 2016a).  With her mother’s death years ago, this left Placidia an orphan.  Fortunately, Theodosius’ niece and her husband, Stilicho, were able to care for Arcadius, Honorius, and Placidia.

Stilicho was a Vandal who became a high-ranking general (magister militum) in the Roman army under Theodosius.  There were several threats to the empire from barbarians so Theodosius wanted someone who could fight against and lead them, and his choice was Stilicho.  To ensure that his leadership would continue, Theodosius arranged for his favorite niece, Serena, to marry Stilicho (Salisbury, 2015).  Stilicho was written about by his contemporary and historian, Orosius, “Stilicho, sprung from the Vandals, an unwarlike, greedy, treacherous and crafty race” (Salisbury, 2015).  As Placidia had no other caretaker, Serena took the primary role of raising Placidia to be a ruler.  serena-and-stilicho

Wikipedia (2016) Diptych of Serena and Stilicho

Not much is known about the upbringing of Placidia and Serena’s daughter, Maria, who were the same age.  We assume that Serena taught Placidia and Maria according to the Roman culture which included mathematics, reading, and eventually literature.  Additionally, historians know that Placidia learned to weave and embroider (Wikipedia, 2016c).   An interesting story tells of Placidia helping Serena embroider a girth for her brother, Honorius’ horse (Salisbury, 2015).  An important note is to be made about Placidia’s brothers, Arcadius and Honorius.  As they were surrounded by luxuries and eunuchs, much is said of these future leaders as spoiled brothers who were completely incompetent to be emperors.  Neither were taught much on military strategy or how to maintain an empire.  These weaknesses will turn into consequences for all of Rome (See next blog).

As Honorius began to fulfill his duties, which were taken by Stilicho when he was underage, he surrounded himself by other counselors.  Under their advisement, particularly that of Olympius, Honorius began to question Stilicho’s loyalty.  In 408, Honorius issued his arrest, and shortly thereafter, his execution (Salisbury, 2015).  Consequently, because Serena was married to this Vandal, and was falsely accused of conspiring with the Goths during their siege of Rome, she was later killed (Wikipedia, 2016b).  There is much speculation as to the death of Serena, suggesting involvement and direction on Placidia’s part.  It is argued that Placidia despised her caretaker and wanted to remove her as the obstacle to gaining power.  Others suggest that as a good Christian woman, Placidia would never disrespect her guardian this way (Salisbury, 2015).  Regardless, Placidia was now free to start leading her country.



Oost, S. (1965). Some problems in the history of Galla Placidia. Classical Philology, 60(1), 1-10.

Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016a). Theodosius I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 7, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016b). Serena (Roman). Wikipedia. Retrieved December 7, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016b). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 5, 2016 from



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Joan of Arc’s Capture, Trial, and Death


Blog Post 5

Joan of Arc’s Capture, Trial, and Death

After several months of not being allowed to fight, the Maid was able to rush north to repel the English as much as she could. The duke of Burgundy was expected to arrive with troops to crush her campaign, but he never appeared. Instead, he ventured to Compiegne to claim it. The citizens however, did not want to surrender themselves to him. They fortified the city with a moat and guns and stocked up on supplies so they’d be ready for whatever happened.

Joan of Arc felt confident in her ability to rescue Compiegne, just as she had Orleans. During the night of May 22, the Maid led her soldiers to the besieged city and attacked the Burgundians. Her enemies retreated farther and farther back from her barrage, the Armagnacs chasing them at their heels. Then suddenly, Joan looked over her shoulder to see that not all of her opponent’s forces were in front of her. She and her men could not fight a battle with two fronts. Her army began to retreat toward Compiegne, but the gate was closed before the Maid could get inside. Surrounded by Burgundian soldiers, Joan was forced to surrender. Her captor, Jean de Luxembourg, took her to his castle at Beaulieu-les-Fontaines to await the next move.

King Charles, other politicians, and theologians of his court had trouble deciding what to do regarding Joan. Now that she had been captured and not miraculously spared, it seemed that God had completely abandoned the Maid, so they determined to let her meet the end God had prepared for her. The English-controlled French believed Joan’s failure was in the failure of her mission. The theologians at the university of Paris wrote to the duke of Burgundy, asking him to release her to them to be tried (and condemned) for heresy. Jean de Luxembourg wanted a sizeable ransom for his prisoner, which he got from the English.

