Friday, January 06, 2006

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, soldier and saint, is said to have been born on this day, c. 1412, in Domremy, France.

She grew up around soldiers armed for battle, and knew well the trappings of knighthood from an early age. Her hometown was divided by a tributary of the Meuse, and each bank was controlled by opposing factions within the conflict known as the Hundred Years' War, an atmosphere of bloody skirmishes: on the south, supporters of the Anglo-Burgundians who favored English king Henry V's claim to France held sway; on the north, vassals of the native French crown. Joan's allegiances were with the French, especially after the Burgundians rudely torched Domremy in July 1428.

Even before that cataclysmic event, however, as early as 1425, Joan later admitted to hearing voices during the ringing of the church bells (voices she later identified as coming from St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Catherine of Alexandria and the archangel Michael), but she kept them to herself until February 1429, when she approached the captain of a nearby town militia and asked him to provide her with an escort to the French royal claimant, Charles the Dauphin, who was cowering in his court at Chinon.

According to her own testimony, she entered Charles' hall wearing men's clothes, and out of the crowd of people assembled her voices led her to recognize Charles, whom she had never seen before. Addressing him, she told him that God had sent her to wage war against the English, and that God had also told her that Charles would possess all of France as its king.

Many have questioned why Charles would choose to give a second thought to a short-haired peasant girl wearing trousers and a tunic, even if she was earnest and spirited: while he did send her to be questioned by his panel of experts, the truth was that "prophets" who claimed to hear voices were not uncommon in 15th century France, and that one should approach Charles with good news was indeed good news for Charles, who at that moment had little confidence in his ability to beat the English. After all, he probably thought, what if she's right? Charles gave her armor, a standard bearing the motto "Jesus and Mary," and an armed platoon of escorts, sending her quietly and in an unofficial capacity to Orleans, which the English had kept under siege since the previous October.

She began her work not as a soldier, but as a kind of "Tokyo Rose," warning the young English king Henry VI in a letter she dictated at the end of March: " . . . I am a chieftain of war and whenever I meet your followers in France, I will drive them out; if they will not obey, I will put them all to death . . . I am sent here in God's name, the King of Heaven, to drive you body for body out of all France."

Entering Orleans on April 29, she inspired the French to action, and was at the front of the charge, the first to put a ladder to the largest English bastion, when she was wounded by an arrow to the chest. While she recovered, her example kept the French troops at their work, and on May 8, 1429, the English finally retreated and the siege was broken. The victory renewed the French spirit, and Joan suddenly found herself in a position of influence. Convincing Charles that he needed to take Rheims and stage a proper coronation, she led her troops to 4 victories in one week in June 1428 on her way there.

Joan's proudest moment came on July 17, when Charles was crowned Charles VII, king of France. Joan next set her sights on Paris, which she attacked in September; but Charles withdrew his support for the campaign while he awaited a diplomatic solution with Burgundy, and Joan was beaten back. After 6 months of cooling her heels, Joan decided to attack the Burgundians at Compeigne, which had recently been recaptured for the English, in May 1430, but in the chaos of a French retreat she was captured.

The Burgundians held her for a few months (during which she attempted to escape by leaping from a high tower), but eventually they sold her to the English, who, in an attempt to destroy her influence, handed her over to ecclesiastic court headed by Bishop Cauchon at Rouen to try her on charges of heresy.

During the 14 month trial, Joan showed fortitude and common sense, as well as flashes of mischievous wit: when asked if her voices wore clothing when they revealed themselves to her, for example, she chided her interrogators for suggesting that God was too cheap to clothe his messengers. By the end of the trial, however, Cauchon and his panel had weakened her. She was convicted on 12 counts (including faking her visions, dressing as a man, and believing that she was directly responsible to God rather than the Church); afterward she was tricked by Cauchon into signing a confession that all she had done was in the service of Satan, and compliantly changed into women's clothing.

Days later, when she discovered the effect of her confession, she boldly appeared in trousers again, leading a secular court to sentence her to be burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic. Her execution took place on May 30, 1431 in Rouen. As the flames rose up, she cried "Jesus" 6 times; and afterward, the fire was raked back, to show that she had died, and to show that she was indeed just a young girl. Charles VII, it is often observed, did nothing to rescue her, but in 1456 after he had finally taken Rouen, he conducted a posthumous trial and annulled her verdict of guilt.

Her life became rich material for writers, although in the first years after her death she was often seen as a sorceress in league with hell, or worse yet, as Shakespeare depicted her in Henry VI, Part I, as an oversexed collector of men's souls. By the 19th century, however, her unwavering principles and devotion to God led even the British (such as Carlyle, Southey and DeQuincey, among others) to admire her. By the time she was canonized by Benedict XV in 1920 (almost 500 years after her death), she became a much more pliable symbol of feminine heroism, embraced by French patriots and by soldiers (during World War II, by both the Vichy government and the French resistance movement); by lesbians and by feminists; by Protestants who saw in her the prototype for intimacy with God, and by Catholics as a virgin mystic who faced what she believed to be the will of God with complete integrity.

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