“The lives of saints are history, for the saints make history and, what is more, they make it the way God likes it best. History without the saints is all warfare, battles, countries enslaved or freed, actions of rules, change of power from one country to another. But from time to time God points toward the way he wants things done, and the pointer He uses is often a saint” (Wohl, 9).
Saints are people, though they may not always be peaceful. They are certainly passionately devoted to their cause. This is a story of such a saint, a great fighter for God, who was a girl with a divine mission to lead her country to victory. And she succeeded, but not without sacrifices. Before being burned at the stake at nineteen years old, this young girl accomplished more than any of us will accomplish during our lifetimes. She was pure, holy, glorious and virtuous. She was the best thing to ever happen to France. She truly was, and in a way still remains, a “mother of her nation.” She was Joan of Arc – the Maid of Lorraine, Jeanne D’Arc, Jeanne La Pucelle, the nurturer and the saint of France. Her story continues because people want to hear it again and again. Her legend will only end with the end of mankind. After all, we are still reading about her today, six centuries after she made history.
As a literary character, Joan of Arc has provoked an extraordinary range of representations. Sadly, none of the works have adequately captured her mythological force in French tradition. Thus, it is impossible to concentrate on one or two of the depictions of Joan. Whether they accurately reflect the historical records or not, each of the works portrays Joan in a different light. From a romanticized figure to a political and brave warrior to a not-so-courageous leader, Joan has survived great bias and slander. Each author subjectively presents Joan and the history surrounding her, enabling the reader or viewer to one pathway to the mastermind behind the work.
Although Joan of Arc was not canonized until 1920, her charisma has attracted the attention of authors since the fifteenth century. Individuals and historians from Orleans, Reims, and Rouen preserved Joan’s good name, heroism, and bravery. As early as 1429, just two weeks after Charles VII was crowned the King of France at Reims, a French poet, Christine de Pizan celebrated Joan's divine mission in her poem Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc:
Judith, and Deborah
ladies of great worth
whom God restored
people when they were hard-pressed,
others I have heard of
were valiant, none more so,
many more miracles
done by the Pucelle.
what honor to the feminine sex!
God so loved that he showed
way to this great people
which the kingdom, once lost,
recovered by a woman,
thing that men could not do.
Joan has accomplished even more than Esther, Judith, and Deborah, who were Biblical heroines, and although God performed miracles through these women, He has done more through Joan of Arc. Since Christine de Pizan's patriotism for France knew no limits, Joan's superiority over all previous heroes and heroines resided in the fact that she was called to a greater mission than they. Joan's saving of France exceeded delivering the Israelites from various oppressions or conquering Troy.
The French chronicles written shortly after Joan’s death expressed the same sentiments as Christine de Pizan. Chronique de la Pucelle, the Journal du Siege d’Orleans, and the chronicles of Perceval De Cagny, Guillaume Gruel, and Jean Charteir represent what might be called a positive viewpoint. They imply that Joan was sent by God to save Charles VII and France. The Burgundian chronicles, on the other hand, took a more skeptical view. Written after the signing of the Treaty of Aras in 1436, the chronicles would not go so far as to say that Joan was sent by God but they were tactful enough not to repeat the English sentiments either, namely that Joan was sent by Satan (Bloom, 35). The chronicles were skeptical as to the source of her mission, but they did acknowledge her importance in defeating the English. The fact the Burgundian chronicles were written after the signing of the Treaty of Aras is very significant to their portrayal of Joan. The Burgundians were Joan’s enemies, and they conspired with the English to burn Joan. The Treaty ended the Burgundian alliance with England, and the English were deprived of the ally on whom their French enterprise depended. If before Joan was the work of Satan, the English could no longer emphasize this concept because, with the termination of their alliance, France was quickly gaining control of its land and fiercely driving the English out during the final throes of the Hundred Years’ War. One of the English chronicles known as the Great Chronicle of London (written in 1430) refers to “a woman . . . called the Pucelle de Dieu, the false witch through whose power the Dauphin and all our adversaries trusted to have conquered all France, and never to have had the worst of it in a place she was in, for they held her amongst them for a prophetess and a worthy goddess” (Gies, 242). This chronicle was among the few which did not portray Joan as a witch, but rather as a worthy goddess.
