Joan of Arc: Enduring Power
Article from The New York Times.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 6, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Joan of Arc: Enduring Power.
JOAN OF ARC was born 600 years ago. Six centuries is a long time to continue to mark the birth of a girl who, according to her family and friends, knew little more than spinning and watching over her father’s flocks. But type her name into Amazon’s search engine and you get more than 6,000 results. France’s national archives include tens of thousands of volumes about her. She has been immortalized by Shakespeare, Voltaire, Twain, Shaw, Brecht, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Rubens; more recently, her life was fodder for the CBS television series “Joan of Arcadia.”
What is it about Joan of Arc? Why is her story of enduring interest more than a half a millennium after her birth?
By the time Joan of Arc was 16 and had proclaimed herself the virgin warrior sent by God to deliver France from her enemies, the English, she had been receiving the counsel of angels for three years. Until then, the voices she said she heard, speaking from over her right shoulder and accompanied by a great light, had been hers alone, a rapturous secret.
But in 1428, when the voices pressed her to undertake the quest for which they had been preparing her, they transformed a seemingly undistinguished peasant into a visionary heroine who defied every limitation placed on a woman of the late Middle Ages. The least likely of military leaders, Joan of Arc changed the course of the Hundred Years’ War and of history.
Joan said she sheared off her hair, dressed in male attire, put on armor and took up her sword at God’s behest. She was feverish in her determination to succeed at what was, by anyone’s measure, a preposterous mission. As Joan herself protested to her voices, she “knew not how to ride or lead in war”; and yet she roused an exhausted, underequipped and impotent army into a fervor that carried it from one unlikely victory to the next. She raised the siege of Orléans by defying the cautious strategies of seasoned generals to follow inaudible directions from invisible beings.
Illiterate and uncouth, Joan moved purposefully among nobles, bishops and royalty. So intent on vanquishing the enemy that she threatened her own men with violence, she herself recoiled at the idea of bloodshed. To avoid having to use her sword, she led her army carrying a 12-foot-long banner emblazoned with the words Party of the Kingdom of Heaven. Witnesses said she was luminous in battle, light not glinting off her armor so much as radiating from the girl within. Her enemies spoke of clouds of butterflies following in her wake, a curiously beatific report from men who said she was in league with the devil.
In the aftermath of combat she didn’t celebrate victory but mourned the casualties; her men remembered her on her knees weeping as she held the head of a dying enemy soldier, urging him to confess his sins. Her courage outstripped that of seasoned men at arms; her tears flowed as readily as any other teenage girl’s.
After a series of victories, Joan suffered the reversals her voices had predicted. Captured and sold to the English, and shackled in a dank cell for more than a year, Joan was put on trial for her life. For refusing to renounce the voices that guided her as deviltry, Joan, 19 years old, was burned at the stake before a jeering crowd, her charred body displayed to anyone who cared to examine it. Thirty years later, in 1450, a Rehabilitation Trial overturned the guilty verdict that condemned her to death; the 19th-century rediscovery of the transcripts from both trials resulted in her canonization in 1920.
Like all holy figures whose earthly existence separates them from the broad mass of humanity, a saint is a story, and Joan of Arc’s is like no other.
The self-proclaimed agent of God’s will, she wasn’t immortalized so much as she entered the collective imagination as a living myth. Centuries after death, she has been embraced by Christians, feminists, French nationalists, Mexican revolutionaries and even hairdressers. (Her crude cut inspired the bob flappers wore as a symbol of independence from patriarchal strictures.) Her voices have been diagnosed retroactively as symptoms of schizophrenia, epilepsy, even tuberculosis. It seems Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest. Is this because stories we understand are stories we forget?
Joan frustrates efforts to reduce her to mortal proportions. What can explain what her voices told her, whether directing her movements in battle or scripting answers to her inquisitors. And what about her reputed clairvoyance, accounts that her touch raised a child from the dead, her ability to direct the wind to fill her stalled boats’ sails?
We don’t need narratives that rationalize human experience so much as those that enlarge it with the breath of mystery. For as long as we look to heroes for inspiration, to leaders whose vision lifts them above our limited perspective, who cherish their values above their earthly lives, the story of Joan of Arc will remain one we remember, and celebrate.