At the opening of The Maid of Orleans, as Schiller’s five-act verse tragedy is known in English, France is divided among three parties: English troops who have taken Paris and the north in pressing their king’s dynastic claim to the French throne, southern lands held by the Valois king Charles VII, and Burgundy in the middle ruled by Philip the Good. Philip is also a Valois but has sided with England because men of Charles VII murdered his father. Thibaut d’Arch, whom Schiller describes as a wealthy landowner, has three daughters: Margot, Louison and Johanna (Joan). In the initial scenes, Thibaut laments France’s division and the likelihood that war will soon come to his area. In advance of that probable catastrophe, he consents to the marriage of his two older daughters to their intendeds.
Joan, however, worries him. She is young and should be full of life, but she is not like the other young women. Raimond, her admirer, defends Joan, saying she loves the mountains and the outdoors, that she is attuned to higher things, that she could have come from another age. That’s precisely what worries her father, who has had a prophetic dream three times of her on the throne of the kings in Reims, wearing a diadem, with all bowing to her. It foretells a steep fall, he says. Raimond defends her, saying she is the most talented of all, that everything she creates pours forth happiness.
Joan has been on stage through these two scenes, but silent and still. She does not move until Bertrand, another landowner, joins the party and relates the curious story of how at the market earlier a Bohemian woman had pressed a helmet upon him before vanishing into the crowd. “Give me the helmet!” are Joan’s first words in the play. Bertrand replies that it is nothing for a maiden. She tears it from his hands, saying “Mine is the helmet, and it belongs to me.”
Bertrand says that a knight is about to tell the allied English and Burgundians that Orleans is prepared to come to terms. Joan counters immediately, “No agreements! No surrender! … The enemy’s fortune will shatter at Orleans … He is ready to be harvested. With her sickle the maid will come,/And mow down his proud stalks.” Bertrand says miracles don’t happen anymore, and Joan basically tells him to hold her beer.