How La Pucelle became Jeanne d'Arc

In the mid-1420s, after the death of Henry V of England (the king of Agincourt renown), France was a divided country. North of the Loire, a coalition of English and Burgundian armies defended the claim of Henry's son, the infant Henry VI (who would inherit his maternal grandfather's unsoundness of mind) to the crown of France. The rest of France recognized Henry's uncle, Charles VII - forever known to romantic history as the Dauphin. Every French crown prince is known by that title, but in Charles's case the name stuck with an ironic persistence. Uncrowned, he remained, in many eyes, a crown prince even after the death of his father.

Beginning a royal trend that would last for over a century, Charles did not have a fixed capital but ruled from castles and palaces along the Loire. In January 1429, a peasant girl from Lorraine appeared at the castle of Chinon, where Charles was holding court. She was dressed as a man and could ride a horse with what must have been considerable natural ability. According to the stories that have come down to us, Joan - La Pucelle as she called herself, using a term that signified her virginity - walked into a chamber full of courtiers, among whom the king had taken some pains not to stand out, and recognized him right away. Then she told him something that she couldn't, without some sort of extraordinary assistance, have known. We don't know what the secret was, but it induced Charles to take a closer look at her, and eventually he was persuaded that she had indeed been sent by celestial voices to rouse him and his armies against the English, then besieging Orleans. Although she was not given any military command, and never led any cavalry charges, Joan was allowed join the French forces in armor. In the event, she rallied her colleagues to an upset victory against the English and was instantly celebrated throughout one half of France and vilified in the other. By the end of July, Joan had inspired Charles to fight his way to Rheims, in the Northeast of France and well behind Anglo-Burgundian lines. There, in a very cut-down version of the ancient coronation ritual, Charles got his crown and ceased altogether to be the Dauphin.

It is at this point that the fairy-tale story of Joan of Arc - more about that name in a minute - loses its sparkle and darkens toward disaster. Charles, a very prudent and cunning king, determined that his visit to Rheims was not a conquest of the region, but rather a sortie with a very specific mission. Mission accomplished, he headed back to his own turf. Joan did not go with him. Her mission had not been accomplished. She tried to rally troops to continue the fight against the alien invaders, and, notwithstanding the truce that Charles and his opponents promulgated in August - a truce that was to last until Christmas - Joan led an abortive attack on Paris in September. After six months of further futility, she was captured by the Count of Ligny, an important Burgundian, and handed over to the English, who paid an enormous ransom for her. A year later, in May, 1431, she was burned at the stake in Rouen, having been condemned by an Inquisitorial court of heresy. Her remains were thrown into the Seine.

That is a nutshell account of what we know about the daughter of Jacques Darc and Isabelle Romée. We have most of the transcript of her trial at Rouen, but no written record of a similar examination at Poitiers shortly after her appearance at Chinon. Everything else is posthumous, and the posthumous record is tendentious, untrustworthy. Joan's condemnation was nullified in 1456, by another group of divines who found the Rouen proceeding schismatic. By now, of course, the English had abandoned France, and were sinking into the thirty-year bloodletting that would extirpate most of England's prominent noble families and which is now known as the War of the Roses. Charles might still avoid Paris, but he was the unchallenged king of France (at least within France), and it behooved him to clear his champion of guilt. The only thing that it's important to understand about the rehabilitation proceeding is that Joan herself could not participate and speak for herself, as she had at Rouen. Indeed, from her death down to her sanctification by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920 - ironically, she is the only saint to have been burned at the stake by ecclesiastical authority - and beyond, Joan has hovered over the imagination of the West in a vapor of rumor and exaggeration that in some cases filled in for missing facts, while in others obliterating established ones. In Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981; California, 2000), Marina Warner sets herself the task of untangling the different stories that have been told about Joan. While persons of a Romantic disposition might find Ms Warner's book a trifle deflating, Joan of Arc is a fascinating prism through which the legend is broken down into clear and distinct layers.

Marina Warner is a student of women in history. She is a capable historian (although there are several errors of dynastic identification that would probably inspire a traditional historian to commit seppuku), but Joan of Arc is not a history. Divided into two parts, it begins by breaking down Joan's various roles - prophet, harlot, heretic, and knight - as they were perceived during her life time. The second part considers Joan's posthumous roles, as Amazon, personification of virtue, child of nature, saint and patriot. But what makes this book truly remarkable is Ms Warner's determination not to try to establish a definitive version of Joan, not, in the common phrase, to get to the bottom of things. There is no bottom. Writing of Joan's first meeting with Charles, Ms Warner warns us that

We will never know what happened at Chinon. It is one of the abiding mysteries of history, not because the external circumstances could not be more fully described by some newly unearthed source, not because further ingenious solutions might be proposed. it is the irrational element in it that will always defy analysis. The encounter belongs on that level of human psychology were circumstances take on the impress of beliefs. It belongs not in the empirical world of phenomena, but in that of unknowable noumena. Not supernatural, but natural, because in nature, but a nature that has as et no Linnaeus or Darwin to render it intelligible.