In English literature, Shakespeare's play Henry VI preserves one insult to Joan's memory. George Bernard Shaw later remarked that English patriotism would never stand a sympathetic representation of a French conqueror of English troops, and for this reason Shakespeare refrained from making Joan a beautiful and romantic figure. Instead, he portrays her as a sorceress and an immoral woman who invokes demons, insisting that she is “descended of a gentler blood and issued from the progeny of kings” (Warner, 298). In Act 1, scene 2, Joan introduces herself to the Dauphin Charles in the following matter:
I am by birth a shepherd's daughter,
My wit untrain'd in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased
To shine on my contemptible estate:
God's mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will'd me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.
In that moment Charles seems to genuinely value Joan, as she seems to possess at least some of the powers she claims to have been given: she is able to recognize Charles without ever having met him before, and she later is able to frighten and defeat Talbot and his army. Nonetheless, the English refer to her as a witch, suggesting a reluctance to accept a woman wearing the clothes of a man, in a position of power.
The Dauphin seems astonished by Joan, and after calling her an Amazon, he accepts her help. Joan reassures him that she is only interested in saving France, not in love, and Joan values her commitment to God and to her country:
must not yield to any rites of love,
my profession's sacred from above:
When I have chased all thy foes from hence,
Then will I think upon a recompense.
In Act 1, scene 5,
Talbot is astonished at Joan’s victory over his troops and says
that he has been defeated by a witch whose might and force have defeated and degraded the
English in battle:
A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal,
Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists:
So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench
Are from their hives and houses driven away.
They call'd us for our fierceness English dogs;
Now, like to whelps, we crying run away.
Talbot is comparing Joan to Hannibal, for Joan increases the war's viciousness.
She, like Hannibal, is brutal and ferocious in her conquest and her goals.
Talbot says that the English army is referred to as fierce dogs, and now these
fierce dogs are running away for they have been crushed
by the force of a witch.
Act1, scene 6, Charles was also amazed at Joan’s victory, and proclaimed that:
Act 5, in the middle of the battle, Joan realizes that the English are winning.
She calls on the spirits and asks them to help her. They arrive but refuse to
speak to Joan. She reminds them that she has always offered her blood to them in
exchange for their help. Yet the “demons” – as her voices are referred to
in Shakespeare’s play - show no interest in her offerings. This detail was
included by Shakespeare to indicate that Joan is practicing magic or sorcery. Joan, forsaken by
the source of her former powers, declares that France will now surely fall to
the English. In this battle York, her English enemy, captures her.
scene's portrayal of the events leading up to Joan death differs from other
accounts. Some stories show Joan as
dying for her alleged heresies and her claim to be able to communicate with
heavenly beings, while others focus on her enemies’ fear of her unconventional
dress and her warrior-woman status. Yet Shakespeare’s
York and Warwick order her death for no particular reason but to rid themselves of her as
Shakespeare’s play further blackens Joan's character by rearranging historical events. Joan's pleas for her life strip her of dignity. First, she insists she is a holy virgin and that to kill her will invoke the wrath of heaven:
of Arc hath been
A virgin from her tender infancy,
Chaste and immaculate in very thought;
Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused,
Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.
Joan is a devoted virgin and thus feels that she deserves the respect of the English. She says that she has never sinned and has always followed God. If the English kill her, her virginal blood would be on their hands. However, when the English are not persuaded, Joan changes her story and claims she is pregnant:
Will nothing turn your unrelenting hearts?
I am with child, ye bloody homicides:
Murder not then the fruit within my womb,
Although ye hale me to a violent death.
Joan then desperately lists French nobles who could be her child's father, making her story entirely implausible and further encouraging the English to have her killed. By this act, the mythical and romantic Joan of Arc, the girl who is either crazy or really hears heavenly voices, takes the form of a pathetic young girl so afraid of death that she will invoke all aspects of femininity to save her. From virginity to pregnancy, all reminders of her womanhood, in Shakespeare's play, do nothing to save her. In retrospect, she sacrifices her integrity and her cause.
