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.
Equal in gravity to Joan’s adherence to her voices was her transvestism. Frances Gies remarks in passing that it is hard to understand why Joan’s style of dress should have become such a central issue. But Marina Warner has a great deal to say about the implications of the donning of male clothes by women. Christianity, she observes, had been unique among religions in preaching the equality of the sexes, but Christ was a man and in practice the Church was a masculine organization. There were only two strategies by which a woman could overcome prejudice against her self-assertion; and Joan employed them both. Her virginity emancipated her from that association with the body which was so essential an element in the idea of female inferiority. Her transvestism was a similar denial of her sexual identity. It symbolized both the renunciation of the flesh and the rejection of male domination.
In Christian tradition there had been many transvestite female saints. St. Wilgefort (“St. Uncumber”) had even preserved her virginity by miraculously growing a long silky mustache and beard; subsequently she became the patroness of discontented wives who wished to discard their husbands. Joan originally put on male clothes as a matter of convenience; she had to ride a horse. But she stuck to them thereafter for symbolic reasons. They represented, thinks Marina Warner, a desire to be neuter, to overcome the disadvantages of femaleness. She aspired to “that androgynous zone that is…Christian mysticism’s metaphor for angelic purity.”
To her enemies, however, her male dress was a flat breach of the prohibition in Deuteronomy (“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man”). “Where is her womanly behaviour,” demanded the English chronicler Edward Hall, “when she clad herself in a man’s clothing and was conversant with every common soldier, giving all men occasion to judge and speak evil of her and her doings?” Marina Warner compares her to Jo in Little Women and all the other tomboy heroines who have vainly struggled to assert themselves in a masculine world. Whether or not Joan was tricked into reassuming her male dress after her abjuration seems impossible to tell. But it is certain that her transvestism had an important part in her downfall.
In her lifetime, Joan’s significance was magnified by the fears and longings of her comtemporaries, who perceived her actions according to one or other stereotype of the day. Her own individuality was largely ignored. After her death it was forgotten altogether. During the ensuing centuries, suggests Miss Warner, Joan became the human counterpart of what botanists call an ecotype, a plant which travels, adapts itself, and develops differently in different surroundings.
Her initial rehabilitation in 1456 was a political act. It removed the stain of heresy and witchcraft from Charles VII’s cause; and it pinned the blame for her execution firmly upon the English. (Generations of later French patriots would conveniently forget that the main pressure for her trial had come from the University of Paris and that the great majority of those who took part in it were Frenchmen.) No statement was made in 1456 about Joan’s sanctity or even her orthodoxy. But her memory was cherished at Orleans and by the mid-sixteenth century she had reemerged as a national savior, comparable to Charlemagne, Roland, or Godfrey of Bouillon. Her name became “d’Arc,” recalling the bow of Diana. She was portrayed as a classical Amazon, a Renaissance warrior with long, flowing hair and armor temporarily donned for the fight; her cropped hair and her habit of continually wearing men’s clothes were forgotten.
Joan was thus assimilated to the permissible images of female heroism, which were either classical or Biblical: “thou art an Amazon / And fightest with the sword of Deborah,” says Shakespeare’s Charles VII. Marina Warner has some interesting reflections on the Renaissance interest in the Amazon, a concept which she thinks embodied the implicit acceptance of male ascendency, involving as it did the severed left breast (permitting the Amazon to draw the bow more easily) and frequently culminating in erotic surrender to a superior male warrior. In Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans Joan falls in love with an English soldier and dies in battle beside him; and in Verdi’s opera her lover is the Dauphin himself.
In the Renaissance period Joan also conformed to the prototype of feminine virtue. Marina Warner underlines the paradox that, although females were normally regarded as inferior and more inclined to sin, it was usual in painting and sculpture to represent the Virtues as female, just as in most European languages the words for abstract qualities are of the feminine gender. The iconologist Cesare Ripa instructed painters in 1602 to portray Fortitude as a woman, not because soldiers should emulate feminine ways, but because armed struggle in battle brought honor comparable to that which women attained by maintaining their chastity in face of temptation. It seems that it was the very belief in the weakness of most females which made the virtuous woman the best possible symbol of merit. Miss Warner rightly remarks that in Joan’s case her way of life and her dress conformed so exactly to the prototype that her own claim to virtue was amply corroborated.
In the early seventeenth century Joan’s heroic stature was reinforced for more mundane reasons by the social ambitions of those seeking to claim descent from her brothers, Pierre and Jean. This disreputable pair had, after their sister’s death, attempted to pass off another young woman as the true Joan, claiming that she had been rescued from the fire in a last-minute substitution. They had been granted a coat of arms and assumed the noble title of “du Lys.” It seems to have been the desire to lay claim to their titles of nobility which in 1612 led Jean Hordal to publish a Latin history of the noble heroine Joan and in the following year induced another putative relative, Charles du Lis, to publish the impressive collection of testimonies to Joan’s memory which he had secured from a gallery of literary celebrities, Grotius and Scaliger among them.
