Jeanne d’Arc’s 600th Anniversary

Jeanne d’Arc’s 600th Anniversary

Jeanne d’Arc is back in the news. France is celebrating the 600th anniversary of the nation’s favorite folk heroine, beloved patron saint and—along with her great admirer Napoleon—perhaps the country’s most internationally famous historical character.

A series of commemorative events will honor the feisty young peasant girl who was guided by celestial voices to rouse her disheartened countrymen to “bouter”—an archaic term for “boot”—the invading English out of France. Her astonishing intervention changed the odds in the Hundred Years’ War, the ongoing territorial conflict between the ruling dynasties of France and England.

In May 1429, 17-year-old Jeanne led French troops into battle to lift the English siege at Orléans—her most significant feat and the source of her nickname, La Pucelle d’Orléans, the Maid of Orléans. She empowered the Dauphin, the rightful heir to the French throne, Charles VII, to claim his crown, opening the way for a complete French victory, finally gained in 1453.

Jeanne saved France, but sealed her own tragic fate. Captured at Compiègne in 1430 by England’s Burgundian allies, she was sold to the English and imprisoned in English-occupied Rouen, where she was charged with heresy. Tried by an ecclesiastical court headed by the English-allied Bishop of Beauvais, she was condemned and burned at the stake in Rouen’s old marketplace on May 30, 1431. Only 25 years later, the Church tried to make amends, annulling her first trial with a second one in 1456, and eventually, in 1920, declaring her a saint.

Imagined images

Jeanne has endured for 600 years as an icon of French identity, albeit a multifaceted, shape-shifting one. Mystic, virgin, rebel, warrior, royalist, patriot, martyr, early feminist…she has been a versatile heroine, not only for the French but for the whole globalized world.

Voltaire, Schiller, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, composers Verdi and Tchaikovsky and, more recently, Japanese manga artist Yoshikazu Yasuhiko are just a few of the artists and writers she inspired. Films abound, from a three-minute short by Georges Méliès (1900) and the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer (1928) to versions of her story by Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Luc Besson. After Sarah Bernhardt on stage, Jeanne has been played on screen by Ingrid Bergman (twice), Jean Seberg and Sandrine Bonnaire.

New French publications this year include the scholarly, 1,000-page Jeanne d’Arc, Histoire et Dictionnaire (Editions Robert Laffont) and Jeanne d’Arc, Jeune Fille de France Brûlée Vive (XO Editions), a fictionalized biography by best-selling author Max Gallo. And this month the French post office is issuing a stamp portraying Jeanne the warrior, with armor, sword and banner— another likeness added to hundreds.

Never mind that we have only a vague idea of how Jeanne actually looked, as no contemporary portrait has survived. Her name is often linked with a certain hairstyle, a neat pageboy bob; the new stamp portrays her with wavy hair gathered at the nape, an image based on a 15th-century manuscript illumination (which might be a 19th-century forgery). More likely she sported a soldier’s bowl cut, back and sides shorn to leave only a circular mop above the ears.

More than myths

Statues, paintings, medals and other effigies multiplied in the 16th century, and proliferated with particular frenzy around her canonization in the early 20th. Battleships have been named after her, and modern advertising has hijacked her image to tout mineral water, beer, chocolate, matches, spot remover, coffee and Camembert.

She’s also been co-opted by political parties right, left and center, notably the far-right National Front, whose annual Parisian parade on May 1 culminates at her gilded equestrian statue on the Place des Pyramides. Last January 6, Jeanne’s estimated birthday, President Nicolas Sarkozy helped kick off 2012 festivities by visiting her birthplace in the village of Domremy-la-Pucelle, in Lorraine, and nearby Vaucouleurs, site of the fortress from which she set out on her crusade. Laurent Fabius, Socialist deputy for the Seine-Maritime département, recently announced plans for a new Jeanne d’Arc museum in Rouen.

Nothing new there, says historian Olivier Bouzy, one of the authors of Jeanne d’Arc, Histoire et Dictionnaire, and research director at the Centre Jeanne d’Arc in Orléans, which houses some 37,000 documents pertaining to her. “The right and the left keep tossing Jeanne back and forth. Jeanne is polymorphous.” She was a champion of the Catholic monarchy, and incarnates the spirit of the Republic; Communists love her for her humble origins. She symbolized the Resistance during World War II, and the collaborationist Vichy government claimed her too.