It has often been asserted that in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries Joan’s reputation underwent first a decline and then
an eclipse (Gies 250). Ideas derived from works written by Shakespeare and
Seigneur du Haillan were a fabricated mass of information resulting from the
mixing of fictitious speeches, letters, and conversations and characters with
documented facts. As a result, whenever the subject of Joan came up, the English
were filled with resentment and repeated the same old claim that she was
inspired and accomplished her deeds through the power of Satan. To them she was
nothing more than “a common chambermaid who was a bold tomboy” (Bloom, 61).
The English and some French writers also said that she was able to keep her virginity only
because she was so ugly
that no man wanted her. In 1646, a famous novelist Madeleine de Scudery
responded to such slurs and wrote an energetic refutation stating that Joan’s
purity was not to be questioned and that the “chaste warrior” was sent by
God to save her country. Her sentence in Rouen was “the most unjust ever
pronounced” (Gies, 259).
Jean Chapelain’s poem La Pucelle written in 1656 portrayed Joan’s comrade Dunois as the primary hero and downplayed Joan's importance and spiritual guidance. In 1755 Voltaire based his work entitled La Pucelle d’Orleans on Chapelain’s epic. In his satire, Voltaire tried in the cruelest way possible to damage Joan's character and image by portraying her as a village idiot. He also challenged the importance of Joan’s virginity. Voltaire used Joan’s story to attack the Church, the monarchy and the nobility. It is ironic that Joan and Voltaire died on the same day, May 30. Voltaire’s death marked the 447th anniversary of Joan’s execution. In the following verse by Antoine de la Tour [sic] written in a thirteen-verse poem in her book Livre D’Or in the late 1800s, Voltaire is greatly criticized for not taking Joan seriously in his work:
Praise to the chaste Maid
Undying shame to the famous writer (Voltaire)
Who, steeping in mire a divine pen,
Shamelessly profaned such beauteous fame!
In 1801, a German poet, Friedrich Schiller wrote Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans). His romantic tragedy completely distorts history in order to create a misfortune to fulfill his theories: “It is simultaneously a play about well-intentioned but blind and fearful human beings who are able to recognize and accept greatness of spirit only at the moment of its extinction; it is the tragedy of one selfless human being of heroic stature, whose vision of herself and of life are made complete only at the hour of her death” (Bloom, 131). Schiller wrote his poem as a direct answer to Voltaire: “O virgin . . . mockery has dragged you through the mire . . .But fear not. There are still some beautiful souls that burn for what is great” (Warner, 241). In Schiller’s poem, Charles VII’s mother, Isabelle, is the villain, while Agnes Sorel is Joan’s friend and supporter. Dunois is in love with Joan and Joan is in love with Lionel, duke of Clarence. After the coronation at Reims, Joan’s father declares that she is the instrument of the devil, while she takes refuge with her childhood sweetheart in a forest of Ardennes and at this time the wicked Queen Isabelle captures Joan. Bound in chains, Joan listens while a soldier in a watchtower reports that the French are fleeing, Dunois is wounded and the English troops have surrounded the king. Joan begs God to “change these fetters into spiders’ webs,” as she rips them, rallies the French troops, drives out the English and rescues the king. During the battle, Joan is fatally injured and dies. The symbolic image of the Virgin standing for the goodness and purity of her mission has been replaced in Joan’s mind by the image of Lionel, the man with whom she has fallen in love. Thus, Joan is torn between the successful completion of her mission and by the desire for another kind of life altogether. Through making a love triangle between Joan, Dunois and Lionel, Schiller destroys George Bernard Shaw’s notion that Joan was a devoted military soldier. Schiller’s intention was to make Joan neither an ordinary person nor a saint.
Schiller’s work was greatly criticized by many historians and writers. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Schiller’s Joan is not only unlike the real Joan, but also unlike any other real woman who ever lived. The following excerpt from Schiller’s poem describes Joan as a simple child. If she has been possessed by the devil, the devil mimics “innocence”, making virtue an art. Philip, Duke of Burgundy states:
Falsehood’s fallacious words are full of guile,
But hers are pure and simple as a child’s
If evil spirits borrow this disguise,
They copy innocence triumphantly.
