Joan of Arc—Her courage inspires the ages


Pierre Ferrand

Part II of II

here is more information about Joan of Arc than about any other medieval teenager. This is due to the fact that the records of the trial condemning her have been preserved, as well as the records of the rehabilitation trial. While both records are necessarily biased, and while a number of details have been diversely interpreted, there is a consensus that she was a good person, totally disinterested, loyal, honest and sincere, compassionate, and with a great deal of mother-wit. She also displayed a remarkable amount of personal courage. Few people over the years have failed to be moved by her common sense and the sheer pluck with which this illiterate peasant girl defended herself under incessant questionings for many months, confronting single-handedly an array of trained priests and theologians, who condemned her to a dreadful death.

The complete trial records (and many other relevant 15th Century texts) were finally published by the French scholar Jules Quicherat from 1841 on. The liberal, anti-clerical and very patriotic French historian Jules Michelet, in two chapters of his Histoire de France, Volume X, also first published that year, used the same information to present the most impressive of all romantic interpretations of Joan of Arc. The chapters in question have been reprinted separately many times as a biography of the Maid of Orleans. My own French edition of the text refers to it as "our national Bible".

Michelet dealt with Joan as an inspired girl from the people, as an incarnation of French patriotism, and as the victim of British political pressure and an evil ecclesiastical court. He stressed that she started on her mission in view of her awareness of "the great misery which was in the kingdom of France" due to the many decades of pillaging, murdering, and robbing operations which the English, who had started it, called war. Still, she never personally killed an enemy in combat, but tried to help the English wounded, and protected English prisoners. "In the very midst of war, this triumph of the Devil, she carried the spirit of God," Michelet wrote. Also, after his account (and Quicherat's documents) it was scarcely possible to ignore the record of the trial as most of the previous literary versions of her story had, except if one were an opera librettist.

In his enthusiasm, Michelet, though anti-clerical, called Joan a saint. The Catholic Church was in no hurry to follow suit. There was, after all, the embarrassing fact that she had been burned at the stake as a heretic. Joan is the only saint to have been so executed, though other revered figures in the Catholic pantheon have had problems with Church authorities over the centuries.

Also, it was somewhat difficult for a supranational Church to justify her mission. The Vatican's “devil's advocate” stance during the canonization proceedings argued cogently that whatever her faith or personal merits, her efforts were to exalt her king and country rather than to glorify God alone. However, this reasoning could be dismissed by the Vatican in a climate of increasing valuation of nationalism throughout the world and in view of overriding political considerations.

Monsignor Dupanloup, the influential Bishop of Orleans, proposed the sanctification of Joan in 1869, partly, no doubt, for obvious parochial reasons. Orleans had been celebrating its liberation by Joan for centuries with a great annual civic festival. However, she was proclaimed "venerable" only in 1893. The liberal Pope Leo XIII wanted to mend fences with the Third French Republic and stem the erosion of Catholicism in France. He had decided that to honor Joan of Arc would help. The Maid from Lorraine had become a national icon in France, also because of the intensification of patriotic feeling after the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.

While the relationship with the French Republic had its ups and downs, the Vatican continued its policy with deliberate slowness. Joan was beatified in 1909, under Pope Pius X, and designated as France's patron saint in 1920, after World War I.

Members of the French extreme right, in the meantime, had been proclaiming that they were the only true French patriots. They tried to monopolize the memory of Joan of Arc. Indeed, they have continued to this day to stage annual pilgrimages to Emmanuel Fremiet's horseback statue of Joan of Arc on the Place des Pyramides in Paris, (the most impressive of the many sculptures of Joan, to my mind), noisily shouting their offensive and xenophobic slogans. However, French patriotism had been significantly an outgrowth of the French Revolution, which remains an anathema to the right wing, and the reputation of Joan of Arc, too, had been fostered chiefly by left-wing republicans, including Michelet. Also, many of the self-proclaimed patriots and admirers of Joan of Arc among the reactionaries did not hesitate to collaborate with Nazi Germany after the fall of France in 1940. For many decades, they produced little except empty rhetoric about Joan, and indeed, the Free French under Charles de Gaulle and the Cross of Lorraine were more truly identified with her memory.

Still, there are two major tributes to Joan by noted French Catholics. One of them was by Charles Peguy, a socialist who had been one of the few Catholics of his time to fight for Captain Alfred Dreyfus, unjustly condemned by a French military tribunal. He was haunted by the figure of Joan of Arc, which is central to his poetry. His moving Mystere de la Charitè de Jeanne d'Arc (1909) and other treatments of Joan's story contain eloquent liturgies of hypnotic power. He also supplies the most persuasive argument in favor of considering Joan a saint. She did not hate the English, and her goal, Peguy says with some justification, was "to kill war"—to put an end to its terrible miseries—though, of course, she did not achieve this in the end. Presumably, we have to accept that good intentions count, at least for sainthood.

Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, the truly impressive oratorio by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (text by the great French religious poet Paul Claudel) describes a fictional vision of Joan of Arc while at the stake, reliving episodes of her life, particularly the trial, in the style of a medieval mystery play. Saint Dominic, the founder of the Inquisition, comes down from heaven to repudiate his unworthy followers who condemned Joan. They are literally evil beasts, with the chief judge, Bishop Cauchon, portrayed as a pig (his name sounds like "pig" in French). His associate judges are sheep. A rustic allegory suggests that Joan did manage to unite the bread-producing North and the wine-growing South of France to form one country. The iniquity of her trial is powerfully presented; her death, when she is comforted by the Virgin Mary, is Joan's triumph. The oratorio is effective both scenically and musically, and was shown throughout unoccupied France during World War II, with its official premiere at the Paris Opera when the war ended.

