Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Neighbor Joan of Arc

This is the 600th anniversary of a country maid born in eastern France near the end of the Hundred Years War.

Read about Joan of Arc and I guarantee that you will think there’s something to what Sigrid Undset called “those queer men and women which the Catholic Church calls the Saints.” It happened to me 30 years ago, when I read Vita Sackville West’s St. Joan of Arc—one of the bigger stepping stones on my path to the Catholic Church. It even happened to Mark Twain, confirmed cynic, who made a slightly fictionalized life of St. Joan his last book-length work.

Now it’s happening to me again. I am reading Régine Pernoud’s St. Joan By Herself and Her Witnesses, and the effect is quite different than that of reading West in 1981. West’s book convinced me of Joan’s sanctity. Pernoud’s book has done something equally remarkable: it has made Joan a human being, my neighbor. When a notarized saint becomes the person next door, how can you dismiss the Christian proposal?

I say notarized because this is one of the singular things about Joan of Arc (1412–1931)—apart from her hearing the voices of angels and saints when she was thirteen or her being seventeen when she led a victorious army against the marauding English or nineteen when she was burned at the stake with the word Jesus on her lips. Joan’s life is documented to a fine detail by two major court proceedings. When she was captured, she was tried; and twenty-five years after her execution by fire, she was “rehabilitated.” Both events involved lengthy proceedings and resulted in thousands of pages of documents that still sit in the French National Archives, where Pernoud studied them over 500 years later.

We’re not talking about something that legend says happened two centuries after Christ. Joan of Arc’s trial was as closely recorded as OJ’s, while remaining more interesting.

Pernoud’s book follows Joan’s odyssey through France stage by stage, beginning with what Joan said about it under oath and what witnesses said, also under oath. Then the historian ends each chapter with commentary on the testimony. I have only followed Pernoud’s Joan as far as Orléans, the city on the Loire besieged by the English which, if it had fallen, would have meant the end of France. But already here are some neighborly impressions, as if glimpsing the Maid across the back fence.

At home in Domremy, Joan was exceptionally pure and pious

Marguerite, wife of Jean Joyart: “She went of her own will and often to church and gave alms out of her father’s property and was so good, simple and pious that I and the other young girls would tell her that she was too pious.”

Fr. Etienne de Sionne: “Joan, called the Maid, was a good and simple girl, pious, well brought up, fearing God, so much so that she had not her equal in the town.”

Joan was pious but tough. Asked about the Burgundians, enemies of the French, and whether any lived in her town, she said—

“I knew only one Burgundian there and I could have wished his head cut off—however, only if it pleased God.”

Once her voices told her that she must find the dethroned French prince, or dauphin, and lead him into battle against the English at Orléans, she was so certain of her calling that nothing could stop her—

Jean de Metz, one of her armed escort, quoted Joan as saying, “I must be at the King’s side, though I wear my feet to the knees. For indeed there is nobody in all the world, neither king nor duke, nor daughter of the King of Scotland, nor any other who can recover the kingdom for France. And there will be no help (for the kingdom) if not from me. Although I would rather have remained spinning at my mother’s side, for it is not my condition, yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so.”

Joan could be very cheeky. After she had met the dauphin in Chinon, the prince ordered her interrogated at Poitiers. One of her interrogators, Master Guillaume Aimeri, said—

“I asked her what language the voice spoke. She answered me: ‘Better than yours.’ Me, I spoke Limousin. And again I asked her if she believed in God; she answered me, ‘Yes, better than you.’”

Once the battles began? She was in every way like Ulysses S. Grant, no saint by Catholic standards but my favorite Civil War figure. Grant was a failure before the war, a failure afterward, but during the war? Grant was like Joan, as described by another eyewitness—

“Apart from the matter of war, she was simple and ignorant. But in the conduct and disposition of armies and in the matter of warfare, in drawing-up the army in battle (order) and heartening the soldiers, she behaved as if she had been the shrewdest captain in the world and had all her life been learning (the art of) war.”

The image at the top of this post is from the cover of the latest edition of West’s book on Joan. Below is my favorite image of Joan, the painting by Jules Bastien LePage, which I stumbled across at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC a couple of years back. With the exception of the two or three ghostly figures you can just make out, including St. Michael hovering behind her, this Joan is a girl next door, who stumbles through her backyard and onto heaven.


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