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A Working Girl

Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism

by Marina Warner
Knopf, 384 pp., $17.95

Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality

by Frances Gies
Harper and Row, 306 pp., $14.95

The 550th anniversary of Joan of Arc’s death in the flames at Rouen on May 30, 1431 can be relied upon to release a torrent of commemorative books and articles. But it is unlikely to add much of substance to the known facts of her career. The essential source remains the detailed record of her trial, which was published with many supporting documents by the French scholar Jules Quicherat in the 1840s. By printing the girl’s own words in all their directness and tenacity, Quicherat did for Joan of Arc very much what Thomas Carlyle’s edition of his letters and speeches did in the same decade for Oliver Cromwell. Since Quicherat’s day, scholars have filled out the political background of her career, but they are still unable to do more than speculate about some of the baffling enigmas it presents.

What was the “sign” by which Joan convinced Charles VII of his legitimacy? How was he so quickly persuaded to accept her? Was she a genuine military leader or just a regimental mascot? Why was more effort not made to ransom her after she had fallen into the hands of the Anglo-Burgundians? And why was her rehabilitation delayed until the 1450s? Reasonable answers can be suggested to all these questions, 1 but about none of them can there be complete certainty. Meanwhile it is worth remembering how little substance there is for many of the most cherished assumptions about Joan herself. Virtually nothing is known about her physical appearance, for example; and even the name “d’Arc” was one which she never used, but was attached to her over a century after her death.

No doubt it is these very uncertainties which have helped to convert her into one of the most resonant and flexible symbols in the whole of human history. In modern mythology Joan of Arc is both Roman Catholic saint and martyr for the cause of sturdy, anticlerical individualism. She stands both for female innocence and for women’s emancipation. (When Mrs. Pankhurst was released from Holloway jail in 1908 the procession was led by a suffragette dressed as Joan in full armor.) She is a French national emblem, but in no sense the peculiar property of France. Her story inspired Schiller and Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Bernard Shaw. She is commemorated in sculpture and painting. She forms the subject of what Mark Twain perversely thought the best of all his books; and she has been the theme of more historical essays and biographies than can confidently be reckoned.

The latest of these, by Frances Gies, contains no surprises or notable flashes of illumination. But it is soundly based on modern scholarship and can be warmly recommended to readers seeking a simple, unpretentious narrative of Joan’s career. Mrs. Gies is careful to distinguish direct evidence from hearsay and she is agreeably without any special axes to grind.

Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc is a much more ambitious book. It has two main purposes. The first is to “decode” the situation in which Joan flourished and was destroyed. By relating the Maid’s claims and actions to fifteenth-century modes of thought, Miss Warner seeks to show what it was about her which so attracted some contemporaries and so repelled others. The second objective is to account for the extraordinary potency of the posthumous myth of Joan of Arc. She does this by tracing its successive manifestations and relating them to the limited range of stereotypes in which female conduct has been traditionally perceived. She is particularly interested in Joan because she eludes the categories in which women have normally achieved immortality.

To accomplish her task Marina Warner has probed the printed sources of the period, picked the brains of the best modern scholars, and read widely in literature and art history. Her book abounds in penetrating aperçus and it displays a good deal of literary artistry, as one might have predicted from the author of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. It is not faultless: not every relevant work seems to have been consulted;2 the argument is not always fully digested; the exposition is occasionally rather unconsecutive; and there are slips which betray a careless reading of secondary sources.3 But it is an eloquent book and at times an intellectually exciting one. It may not contain much information that will be new to experts on the subject, but even they will gain stimulus from some of her sensitive and fertile reflections. In sum, the book is a welcome reminder that it is still possible for a cultivated person who is not herself a professional scholar to make a contribution to understanding by teasing out the implications of other people’s scholarship and casting them into an aesthetically satisfying work.

Most modern historians of Joan tend to concentrate upon the political implications of her career. They seek to identify the court faction which decided to exploit her simple convictions for its own purposes; and they explore the competing political groups involved in her trial and subsequent rehabilitation. Marina Warner is not indifferent to those issues, but her primary concern lies elsewhere. She agrees that “the central problem…is why the girl was believed and followed,” but she prefers to find the answer in “the configuration of people’s minds.” It was the readiness of contemporaries to be convinced by her claims that gave Joan her enormous power.

That power had several sources. The first was her virginity. In what Miss Warner rather dramatically calls “a culture terrorized by sensual sin,” the image of the body undefiled had immense potency. Medieval Christians regarded virginity as a holy state of prelapsarian innocence and saw chastity as a precondition of miracle-working. In Joan’s case the image was enhanced by the report that she ate little, did not menstruate, and, though outwardly seductive, either failed to inspire physical desire in men or sharply repulsed those who made sexual advances. (A seventeenth-century Jesuit related admiringly that anyone who looked on her lustfully was immediately struck impotent forever.) Miss Warner wonders, plausibly enough, whether Joan was not anorexic. She also conjectures that she must have done too much horse-riding to have remained a virgin in the technical sense, but suggests that the psychological and cultural expectations of the time ensured that, when examined, she was found to be one nonetheless.