Instead of being tried at the university of Paris, King Henry VI’s counsellors moved her trial to Rouen, the English capital of Normandy under Bishop Pierre Cauchon. The understanding was that if she were found innocent by the church (which was highly unlikely), the Maid would be returned to the English. She represented herself bravely in court, but the church had decided her fate before the trial had even opened. Her first examination, as in Poitiers, was to determine if she were still a virgin, which she was. Then, again, her spiritual integrity had to be determined by interrogation. The Maid was told to place her hand on the scriptures and swear to tell the truth, which she refused. She would gladly tell of her journey and actions, but she would not speak about her revelations she claimed were from God. She eventually swore to tell the truth about the Catholic faith, so the trial could resume.

On the second day of her trial, Joan was asked about her home life and childhood, and eventually, to everyone’s amazement, she spoke about her revelations.Two days later, she was asked when she had last heard a voice to which she said she had heard one that morning and three times the previous day. The days spent in trial turned into weeks, and Joan knew her end was near. The Maid’s trial lasted over three months, but ultimately, she was accused of heresy for wearing men’s clothing (an abomination in the Old Testament) and spreading false doctrines among the people of France. She was sentenced to death and was burned at the stake May 30, 1431.

Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake, by Hermann Stilke (1843)(Wikipedia Contributors)

In the end, Joan of Arc was unsuccessful because she no longer had the support she needed. King Charles VII lost faith in his extraordinary warrior and sent his troops home (after the failed attack on Paris). Others questioned her authority and holiness, which led to doubt being spread across France. Her capture at Compiegne seemed to prove her blasphemy (because God, if he had ever been on her side had forsaken her) and sealed her fate.


Castor, Helen. “I Will be with You Soon.” Joan of Arc: A History. New York, NY: Harper, 2015. 149-180. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Joan of Arc.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Yeatts, Tabatha. Joan of Arc: Heavenly Warrior. New York: Sterling, 2009. Print.

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The Maid’s Failures


Blog Post 4

The Maid’s Failures

The city of Paris had been more thoroughly fortified than any other fortress the Maid had encountered. The walls had slits for arrows, fortified towers on top,  and “gun placements” (Castor 140). The six gates were all protected by boulevards, and a deep ditch surrounded the entire city. The duke of Bedford had called upon his forces in Normandy to join him in defending the capital. Joan and her army were in for a struggle.

The Palais de la Cite and Saint-Chapelle, viewed from the left bank, from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (month of June) (1410)

On September 8, on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, Joan rode with her banner into battle. She started on the western side of the city by the Louvre. She led her men into the ditch with showers of rocks and arrows falling on them. She called out to the Burgundians above commanding them to surrender to her army, or they would force their way in. Given her history of success, perhaps her command wasn’t completely cast aside, but her efforts at this point had been futile. Neither she nor her men had been able to scale the fortified walls, let alone penetrate them. She was then injured by a crossbow lodged in her leg, and her standard-bearer was killed right next to the Maid. The Burgundians sneered at her. When night fell, her men retreated, dragging Joan behind them. She refused to leave, but her injury and loss of blood had made her weak.

The next day, the Maid was determined to continue, but King Charles had decided otherwise. He knew the duke of Bedford’s troops would arrive at any moment to help defend the city, and his warrior had failed. He sought peace with the Burgundians to unite France once and for all against the English. The Burgundians had agreed upon a truce that would last through Christmas. Charles VII was strapped for cash and thought it useless to pay soldiers during times of peace, so he sent them home. Joan was distressed and saddened. She no longer had her king’s full support, and the Burgundians spun this to their advantage. They claimed that she had failed because she was not inspired by God but by the devil. The Maid had committed abomination after abomination, and thus could not receive holy inspiration from the divine.

Now that God had stopped intervening on behalf of the French, Joan was seen as a liability on the battlefield, not a source of inspiration. Her strength had come from God’s interference in previous battles, but it would seem the French would have to rely on military strategy, something Joan was untrained in. The king’s counsellors prevented her from fighting, even when other commanders had wished for her to join them. She was instead taken to Saint-Pierre to confront Perrinet Gressart, a mercenary who technically allied with England and Burgundy but truly acted in his own self-interest. She won the town, but still had Gressart’s city of La Charite-sur-Loire to conquer. She tried to lay siege to the city, but failed after only a few weeks due to a lack of supplies and money.

