Been a long time since I thought about Joan of Arc.
But now I think I might go back to her, in an upcoming role-playing game (historical) with my good friends. And maybe I will also try to sell my old live-talk about her once again.
I’m fascinated by Joan, but not so much because of her ‘divine inspiration’ but rather because of the way she embodied, I think, being both human and ‘inspired’.
Much has been made in hundreds – if not thousands – of books, films, plays, songs, etc. about the heroic and fantastic victories of Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led the armies of France to renewed victories during the Hundred Years War in 1429.
Joan said she heard ‘voices’ from God (coming to her in the form of angels who were like the three saints, Michael, Margaret and Catherine).
These voices told her that she was chosen to show the French that God still supported them and would help them win the war, or at leas avoid being overwhelmed by the English (who at this time occupied roughly one third of present day France).
This feat required also that the dauphin – crown prince – Charles VII was taken to the ancient city of Reims and crowned to be France’s rightful king, an event which was made possible by Joan’s victories at Orleans, Meung-sur-Loire, Jargeau, Patay and elsewhere. So far so good.
If you are reading this post you probably have more than a passing interest in Joan and know the outlines of her career, if not more. If you need a refresher, Wikipedia does a respectable job at giving the highlights … and, of course, the ‘dark lights’, too.
I’ve been interested in Joan since 1992, when I wrote a high school assignment on her. Later that year I learned to my delight that our class was going to visit a French high school in Rouen – the city where Joan was kept throughout her trial in 1431, when the English had captured her.
She was, sadly but not surprisingly, tried for heresy and burnt at the stake on 30 May that year. Nowadays I sometimes give live-talks to various audiences about Joan’s life.
In later years, I’ve become more and more interested in the not-so-glorious episodes of Joan’s brief life, the times when she faltered, failed or suffered.
I think the reason for this is probably that I myself have grown older, and whereas my 17-year old self naturally identified with Joan and saw her as a kind of perfect Medieval rock star to be idolized, my soon-to-be 43 year old self knows very well that life is full of ‘the other stuff’ as well.
All rock stars have lonely nights when they go drunk, bungle around with all kinds of people they really shouldn’t – or go through great pains to write The Greatest Song of Their Career … only to see it flop at the charts a few months later.
So it was for Joan. It doesn’t diminish her accomplishments or her very special rapport with … something beyond this world (as I believe). It just makes her more … human. And ultimately likable, to me.
As I grew older, I grew more and more weary of the idolizing portraits of Joan in both older and newer books, in movies and on websites. I felt that she became more distant and unreal from me, not more heroic.
I think the ‘worst’ of these portraits of error-less Joan is probably Mark Twain’s otherwise very sympathetic book about her, but also many modern books and websites. It is no small wonder.
Joan arouses strong feelings in us – especially feelings of worship, because she was seemingly so fantastic.
But there is also the opposite reaction, like when a director as Luc Besson does a movie about Joan as a vengeful religious fanatic – which probably says more about Besson’s world view than it says about Joan’s. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with the historical record.
For all the revulsion such a movie causes me, it has one quality, though: It calls attention to the ‘dark sides’ of Joan and of her life.
Weren’t there any? Of course there were.
As with all human beings. And Joan was above all a human being. A human being who faltered, failed and suffered.
These episodes are described with varying degrees of attention in the documents about her, and we should of course be careful with the source material, since much of it is from the trial that was meant to send her to her death, and much of the rest of it was testimony from her friends years after her death. But that’s how it is with all such sources about a person’s life, so no real surprises there.
I’m just mentioning it, so you don’t think I’m taking the source material at face value as the exact reports of Joan’s words or deeds. I am not. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll take it as it is.
There are especially 5 ‘dark light’ episodes of Joan’s life that interest me …
1) The failed sieges of Paris and elsewhere
2) Joan’s disillusion with her ‘chosen king’, Charles VII, after he begins to make deals with the enemy camp
3) Joan’s attitude to the killing in war and executions of prisoners
4) Joan’s suicide attempt (?) to escape imprisonment from the tower of Beaurevoir
5) Her time alone in prison in Rouen, between the trial sessions, which would eventually lead to her death
Joan’s capture, the trial sessions themselves, and her execution are arguably also ‘dark episodes’ in as much as they are about Joan suffering more and more until she is finally subjected to the supreme suffering, of being burnt alive. (Even writing that makes me shudder … )
However, Joan’s capture and the famous trial sessions in Rouen, as well as the execution are all part of her legend.