In other words, when people see what they expect to see, we who have other expectations will never be able to make sense of their accounts. Like Charles's courtiers, we still expect the sun to rise in east every morning, but unlike them, we do not expect the materialization of angels, or crowns that float through the air, or even in that still-current family romance, the sudden recognition of royal foundlings (Joan as a Valois, in other words). Whether we believe these things to be possible, we don't expect them, and so, for the most part, it would take a great deal of fanfare to make us see them. The courtiers were, from our point of view, more suggestible than educated people have since become. The manifestation of whatever it was at Chinon is in this regard a metonym for Joan's role in the reunification of the nascent state of France. Joan herself appears in her transcript to be a plain-speaking girl, but a lot of her plain speech is very mystifying. More sophisticated observers, and later writers, were of course even more capable of mystification. All that Marina Warner has tried to do is to eliminate all superfluous mystification, and the result is a resonating Joan, as complex as all of her legends put together.

My favorite mystery about Joan is why she wore men's clothing. She didn't just wear armor on horseback, or in battle. She wore men's clothing in prison, refusing women's robes. She did not, it seems, intend to deceive anyone, to 'pass' as a man, but she made quite a fuss about cutting her hair short and not wearing skirts. Not surprisingly, this upset everybody, even her supporters once the king was crowned. Why did she do it? Intriguingly, it was not an issue after her death; rather, it was scrupulously ignored. When paintings or sculptures represented Joan in battle, she wore armor, but otherwise she was put into the dresses that, in life, she spurned. Nineteenth-century artists hit on the solution of depicting her at the very onset of her career, when, still a country maid, she began to hear her voices, but before she donned armor. A sculpture by François Rude (who worked, incidentaly, on the Arc de Triomphe) has it both ways, and shows Joan cupping her right hand to her ear while her left caresses a helmet. She never explained herself to anyone's satisfaction at Rouen, and Ms Warner would probably be the first to concede that her own speculations, interesting as they are, remain just that, and not the answer to my question. It is possible that Joan herself did not really have an answer.

Interestingly parallel is the discussion of Amazons in the second half of the book. Joan herself - la Pucelle, the Maid - was not any kind of Amazon, notwithstanding her military valor; indeed, one of Marina Warner's more subtle points is that there was a novelty about Joan that no one seemed to be able to pin down except by pigeonholing her with creatures from classical mythology. In her own time, she was more likely to be compared to heroic women in the Hebrew Bible - Deborah, Jael, and Judith. But the classicizing age of Louis XIV required a spiffier outfit for the national liberator.Joan had indeed been a knight of sorts, and she and her family had been ennobled at the end of 1429, but there is little to show for Joan's action as a soldier. She claimed never to have killed anyone, for example, a tidbit that certainly surprised me. This is not the place to describe how the 'c' in 'Darc' came to be pronounced, but once it did, the suggestion of a huntress's bow, or arc, together with the self-promoting claims of those who claimed to be her collateral descendants, precipitated the apostrophe that in one stroke made Joan an aristocrat and an Amazon, from the seventeenth century, when the literature about her began to mushroom, until the Napoleonic era, when she was refashioned in a more Romantic image. (It's important to note that no image of Joan herself survives from her lifetime. We don't even know if she was pretty or plain.) For roughly two centuries, the learned idea of Joan, and the one utilized by artists, had almost nothing to do with Joan herself, little as we do know about her.

Joan is a liminal figure, half medieval, half modern. The modern part is by no means progressive; ecclesiastical and secular figures alike have exploited her fame on behalf of conservative, not to say reactionary, causes. The modern part is Joan's testimony at Rouen. We have no reason to doubt that she said the things attributed to her there (which is not to say that we have every reason to believe that she did); Joan's language is innocent of courtly or learned turns of phrase, and often she seems inarticulate in the face of the overwhelming. The proceedings of the hostile interrogation, which went to great lengths to trap Joan into self-incrimination, constitute a record in the modern sense of the word. We may not know quite what everything means, but we know that it was set down in what we would call a recording spirit. History in Joan's day was only partly interested in records, and it was never preoccupied by them. Hearsay, exaggeration, and flattery were all acceptable departures; the chronicler's objective was to point morals, not to document ambiguities. Joan lived very much in that world of suggestion and glory, but the transcript of her trial fixes a part of her at least in our kind of time.

Marina Warner has interpreted very liberally her brief for putting Joan in various contexts, and there are several discussions that go on for pages without mentioning Joan herself. A second reading always highlights the relevance of the material and, as it were, degreases the context, but second readings are a luxury that no writer ought to depend on. It must be acknowledged that Joan of Arc exemplifies a discipline of relatively recent vintage, and perhaps it is one's expectations concerning materiality that will have to be overhauled; I will be gratified, if astonished, should the overhaul require more patience of the reader, not less. At the same time, I wish that Ms Warner had discussed something that she must know quite well at first-hand: the influence of Joan upon school girls. It is not so simple as I thought. A young lady told me just the other day - I had happened to mention this book - that when she was choosing a confirmation saint, she dismissed Joan out of hand, because she already knew about the 'fascist' co-optation of Joan's image in the early twentieth century. I was so struck by this that I forget who it was that the young lady did select. (May 2004)

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