The second source of Joan’s power was her claim to divine inspiration. There was nothing unusual about this. The Middle Ages abounded in female mystics with supposedly prophetic powers and there were many unlettered peasants who claimed to have messages from God to give those in authority. When Joan was captured, the Arch-bishop of Rheims rapidly produced a replacement in the form of a young shepherd, Guillaume, who came from the mountains of Gevaudan and bore the stigmata. In fifteenth-century rural Spain, as William A. Christian, Jr. has shown in an interesting new study,4 it was common for the laity to see visions of Mary and other saints; and if the seer was a woman, she was almost always a virgin.

But the Spanish visionaries received messages which were local, stereotyped, and devotional; they reinforced local cults and posed no threat to political authority. What was distinctive about Joan as a prophetess was that her prophecies related to national politics not to local piety; and that instead of being vague and untestable, they were remarkably mundane and precise. The way had allegedly been prepared for her by earlier prophecies about virgins from Lorraine who would wear armor and deliver France. But Joan herself never invoked them, relying entirely on the testimony of her own voices. Neither did she claim to perform other miracles, though onlookers were quick to attribute them to her. As Marina Warner observes, her own uniqueness was repeatedly concealed by contemporary type-casting.

Yet in her own life she too conformed to a stereotype. Miss Warner suggests that Joan was under the spell of chivalric romance. Her personal standard, her sumptuous clothes, her oath to her suzerain, her crusading aspirations, and her reckless indifference to personal safety were all characteristics of the knightly pattern. On two occasions only did she flout the laws of chivalry: once when she (unsuccessfully) attacked Paris on a holy day and once when she permitted the execution of a prisoner of war. Otherwise her conduct conformed to the great chivalric fantasy and she was perceived accordingly.

Yet though Joan exemplified some of the most cherished ideals of her time, she also offended against them. The rise to prominence of a farmer’s daughter was itself a challenge to conventional hierarchical assumptions, but Joan compounded this offense in two infinitely more heinous respects. The first was her stubborn insistence that her voices were authentic, regardless of the attitude taken to them by the Church. The supposed sources of these voices were conventional enough: St. Michael was the emblem of French resistance, St. Margaret had a statue in Joan’s home village of Domrémy, and St. Catherine was the patron saint of the church of Maxey, just across the Meuse. But Joan’s readiness to accept their inspiration without first securing the permission of ecclesiastical authority was anarchic in its implications. In Prague John Hus had been burned for heresy only fifteen years earlier and Joan’s own trial took place at a time when there was fear of heresy both in France and in England. Her readiness to elevate herself above the authority of the Church made her seem a dangerous fanatic.

Moreover, the suggestion that her saints had assumed a corporeal form left her open to charges of witchcraft. As Marina Warner writes:

Her saints have bodies, talk French, wear clothes, and can be held and touched. She could not see the incongruity—why should the soul not have ears and eyes? All unwittingly, she trespassed against a basic structural axiom in the Christian idea of the holy…. Abstractions should remain abstract and not take on material shape.

Once her enemies were convinced that Joan’s voices were not those of saints but of devils, then all fell into place. Her mysterious sign to the king, her magical sword, ring, and standard, her prophecies and her invulnerability: all seemed proof of her diabolical nature. Youth and beauty offered her no protection, for it was notorious that the devil could assume beguiling shapes. (The handsome Prince Lucifer painted for the Duke of Berry around 1413, with his “blonde curls, pale naked body, and sweet serious youthfulness,” suggests Marina Warner, “leads us surely into the most frightened corner of the contemporary mind.”) William A. Christian, Jr. points out that in Spain, by contrast, there was at this time no fear that visionaries might be witches; the possibility of fraud was always carefully considered, but the idea of demonic involvement was not taken seriously. Only in the 1520s, when heresy became a danger, did the Spanish Inquisition take a hard line against lay visionaries, bringing the long series of apparitions to an abrupt stop.

  1. 1

    M.G.A. Vale, Charles VII (University of California Press, 1974), provides an illuminating discussion.

  2. 2

    It is surprising to find no reference to the useful section on Joan in Nathan Edelman, Attitudes of Seventeenth-Century France toward the Middle Ages (Columbia University Press, 1946), pp. 245-274.

  3. 3

    For example, her description of the well-known fifteenth-century prose treatise Dives and Pauper as a “poem.” It is also odd to find this convent-educated author mistaking the century in which St. Teresa lived.

  4. 4

    William A. Christian, Jr., Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (Princeton, 1981).

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