Meanwhile, Henry VI of England had been crowned at the age of eight and was traveling to France, heading a massive army, for his second coronation there. The university of Paris had written to Rome to accuse the Maid of heresy, and others still did not believe in her. Joan had nothing to show for her efforts and could only hope for good things to come which would turn back the tide to her favor. But that would take a miracle.


Castor, Helen. “A Creature in the Form of a Woman.” Joan of Arc: A History. New York, NY: Harper, 2015. 140-149. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Paris.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Yeatts, Tabatha. Joan of Arc: Heavenly Warrior. New York: Sterling, 2009. Print.

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Peace Agreements between King Charles and Philip of Burgundy


Blog Post 3

Peace Agreements between King Charles and Philip of Burgundy

Duke Philip of Burgundy and King Charles VII, after the Maid’s victories, had made a truce: the duke would relinquish Paris (which was the French capital even at that time) into Charles’ hands after fifteen days. This was a ploy to avenge the duke’s father John the Fearless, the former duke of Burgundy, who had been murdered while making peace agreements and taking the holy sacrament with Charles VI. Duke Philip and the duke of Bedford began fortifying the city and called for loyalty from its subjects.

Joan of Arc suspected this truce was too good to be true. She wrote a letter to the people of Reims warning them to be watchful of their city and to have faith in her plan. She would not enter Paris quickly and would only remain peaceful to preserve the honor of her king. If she could have her way, however, she would attack the English once more.

The duke of Bedford began to be anxious. He couldn’t determine (himself) if his ally, Philip of Burgundy, was loyal. The duke of Bedford did have to pay Philip for his service and alliance. John (the duke of Bedford) sent spies, including his wife, to observe Philip’s behavior and report back to Bedford. John was also shorthanded. The Maid had captured a few of his lieutenants, including the duke of Suffolk and commander John Talbot, and had driven away Sir John Fastolf (who had fought against the Armagnacs at Patay). When he became desperate, John of Bedford took matters into his own hands. He called upon Charles to face him in Paris and reminded his Burgundian ally of his father’s death.

The armies met north of Paris at Montepilloy. There were skirmishes, but neither side was successful in luring the other to battle. The next day, the English forces marched back to Paris without so much as a direct word to the Armagnacs. John went to Vernon (between Paris and Rouen) to keep an eye on both those threatened cities. Charles, however, began retaking cities near Paris, which further intimidated the English.

King Charles, now that he had his crown, sought to bring peace to the region thereafter. He was admitted to Duke Philip’s court in Arras to begin negotiations. Charles was willing to give Philip the lands he had been given by the English, exempt Philip from paying homage to the French crown, and pardon the duke. Philip, still angry about his father’s murder, could not convince himself to accept any permanent negotiations from his father’s killer (even if Charles VII had been too young to stop it). They made a temporary truce for all lands north of the Seine river except for the city of Paris. The French now had a chance to reclaim their capital.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet 1445 1450.jpg

Portrait of Charles VII, by Jean Fouquet, tempera on wood, Louvre Museum, Paris, c. 1445–1450 (Wikipedia Contributors)

Philip the good.jpg

Philip the Good, wearing the collar of firesteels and of the Order of the Golden Fleece he instituted, copy of a Rogier van der Weyden of c. 1450

Unfortunately for Joan, the euphoria of her triumph was starting to wear off as the negotiations took place, and people all over the country, again, began to question her authority and power. She had little patience for the political skirmishes, but the Maid desperately needed her people’s confidence (and resources) to fulfill the rest of her mission. Her men, thankfully, still believed in her power and followed where she went. The Maid’s forces were able to retake Saint-Denis, a town dedicated to France’s patron, with little to no resistance, and this put them just four miles outside Paris.

Luck (and resources) had seen the Maid through to this point, but her aid seemed to abandon her with her attack on Paris. She would not be majorly successful in battle again.


Castor, Helen. “A Creature in the Form of a Woman.” Joan of Arc: A History. New York, NY: Harper, 2015. 127-140. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Charles VII of France.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Philip the Good.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Yeatts, Tabatha. Joan of Arc: Heavenly Warrior. New York: Sterling, 2009. Print.

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