I’ll hear no more. To arms, Dunois! To arms.
Schiller suggests that Joan’s goodness may have been tampered with by the devil. He not sure whether she is doing the Devil’s work or God’s. Thus, nothing she says can be trusted. Although Joan’s voice is “pure” and her words are “innocent,” evil can successfully mimic righteousness.
In 1793, an English poet Robert Southey wrote an epic poem entitled Joan of Arc, in honor of Joan. Southerly saw Joan as a noble and unspoiled creator of the soil and a force of nature. After rejoicing the beauties of her homeland, Joan says: "Here in solitude My soul was nurst, amid the loveliest scenes Of unpolluted nature" (Southey, 6). Southey provides the romantic picture of Joan as a peasant woman attached to the soil and to nature. After the victory of Orleans, Joan exclaims:
Easier were it
To hurl the rooted mountain from its base,
Than force the yoke of slavery upon men
Determin’d to be free.
In this quotation Joan is the champion of the people and the enemy of tyrants. She is earthly and natural, thus, stating her main philosophy (in Southey's poem at least) that freedom cannot be taken from those who long for it.
With this one work, Southey single-handedly changed the people's attitude toward Joan because up to this time the English historians had continued to consider her as a witch. Southey had seen a play in Covent Garden Theater in which, to the cheers and applause of the enthusiastic audience, Joan was depicted as being carried off alive by Satan into hell (Serle, 16). It was but a short time after Southey's poem was published that the audience's reaction drastically changed. Instead of cheering they began to throw rotten vegetables at the actor who portrayed Satan and began boo him. Within a few nights, a new character, an angel, was introduced, who rescued Joan from Satan's control. Those who saw it received this scene very warmly. However, Southey’s poem has no more historical merit than that of Chapelain or Voltaire’s works. Like them, he introduces Agnes Sorel, and adding a touch of his own, gives Joan a sweetheart who is killed in battle. He stops writing after the coronation of Charles because he does not have access to Joan’s trial records.
Perhaps the most intriguing literary work about Joan is George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play Saint Joan. Shaw’s play is possibly the most realistic work portraying Joan and the historical events surrounding her. Nevertheless, being a Protestant, Shaw could not accept the religious view of Joan. He gives plausible explanations of her visions and voices. In short, anything supernatural is explained by logic and reason. Shaw’s psychological explanations of Joan’s voices fail to take into account the difference between the circumstances of the fifteenth century and that of the twentieth. In Joan’s time, for people to hear voices and see visions was unusual, but by no means inconceivable, whereas today, a person who claims communication with the supernatural is diagnosed as either abnormal or a fraud. Although Shaw does not accept Joan as a person who is miraculously directed by the divine, she is nevertheless a respectable hero. Shaw’s Joan is a miraculous military leader, a stubborn, fierce and buoyant girl. Shaw’s chronological array of events are as follows: Joan convinces Robert de Baudricourt to escort her to the Dauphin, singles out the disguised Charles VII, crowns Charles VII the King of France, takes command of Dunois’ army, leads France to multiple victories, is betrayed by her nation and friends, is tried for being a heretic and for wearing men’s clothes, is burned at the stake, and last but not least, leaves an eternal impression on France and its leaders, present and future.
Shaw’s play was made into a movie by Otto Preminger called Saint Joan with Jean Seberg as Joan. The film is based on but does not follow directly Shaw’s script. In the beginning of the film Joan comes to Charles (played by Richard Widmark) in his dream. The film is a flashback, while Shaw's play opens at the castle of Vaucouleurs at the beginning of Joan's transformation to a warrior and savior of France. Charles talks to her as they play back the events preceding her death. Charles VII has absolutely no remorse or pity for her. His character in general is weak. He even points out himself that “It’s all very well for these big men with their armor that is too heavy for me, and their swords that I can hardly lift, and their muscle and their shouting and their bed tempers. They like fighting ... but I am quiet sensible and I don’t want to kill people: I only want to be left alone to enjoy myself in my own way. I never asked to be a king: it was pushed on me” (Shaw, 129). After Joan says that she will put courage into him, he replies “But I don’t want to have courage put into me. I want to sleep in a comfortable bed, and not live in continual terror of being killed or wounded” (Shaw, 129). In this scene, as well as throughout Shaw’s play, Joan talks to Charles VII as a mother would to her son. She tries to persuade him and tells him that he has a greater purpose, but all he wants is to be childish and not to have any responsibilities. Although Joan had no children of her own, some may argue that she gave birth to Charles as the King of France. Not only is she “Mother of France,” she is also the “Mother of the King,” for without her, Dauphin Charles would never have been crowned. Thus a king would never have been born.