That legend includes her abjuration of 24 May 1431, under threat of immediate execution, of being able to communicate directly with God and then her subsequent recantation, saying for the record that yes, she was indeed in direct contact with God and she retracts her previous statements to the contrary as these were made under duress.
The aforementioned are all pivotal components of her positive legend. This legend is not diminished but strengthened by Joan’s suffering of having to undergo capture and defend herself at a humiliating and, for all intents and purposes, rigged trial.
Her legend is, for all intents and purposes, cemented by her abjuration of 24 May 1431 when she first failed – for a few days – to uphold her faith, before then reaffirming it and dying very dramatically for Just that Faith.
In contrast to that drama and legend, the five episodes listed above, which I’m interested in, distinguish themselves for being ‘grey’, at best. There is no ‘black’ or ‘white outcome’. And specifically there is no connection between the ‘black’ or ‘white outcomes’, which makes them mutually reinforce each other in the storytelling.
For example, a ‘black outcome’ was obviously Joan’s decision to publicly abjure her her ‘Voices from God’ on 24 May 1431, even if made under duress. She was after all a ‘holy person’, so her judges probably gambled that if she broke, even under threat of immediate execution, it would look bad still. She would look as if she wasn’t strong enough, like the Christian martyrs of old.
A ‘white outcome’, intimately tied to the ‘black’, was then that Joan recanted this abjuration several days later, probably knowing that she faced death again for this retraction of her previous admissions.
The main thing is that these two events are tied together. They are complementary, and the overall outcome of the story – at least as regards what we remember about Joan – is that she died heroically.
I would argue that her momentary faltering in her faith actually made her comeback more heroic, and therefore more memorable, for generations to come!
Whereas if Joan had shown herself to be steadfast and unafraid through the whole ordeal, until and during the time when the stake was lit, she would have come off as a remote and distant person, not easy to identify with or … even care about?
I would think so.
So now I am interested in her ‘dark hours’ … when she failed or suffered in ways, which cannot be directly tied to anything heroic.
Sure, her suffering in prison can, in general, be tied loosely to her heroic (albeit gruesome) exit from this life as a martyr but … all days?
No. Not all days. Not all of them have resonance, at least in the way I think of the story of her entire life. And the way I think others think of her life.
Take … Wednesday 28 February 1431, for example.
This day Joan was not in court or anything. She was just languishing in prison, alone, probably having long realized that she would not get any help from her former allies, especially the king and …
– She was shackled.
– She was not allowed to hear Mass, which meant a lot to her because she was so religious.
– English soldiers guarded the cell and the back of her mind the fear of rape must still have lingered strongly.
– And then of course, she could try not to think too much of what would happen to her …
For awhile perhaps she believed she would be “delivered” as she put it to her judges one day. But in what way? At what time did she begin to suspect or think that ‘deliverance’ may have been a gruesome death at the stake? These thoughts must have raced all the time and more.
Joan must have prayed, much more than she usually did and then some. She said she still communicated with her ‘Voices’. In effect prayer and communication with these ‘voices from above’ probably blended into one.
But despite this advantage, in terms of a sense of spiritual relief, we cannot know how much it actually meant to her, except that she seemed to be in relatively good spirits for the first two months of the trial or so … and then her strength began to ebb severely.
She became ill from food poisoning and was threatened with torture (although it was not carried out). And obviously her hope for succor was gradually diminished, day by day.
Whatever crazy hopes she may have had – and who cannot understand her?! – that somebody – anybody – would come to the rescue. In short, much the same situation as all the other prisoners in the world, throughout history, and especially those awaiting a death sentence or another hard fate.
Now Joan was right there with all the rest … despite her extraordinary accomplishments, charisma and seeming ‘divine connection’, however you want to interpret that. Now she was, for all intents and purposes, just … Joan. A 19 year old girl, waiting to die an unjust and painful death.
I have been thinking a lot about what sustained Joan these dark days, not recorded in any of the numerous documents about her. What?
