#156: JOAN. In 1910, Charles Peguy published a prose work, Le Mystere de la Charite de Jeanne d’Arc—The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. He was using the word “mystere” first in its medieval sense: a mystery play was a dramatic piece on a religious topic, usually filled with angels and miracles. But to approach the life of Joan of Arc is to witness one of the genuine mysteries of recorded history. Her work was of enormous (and sometimes forgotten) political importance: the deliverance of Orleans by the army led by this young woman was the beginning of the turning of the tables on the English ruling presence in France. She was, as Mark Twain was mad to remind us, the first person known of either sex to have command of a nation’s military at the age of seventeen. The fascination of her story has left her perhaps the most discussed and studied woman in history: the medieval historian Regine Pernoud, after a long life of avowed disinterest in Joan, ran across the records of her retrial one day, then had to be pulled out of the library at closing time, and spent a large portion of the rest of her writing career on the subject. There have been books on Joan as a military leader (a very good one by Kelly Devreen) and much discussion of her experience as a prisoner of war. She reduced two of literature’s great ironists, Mark Twain and Bernard Shaw, to fascination and admiration. A charming book, Joan of Arc: Her Image in France and America, by Norma M. Heimann and Laura Coyle (Corcoran Gallery) is an iconographical study; one image oddly omitted from the book is that of Falconetti, whose portrayal of Joan in Carl Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc has been called one of the greatest of all performances in film. Her statue in Paris is still a point of pilgrimage, often by right-wingers who have co-opted her as a poster-girl for rabid nationalism. A well-tramped field in Rouen commemorates the spot where, on the thirtieth of May 1431, Joan was burned at the stake, having been captured and condemned in ecclesiastic court as a witch and a heretic.
But what happened? What was Joan’s experience? By her own account, she was spoken to by the voices of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret and Saint Michael. So complete was her conviction of this experience that she was able to command an army in the attempt to expel the English forces then occupying France—this at a time when people were blasphemed merely by the idea of a woman putting on men’s clothing. But put Joan into a modern situation and you immediately expose her to the judgement of contemporary thought, influenced, whether we will or no, by secularism and psychology. By these standards, Joan would most likely be a madwoman, as would many of the prominent figures of our religious past. I don’t mean to hold a brief for either side of the question: I mean only to say that they are incompatible, and that Joan is the most fascinating and intense representation of that incompatibility I know of. And her position is unique, in that we have a full and literal record of her words, thanks to the transcripts of her trial. (How much less we would know Joan if she had been killed on the battlefield, rather than captured and tried!) The Joan of legend has all the clouds of myth around her, but the Joan of the transcripts is matter of fact, brisk and indeed common-sensible in her responses, frustrated by the obtuseness of her inquisitors, humble (she boasts exactly once of her skill in spinning) and always, always is in faith to her experience of the voices. This girl who, as she says, could not tell A from B, flattens the finest minds of the Sorbonne with her directness and honesty. The world being what it is, it got her burned at the stake.
Reading this record, we are at the end no closer to understanding than when we began. It is one of the most fascinating documents in history—a voice speaking plainly from the far side of the moon. But maybe we are not merely baffled. As Twain wrote, “No vestige or suggestion of self-seeking can be found in any word or deed of hers,” and if both of the old skeptics, Twain and Shaw, were plainly wrung by her troubles, so may we be as well. One of the most moving moments in any of Shaw’s plays is when an old man speaks of being brought to faith by witnessing Joan’s burning, and, reading the record of Joan’s trial, we may also feel the pang of the last words Shaw gives to her: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”
There’s now a very welcome reprint available of Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, a selection of the words from the transcripts, arranged and translated by Willard R. Trask, Books and Co., Turtle Point Press, 1996, with a canny and helpful afterword by Sir Edward S. Creasy. The texts by Peguy (in French) and Twain and Shaw are online as well as in reprint. Twain in his dotage said that he thought his book on Joan his best, as opposed to “those bad boys,” Huck and Tom—to my taste it is barely readable. Shaw’s play Saint Joan, on the other hand (it was published in 1920, the year of Joan’s canonization) is wonderful; if you read it don’t skip Shaw’s preface, where he rides tear-ass through the Joan of legend and literature and gets you to a place you didn’t expect. Of Pernoud’s books, I can recommend The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for Her Vindication (Ignatius Press), the first, I believe, of her works on Joan. Dreyer’s film is available on disc from Criterion. In the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris there are reputedly some twenty-thousand books on Joan—I have of late been peeking through some of the more recent titles in French and English and have found only much watery regurgitation. I shall not name names.