By this time Joan was firmly established as a national symbol, proving strong enough to survive the irreverent onslaught of Voltaire, whose mock-heroic poem, La Pucelle D’Orleans (1755), had the effrontery to give the subject comic treatment, a blasphemy for which many Frenchmen would never forgive him. In the nineteenth century the image of Joan had three essential aspects. First, she was the child of nature, the touching symbol of primal innocence. (How sad it is, remarks Marina Warner, that we post-Romantics should so readily assume that learning and experience can only corrupt.) Although in fact the daughter of a fairly substantial tenant farmer, Joan was now seen as the quintessential peasant girl. Democrats claimed her as evidence of the fundamental goodness of the common people. Romantics, like Robert Southey, hailed her as one whose
…soul was nurst, amid the holiest scenes
Of unpolluted nature.
Sentimentalists saw her as the heroine of domesticity and unspoiled girlhood. Joan had in fact been little younger than some of the other military leaders of her time, but the Victorians and Edwardians were particularly captivated by the thought of her youthfulness, pouring out biographies with titles like “The Warrior Maid,” “The Girl Soldier,” “The Lass from Lorraine,” or “The Story of a Brave Girl.”
Mark Twain identified her with his own daughter Suzy, who died of cerebral meningitis at the age of twenty-four; for him Joan was like a girl on a pony: “that dear little figure, with breast bent to the flying horse’s neck, charging at the head of the armies of France, her hair streaming back….” Pious French authors enlarged upon Joan’s home life at Domrémy, picturing her learning her prayers at her mother’s knee and helping with the domestic chores. As recently as 1961 a statue to Joan’s mother was unveiled at Domrémy, dedicated “à la gloire des mamans” and bearing the inscription, “Derrière les saints cherchez leur mère.”
Secondly, Joan became, more than ever, the symbol of French national resistance to the enemy. Her cult was encouraged by Napoleon and her house at Domrémy, a tourist attraction since the sixteenth century, was formally opened in 1820. During the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War the fighting on France’s eastern frontier gave additional resonance to the career of the girl from Lorraine. In 1929 Marshal Foch was one of the nine members of the French Academy who published an “Act of Homage” to Joan of Arc; and de Gaulle took as his emblem the cross of Lorraine.
Thirdly, she stood for religion and the Catholic Church. Since at least the seventeenth century, there had been claims for her sanctity, but the girl who had been deemed a heretic in her lifetime was not easily converted into a Catholic saint. Humanists and skeptics like Lamartine, Michelet, and Anatole France saw her as a heroine, not a saint; and they were reluctant to relinquish her to the exclusive custody of Catholics and Monarchists. For the Catholic socialist poet Charles Péguy, Joan represented the freedom of the individual and her trial provided an obvious parallel to the anti-Semitic persecution of Dreyfus. Yet the anti-Dreyfusards and the authoritarian Action Française claimed Joan as the symbol of military strength and national order. It was the conservative bishop of Orleans, Dupanloup, an enemy of secular education, who in 1869 petitioned for Joan’s canonization; and by 1878 opinion had sufficiently polarized for it to be necessary to ban the rival demonstrations planned for May 30 to celebrate the 460th anniversary of Joan’s death and the centenary of that of Voltaire, who had, by an ironic coincidence, died on the same day.
Nowhere are the conflicting images of Joan better represented than in the two opposed groups of statuary at Domrémy itself. One was begun in 1890 at the behest of Jules Ferry, positivist and socialist; it shows a queenly Joan, the representative of the nation, lifting to the sky an avenging sword. The other is of more pious inspiration; it portrays God’s humble instrument, a peasant girl kneeling before three Catholic saints. Joan’s beatification (1909) and canonization (1920) were papal responses to French Catholics who wanted a firm stand taken against the spread of unbelief. But these measures were also acceptable as symbols of national unity, transcending partisan divisions. In 1979 the celebration of the 550th anniversary of the raising of the siege of Orleans was attended not just by church dignitaries, but also by President Giscard d’Estaing, the embodiment of the French state. Meanwhile, as Frances Gies reminds us, Catherine and Margaret, the source of Joan’s voices, have both been taken out of the Church calendar because of doubts whether they ever existed.
This story of Joan’s posthumous reputation is not a new one. But Marina Warner tells it well; and she interlards it with many wise saws and modern instances (even the Bionic Woman gets into her footnotes). She does not miss the infantilism implicit in the popular image of the Maid of Lorraine; and she underlines the sadomasochistic side of the Christian demand that its saints be sacrificed as martyrs, quoting De Quincey, who declared that a woman on the scaffold was “the grandest sight” in all the world, eclipsing Luxor, St. Peter’s on Easter Sunday, and the Himalayas.
Marina Warner concludes with some reflections on how art persists in reshaping life to fit its own preoccupations. She reminds us that Joan’s career was too ragged and uneven to be fitted into any single pattern. The girl did not stick relentlessly to her convictions. She made what may have been intended as a suicidal attempt at escape; she abjured for a time; and she wept bitterly at the end. But because it is necessary that heroes should be people of undeflected purpose, these inconsistencies are normally glossed over. Our categories for thinking about heroes, and also for thinking about women, are too limited and too rigid to comprehend the actuality of experience. Or, to put it more simply, history and mythology are two different things.
June 25, 1981
M.G.A. Vale, Charles VII (University of California Press, 1974), provides an illuminating discussion. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
William A. Christian, Jr., Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (Princeton, 1981). ↩