Joan of Arc may have been epileptic


MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- The visions that led Joan of Arc to defeat the English at Orleans, France, setting the stage for the coronation of Charles VII, probably were caused by epileptic seizures, California researchers said Tuesday.

'When you look at the story closely what you see is quite typical of complex partial seizures,' said Dr. Lydia Bayne, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco.


'You have a young woman with stereotyped spells starting in early adolescence, at 13 in Joan's case, with no evidence of aberrant behavior between spells, and spells consisting of a dream-like state, visions of angels and voices with a messianic message.'

Joan, 19, was burned at the stake May 30, 1431, in Rouen, after her trial for heresy and witchcraft before a panel of French clerics who supported the English in their battle against the French monarchy. Her most serious crime was her claim of direct inspiration from God.


However in 1456, the proceedings against Joan were annulled. In 1920, she was canonized by the Catholic Church.

Relying largely on Joan's descriptions of her visions during her heresy trial in 1431 before French clerics, Bayne said it is probable that the Maid of Orleans suffered from epilepsy.

'In the case of Joan, she had a particular type of seizure that was set off by church bells ringing,' said Bayne, who was presenting a report on the theory at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Bayne said a limited number of epileptics have lesions on their brain in the anterior temporal lobe, an area associated with audio-visual responses, that trigger hallucinations.

'She talks most particularily about a great light coming to her,' Bayne said. 'The voices were always accompanied by a great light coming from the right, next to where she heard the voices. To me, that suggests a left temporal lobe focus.'

During Joan's trial, she testified that her visions were associated with a feeling of ecstasy. The 'ecstatic' auras she experienced are similar to the feelings reported by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was known to suffer from the disease, Bayne said.


She noted that Joan had three seizures before the teenager determined that she was being visited by St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret.

The bell ringing is characteristic of reflex epilepsy, whose victims often report that their seizures are triggered by flickering lights or music.

Bayne said there has never been a recorded medical case where one person possessed all of the traits Joan described.

'In many ways this is a medical restitution of Joan in an age where any 'bizarre' behavior is inevitably seen as mental illness,' Bayne said.

'Rather than being a psychopath, as some have claimed, she becomes a girl with seizures who turned her hallucinations into a powerful source of religious passion and social dedication.'

'One percent of the population has epilepsy, so it is not surprising that there would be some of those people thoroughout history who would become famous and be very creative,' Bayne said.

Among the historic figures thought to have suffered from epilepsy are Alexander the Great, St. Paul and Mohammed.

Bayne began reviewing Joan's story after Berkeley writer Elizabeth Foote-Smith, who was doing research on the life of the saint, brought the descriptions of Joan's angelic visions and messianic voices to Bayne and suggested that they were indicative of an epileptic.


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