CHINON, France – Probably not. That's the preliminary conclusion of a team of experts trying to determine whether a rib bone and a piece of cloth were the remains of 15th century French heroine Joan of Arc.
Six months after beginning their still uncompleted research, the experts believe there is "relatively little chance" the remnants said to have been recovered from the funeral pyre after Joan of Arc was burned alive for heresy were actually hers, said Philippe Charlier, who heads the team.
The fragment of cloth, linen from the 15th century, "wasn't burned. It was dyed," Charlier said in an interview Saturday. And a blackened substance around the 15-centimeter (6-inch) rib bone and the femur of a cat were not "carbonized remains" but correspond, instead, to vegetable and mineral debris, "something that rather resembles embalming substance," he said.
Legend has it that 19-year-old Joan of Arc's remains were scattered in the Seine River after she was burned to death on May 30, 1431 in the Normandy town of Rouen following a trial there. However, a fragment of rib bone covered in a black substance, a cat's femur and a fragment of cloth were reportedly found at the site by an unidentified person. They were then conserved by an apothecary until 1867, before being turned over to the archdiocese of Tours.
Today, the remains are conserved at a museum of the Association of Friends of Old Chinon.
In 1909, scientists declared it "highly probable" that the remains were those of Joan of Arc. Given developments in genetic technology in recent years, the researchers decided to try again.
The probability that the remains are those of Joan of Arc are "enormously lessening," said Charlier, attached to hospitals in the Paris area and Lille.
"We're instead moving toward the hypotheses of a fake relic or of a relic that was transformed," he said.
"It could be that these are human remains of the 15th century subjected to a sort of embalming or protection as happened when relics were manipulated," he said. "But we know, in any event, that Joan of Arc was not embalmed."
The cat femur just confuses matters.
For some, it lends weight to the notion of a hoax or a fake relic. However, other historians say that throwing a cat or another animal representing the devil onto a pyre is credible, Charlier said.
The scientist stressed that full results are not yet in, such as carbon-14 dating and additional genetic tests to determine the sex of the individual, and of the cat.
Scientists won't be disappointed if definitive results show that the remnants are not those of Joan of Arc.
"Our goal is medico-legal and scientific. This allows us to test methods which will be usable in legal medicine," Charlier said, adding that the team will have learned "how one manages to make a fake relic."
Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and witchcraft and burned at the stake after leading the French to several victories over the English during the Hundred Years War, notably in Orleans, south of Paris.
The illiterate farm girl from Lorraine, in eastern France, disguised herself as a man in her war campaigns and said she heard voices from a trio of saints telling her to deliver France from the English. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and made a saint in 1920.