Beyond the myths, what do we know about the real Jeanne? Quite a bit, says Bouzy. Most of our information comes from the transcripts of her two trials, but other contemporary sources exist, including diplomatic dispatches reporting her exploits and a handful of letters dictated by the illiterate Jeanne, several signed in an unsteady hand “Jehanne”.

Angels and armor

She was born in 1412, one of five children of Jacques d’Arc and his wife Isabelle, at a time when Domremy belonged to a fragment of the kingdom of France surrounded by hostile Anglo-Burgundian territory. Their simple house, open to the public, still stands next to the church where she was baptized. (In a modern building behind it, the Centre d’Interprétation “Visages de Jehanne” traces her life and times.)

One surprise: Jeanne was never a shepherdess, Bouzy insists, despite the sentimental iconography with her woolly flock and hovering angels. Only the lowest peasant class herded livestock at the time. Jeanne, born into a family of farmers, would have spent her childhood indoors, learning domestic skills. The sheep were simply medieval poetic license.

The visions and voices—Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, Saint Michael the Archangel—began when she was about 13 years old, she said. But receiving instructions from heavenly beings would not have been considered that strange in her medieval world—when she met the future Charles VII in Chinon, he already had at least three female visionaries in his employ. Jeanne outshone her rivals because she had not only a message but also a military plan.

Once she convinced the Dauphin of her mission, a suit of armor was made for her in Tours. After winning Orléans in early May 1429, she and her troops fought their way along the Loire Valley, then northeast to Troyes and Reims; on July 17, 1429, Charles VII was crowned in Reims cathedral, with Jeanne standing by. Afterward, she continued to battle the Burgundians until her capture the following May.

For Bouzy, the real Jeanne shines through in her trial testimony: a brave, pious, quickwitted and stubborn young woman with a mission, convinced God is with her. She was not condemned for witchcraft, as is often said. She so deftly dodged trick questions that the judges struggled to find any charges that would stick, even heresy. Asked “Are you in the grace of God?”—something the church decreed no one could know—she replied: “If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me.”

Perfidious Albion

What the prosecution finally nailed her on was wearing men’s clothes, which she adopted for practicality and also protection, to reduce the risk of rape. “But the Middle Ages did not approve of cross-dressing,” notes Bouzy. “They got her on details. There was only one possible outcome—the English had to do away with her. She traumatized them.”

The key to Jeanne’s perennial appeal in her homeland, according to Bouzy: she failed. “She was captured in the first year of her campaign. She died young, at the height of her glory. The French love heroes who fail.” Catherine Guyot, professor of medieval history in Nancy, sees it differently: “Jeanne is a modern character. She stands for courage, liberty, resistance and not giving in to fate.” Author Max Gallo, in his new book, quotes André Malraux: “She knew that the burial place of heroes is in the hearts of the living.”

Jeanne d’Arc is still a beacon of hope in the charmingly bucolic but economically depressed region where she grew up. Today, instead of repelling invaders, she is expected to attract them as tourists. Foreigners—the most recent influx is Chinese—account for one-third of the 25,000 annual paying visitors at Domremy’s museum (many more visit the house alone, which is free). “We hope the anniversary will build up lasting momentum,” says Simon Leclerc, mayor of neighboring Neufchâteau, another “Ville Johannique” linked to Jeanne.

The Lorraine départements of Jeanne’s youth, Vosges and Meuse, are presenting an array of anniversary events, including an exhibition on growing up in the Middle Ages in Domremy (May to December), medieval pageants, contemporary theater, music and video presentations, and ceremonies in Domremy’s 19th-century basilica on May 13, Jeanne’s official feast day, the second Sunday in May.

Reopening on April 29 after a year’s renovation, the Jeanne d’Arc House in Orléans is hosting a two-week festival, including concerts, exhibitions, sound and light shows and a major military parade on May 13. Other tributes are scheduled in Reims and Rouen.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of France Today

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