Among the most remarkable incarnations of Joan in literature, however, are those written by three notorious unbelievers, the American Mark Twain, the French novelist Anatole France, and the Irishman George Bernard Shaw.

The aggressive atheist Mark Twain is perhaps the most unlikely author of a worshipful romanced biography of the Maid. However, he considered his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) his favorite work. GBS wickedly claimed that Twain made Joan into "an unimpeacheable American school teacher in armor...a most beautiful and ladylike Victorian" who could do no wrong. While writing it, Twain did read the chapters to his own daughter, who was dying. Despite its sentimentality, his tale is still readable today. There are even some comic episodes, since, after all, the author was Mark Twain.

Anatole France's two-volume biography of Jeanne d'Arc, actually a "life and times" first published in 1907, is written in a very different spirit. It is, in effect, a demythologizing effort. The very erudite, urbane and skeptical novelist spent over 20 years writing his scrupulously documented book, in which he does not deny Joan's personal qualities and sympathizes deeply with her fate. However, he questions whether, besides her dash and undoubted personal courage, she had any military talents whatever. (He admits that few contemporary captains were better in tactics, and, of course, that she inspired the troops by her example).

He suspects that her focus on Orleans and the coronation of the King at Rheims was inspired by politically more knowledgeable people whom he does not venture to name. As for her "voices", he feels that they were mental delusions and quotes a doctor's opinion to that effect in an appendix. He agrees that Bishop Pierre Cauchon was a biased judge beholden to the British, who wanted Joan's death. However, he respects the fact that Cauchon conducted the trial with a measure of formal correctness, though he did not admit her repeated appeal to the authority of the Pope. Anatole France's real villains are the members of the prestigious Theological Faculty of Paris, who were consulted at key points and were relentless in urging Joan's death.

Interestingly enough, Anatole France, with less than the historical understanding displayed in many of his other works, expresses the view that the consecration of Charles VII at Rheims was a tactical error. He feels that the French should have tried to conquer Normandy instead.

I would submit that, for the times, the stress on making Charles VII a "true" king before the English got around to crowning his nephew, the young Henry VI, was a masterstroke of symbolism and, indeed, propaganda, and just what one would expect from a young girl who reacted exactly like the common folk of her time because she was of the people herself.

Shaw prides himself upon his impartiality and claims that, in the 15th Century, since Joan did not submit herself humbly to the opinion of the Church tribunal about her voices, she had to be condemned as a heretic. His play has no villains.

His Saint Joan, as his lengthy preface makes clear, is a female incarnation of his favorite hero, the "Man of Destiny" or "Superman", and he obviously admires her enormously. He displays his typical mixture of insights, common sense, and quirkiness. He thinks of Joan as an inventor of Protestantism (because her "inner voice" was more important than the institution of the Church), and of Nationalism—and, incidentally, of rational clothing for women (he does not discuss her crewcut).

There have been many other theatrical interpretations of the Maid of Orleans. The brilliant contemporary playwright Jean Anouilh, in L'Alouette (1953), presented a "humanistic" version of Joan repeatedly reminiscent of GBS. Two distinguished German playwrights, Berthold Brecht and Georg Kaiser, wrote their own variations on the theme. Brecht produced no less than three dramas using it—the best-known being Joan of the Stockyards (1930) in a 1920s Chicago framework, exalting the proletariat. Kaiser's Gilles und Jeanne (1923), deals provocatively with Joan and one of her companions-at-arms, the serial murderer Gilles de Rais, a close relative of the Duke of Brittany. There is also a Joan of Arc play by the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, and, of course, the play by Maxwell Anderson, which was the basis for the script of the 1948 movie featuring Ingrid Bergman and Jose Ferrer. The most highly regarded of a number of Joan of Arc films is the intense silent film by the Danish director Carl Dreyer, the Passion of Joan of Arc (originally 1928). It is, in a way, a Protestant predecessor and counterpart of the Honegger / Claudel Oratorio.

Except for the Fremiet statue, few of the many paintings and sculptures of Joan of Arc are worth a second glance. The only contemporary portrait of sorts is a rather child-like drawing on the margin of one of the court record manuscripts. v

Bibliographical note: A good introduction to much of the huge literature about Joan of Arc (well in excess of 10,000 titles), is the book of Marina Warner, Joan of Arc, the Image of Female Heroism, New York 1981. While not flawless, it is comprehensive, with interesting illustrations. Several books by the late Medieval scholar Regine Pernoud have been translated and can be read for documentation on the trials as well as contemporary evidence about Joan. Her latest was Joan of Arc—Her Story (1998). A brief, balanced "biographical meditation" entitled Joan of Arc by Mary Gordon was published by Viking / Penguin in 2000.

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Personal Recollections: Joan of Arc

The title page of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) (above), and an illustration of Joan of Arc from that edition.. From the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy is it used.

Title page of Anatole France’s Oeuvres Completes (1929), and an illustration from that edition. From the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

The title page of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924) (above), and an illustration "Rheims Cathedral," by C. Ricketts from that edition. From the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

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