Friday, January 06, 2012

Six Hundred Years of Joan of Arc

This year is the sexcentennial anniversary of the birth of Jehanne, la Pucelle. We're fairly sure that she was born in 1412, although it's entirely possible she was born slightly earlier or slightly later -- since she was a peasant in a time when peasant births weren't really recorded and lived in a culture that was not as obsessive about birthdays as ours, she herself could only estimate her own age, although it was probably a pretty accurate estimate. We do not know the exact date of her birth, and Jehanne almost certainly didn't either. There is one contemporary source, Boulainvilliers, who claims that she was born on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. This is certainly not impossible; but it's also possible that Epiphany was just a notable feast near her birthday, and it's equally possible that this idea grew up as a pious association. Nonetheless, it's the only date we have. And while her true birthday for liturgical purposes is the date of her martyrdom, it's as good a day as any to say something about her in this six hundredth year of Johanna Puella.

Contrary to common English usage, the "d'Arc" or "D'Arc" should probably not be translated as "of Arc" since it was just her father's name (Jacques d'Arc), but it's a bit late to do anything about it now. Likewise, I doubt she would have often used the name herself, if at all; surnames were a very inconsistent thing in this period. Joan d'Arc was born in the little village of Domrémy to two peasants, Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle de Vouthon, who, however, were doing fairly well as peasants. Jacques d'Arc had about fifty acres of decent land and held the important local post of doyen, in charge of collecting taxes and organizing local defense. Joan was one of five children; we know very little about the rest. We know, on the other hand, an extraordinary amount about Joan, perhaps more than about any other person in the fifteenth century, because so much information was recorded about her by contemporaries, at her heresy trial, and at the nullification trial at which she was vindicated.

All of this began when the Maid was 13; she began having visions of the Archangel Michael, of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and of Saint Margaret of Antioch. Both Catherine and Margaret were virgin martyrs; it is perhaps also significant that St. Margaret was, like St. Michael, a dragonslayer, but the connection with Margaret seems to be more immediate, since she was represented in the chapel at Domrémy. For the next four years she continued to have visions, and then in October of 1428 everything changed through an event that seemed to have nothing to do with a little peasant girl: the English, allied to the Duke of Burgundy, laid siege to Orleans. And from then on we have history: Joan the Maid went to the court of the Dauphin and told him that she had been sent by God to free Orleans. Which she did, even to the point of returning to the field after an arrow wound in the neck in order to urge her men on. Then she captured Jargeau, again continuing to urge her men on after being hit on the head with a rock and falling off a siege ladder. Then victory after victory after that, in a matter of three months completely turning around what had seemed an almost hopeless situation.

She was captured by the Burgundians in 1430, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. She was nineteen years old. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. Her story had become legend, and she had begun to be regarded as a saint, well before then. Mark Twain wrote a book, which he claimed was his favorite and considered his best, called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, his last finished novel. It has not been very widely accepted by others as his best work, because it's not a very Twain-like book (and, indeed, he originally published under a different pseudonym). What humor is in it is largely subtle, and book overall is rather serious in tone; instead of being put together largely on the fly, he spent about a decade researching it. Despite critical reluctance to accept such an un-Twain-like book, it is actually quite a good read, and I would not be surprised if time were eventually to bear out Twain's own assessment. Everybody knows that Twain can write teenage boys; but he gets Joan's teenage-girl-ness almost exactly right (it is said that he modeled her partly after his own daughter in her teenage years, and one can believe it). Twain also wrote an essay, sometimes appended to the Personal Recollections, called "Saint Joan of Arc" -- it is well worth reading, and summarizes the feeling of a great many people when it comes to the Maid of Orleans.

George Bernard Shaw, also wrote a well-known play about her, Saint Joan; it's notable for trying to do justice to the English and Burgundians as well as Joan and the French. Shaw's Joan tells us more about Shaw than about Joan, but it's a good piece, a tragedy in which everyone is sincere and well-meaning.

For those who have the French, Christine de Pizan's Ditie de Jehanne d'Arc is exquisitely good -- it was the very first literary work with Joan of Arc as a subject, written while she was still alive, by one of France's great writers in the period.


  1. Dave M3:46 PM

    Also films by Dreyer, Bresson, and Rivette.

  2. branemrys3:54 PM

    I know almost nothing about them and have never seen them. but quite true.


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