According to Shaw, when Joan talks to Dunois – the commander of her future army – Dunois asks if she would “want to be like a woman with two husbands.” She replies: “I will never take a husband. A man in Toul took an action against me for breach of promise; but I never promised him. I am a soldier: I do not want to be thought of as a woman. I will not dress as a woman. I do not care for the things women care for. They dream of lovers, and of money. I dream of leading a charge, and of placing the big guns” (Shaw, 141). With this quotation, Shaw emphasizes how almost unwomanly Joan is. Young girls dream of material things, such as money and jewelry, or maternal things, such as a husband and children. Joan wants no part of the “traditional” female gender role. She is more comfortable among men who gamble, swear, and fight, but who express their humanity under her influence. Joan likes being independent, and the moment she falls in love, or takes a husband, her freedom will end.
In 1999, another movie came out about Joan of Arc. This one was called The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Directed by Luc Besson with Mila Jovovich as Joan, this movie is a total contradiction of previous works about Joan. Like Shaw, Besson uses the theory that Joan’s voices and visions are the formulations of her own mind, battling with two opposing forces, and that there is nothing mysterious or divine about her. Many critics disapproved of this movie. One critic, Charles Taylor, went so far as to say that the movie had absolutely no merit:
Besson is very shrewdly linking his box-office clout to the adoration of France's
National heroine. Which would be fine if his approach weren't entirely self-serving.
"The Messenger" is a truly vulgar movie (and I've never described any film with that word),
Not just because Besson has taken on Joan's story with no feelings of reverence or awe or
Even much sympathy for her, but because her story is reduced to an excuse for him
To parade himself as Luc Besson, Epic Filmmaker
The director portrays Joan as a lunatic, a foolish country girl who is unsure of herself, and much less of her voices and visions. Her uncertainty is the cause of her conscience – the Devil (played by Dustin Hoffman). He, much like G. B. Shaw, finds logical excuses for her actions. In the beginning, Joan is playing in the field as a little girl and stumbles upon a sword, which she proposes is the beginning of her destiny. The devil downplays her thought by suggesting that a sword could be lying in the field for many reasons, one of which is that a soldier has lost it in battle. During her trial, the Devil confuses Joan to the point where she does not remember her cause or what she stands for. One may say that Joan’s consciousness is in a fight between good and evil.
The fact that Joan’s mission was not entirely completed in her lifetime does not detract from her contribution. Few historical characters, especially women, are more famous than Joan of Arc. Her name and story are known throughout the world: “Joan’s story has a unique quality, a fairy tale with a tragic ending invested with her own personality – her common sense, her trenchant speech, her indomitable courage, before the judges at Rouen as in the moat at Orleans” (Gies, 259) Joan stands for the restoration of the French heritage, the French freedom, and the French monarchy. She represents the best of womanhood, sainthood, liberation, hope and, faith. Joan of Arc was a chaste hero, as true as they come, as well as a martyr and a “Mother of her Nation.” Joan gave birth to a free France, without the tyranny of the English, and to the crowning of King Charles VII. Joan of Arc was, and still is, the subject of many literary and artistic works. Her legend continues to inspire writers, producers, and scholars and will persist to empower many minds to come. As Paul Claudel stated: “The pinnacle of Joan of Arc’s life is her death, and the stake at Rouen” (Warner, 255). Joan fulfilled many roles of her time: as a farm maid, as a woman in arms, as a virgin who forgoes marriage and motherhood, and as a faithful Christian, it is a shame that Joan only became appreciated in the aftermath of her death.