How can we use that knowledge, if we are in any way interested in her story, to sustain ourselves when we languish in prison – a real prison or another kind of prison, like the prison of an illness or a handicap?
Are there better examples? Probably, but I’m with Joan, because she always appealed to me – fearfully fantastic and wonderfully fragile.
I will say no more of this particular episode just now. I may write about the other episodes later – from my list of 5 – and ponder what sustained her, if anything, during these failures and downfalls.
What was it like to be her, so powerful and yet – in those instances – so weak?
I will not end this particular post with a conclusion for the one ‘dark night’ I chose to talk about (an example of numerous and very real black nights – in prison). I will not conclude that ‘Joan did this’ or ‘Joan did that’ … or ‘maybe this’ … or ‘maybe that’.
Maybe an angel came to her, in some reality we can’t yet understand, most of us. Or it just cmae in her fevered imagination. In both cases it held her head high …
Maybe she merely mobilized an extraordinary willpower.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters right here is that this question is important to think about. It bridges the gap between extraordinary persons who suffer – Joan, Jesus, Kennedy, Martin Luther King – whomever! – and … us.
It makes them human, somebody we can be like.
And we can have part of their strength – IF we dare to embrace our own weakness, fear, failure and all of it and see that that was theirs, too.
There is no contradiction between being extraordinary and being no one. Joan was both. No contradiction between being strong and weak, either. Joan was both.
But if we put her on a pedestal and say that she was purely strong – purely an angel – purely pure …
… that she was never afraid and did not know what to do …
… that she never asked questions for which there were no answers …
… that she was never ashamed or angry without reason …
… then we put her in the wrong place.
Her and everyone else like her.
I’ve often wondered what it is in human nature that makes us want to make somebody a ‘saint’? – like Joan eventually became, officially, 500 years after her death. What is it?
I think it is our own fear that we cannot be both perfect and imperfect. That if we screw up, in whatever degree, it can never really be wiped away. So we often succumb to the insane illusion that our mistakes don’t exist and seek perfection. Especially some kind of perfection which is strong enough to wipe away all mistakes … at least from our own attention.
I realize I am painting broad strokes here, but that is how I have often felt. That is how I see people acting in real life, so often – whether it is in their quest for the perfect job, or perfect relationship or perfect life.
I see it, in a way, with all the people who ‘revere’ Joan … as a saint who not only could do no wrong but who could feel only, or mostly, uplifted by a heavenly mission.
Maybe not 24/7, but at least 23/7 then. Mark Twain’s book about her probably espouses this ‘view’ the most.
But as said:
I’m NOT going to go the other way and list all of Joan’s imperfections, as I see them – whether they were her own fault (such as her anger and occasional ‘judge-mentality’) …
Nor the imperfections in her life that were not her fault but which somehow detract from her saintly aura, like the failed siege of Paris which was very much Charles VII’s responsibility, as he ordered her to break off early …
Nor some of the other ‘dark lights’ from her life either, such as her participation, of sorts, in the brutality of war. (A very normal thing in those times – especially if you led an army.) Joan never killed anyone herself, but she directed fierce sieges that overall killed many who would not surrender, like at the battle of Jargeau …
I’m NOT going to analyze and think about in excessive detail what they mean – all those different ways to see a backside of the shining silvery coin that is Joan and her life … Not yet at any rate. Maybe in another post.
Instead I AM going to leave you with this image of Joan of Arc on a day everybody has forgotten about, because it was not mentioned in all the texts – alone, in prison, suffering, humiliated … praying, praying, praying.
Perhaps sometimes cursing her saints … ?
Or at least despairing: Why.Will. They. Not. Help. Her?!
Her … this fantastic girl who delivered a country and got a king crowned and is revered in so many books, plays and chapels all over the world.
… Who had a special connection with God, no matter what we think of her fate or of dark fates in general.
This is what she believed. And showed, almost all of the time, even in the face of death. And if you are a person of faith you understand very well the shining example Joan was in all things concerning faith.
But I will leave you with the image even so:
Joan of Arc cursing her fate in a dark prison cell, crying, praying or even bargaining – to avoid it all. To go back to normal.
To … somewhere that is not where she is.
I will leave you with that and ask you:
Is she still beautiful?
The answer will decide much for you and how you will live with – or eventually escape – your own prisons.
It has for me.