Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint.
The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic.
Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts:
No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator.
Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the way movies have treated the Maid:
Filmmakers have in their turn wrestled with Joan the simple peasant girl, Joan the wily politician, Joan the androgyne, Joan the woman, Joan the doubting sinner, Joan the representative of a nation, and Joan the self-assured saint.
Such lists of various “Joans” are indicative of the wide range of interpretations that have been given to her history.
A tale of holiness
Nonetheless, despite English stories of a randy witch, the accounts of contemporaries, particularly those who knew and worked with Joan, tell a tale of holiness amid the routinely violent, obscene and brutal setting of war.
For instance, DeVries quotes Jean Barbin, a lawyer at the trial that was held a quarter of a century after Joan’s martyrdom to nullify the verdict of heresy against her:
“The soldiers considered her a saint, for she behaved in such a godly way when with the army, both in words and deeds, that no one could have uttered a reproach against her.”
DeVries also includes this statement at the nullification trial by Jean d’Aulon, Joan’s squire:
“Although she was a young girl, beautiful and shapely, and many times when helping to arm her or otherwise he had often seen her breasts, and other times when he was dressing her wounds he had seen her legs quite bare, and he had gone close to her many times — and he said he was strong, young and vigorous in those days — never, despite any sight or contact I had with the Mail, was my body moved to carnal desire for her, nor did any of her soldiers or squires, as he had heard them say and tell many times.”
Simon Beaucroix, one of her soldiers, testified that “he well remembered that when he conversed with her he never had a desire to sin.”
“Oh, all you blind people, can’t you detect God’s hand in this?
“If you can’t, you are truly stupid for how else could the Maid who strikes you down dead have been sent to us? — and you don’t have sufficient strength!
“Do you want to fight against God?”
DeVries includes that excerpt in his essay, and Steven Weiskopf also refers to de Pizan in his essay on Joan’s mystical understanding of her mission, beyond and outside of the channels that the male Catholic hierarchy expected for divine revelation.
Weiskopf, who wrote his essay while a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, states:
Rejecting the institutional approach that privileges the written word, Joan experiences her visions through an alternative way, that of her own body, while making claims to the same God., totally unmediated by the clergy. She not only interprets the text; she is the text. Joan represents for some the sacred repository “into whom” Christine de Pizan tells us, “the Holy Spirit poured his great grace.”
In other words, Joan as the chalice of the Holy Spirit’s grace.
Another startling metaphor from de Pizan is noted by Christine McWebb, a professor of French studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in her essay focusing on the writer.
Joan, de Pizan writes, “casts the rebels down and feeds France with the sweet, nourishing milk of peace.”
In other words, Joan, the famous virgin-warrior, is also somehow the nursing mother of the nation. McWebb writes:
La Pucelle thus equally symbolizes a mother figure for her country. A virgin, who is at the same time a mother, personifies the Virgin Mary. This evocation of the image of the Madonna, as incarnation of feminine purity on the one hand and of the perfect maternal figure on the other, bestows on Joan the attribute of a miraculous personality.
It’s important, I think, to emphasize that de Pizan is writing contemporaneously with Joan’s exploits. She sees the young woman as someone completely fresh and significant, a ray of sun through the gloom of, at this point, nearly a century of English dominance on French soil.
“Nature’s own distinctive marks”
Susan Schibanoff, now a retired University of New Hampshire professor, quotes the charges against Joan:
“With her hair cropped short and round like a young fop’s, she wore shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together and fastened in the said double by 20 points, long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantle reaching to the knees, or thereabouts, a close-cut cap, tight-fitting boots and buskins, long spurs, sword, dagger, breastplate, lance and other arms in the style of a man-at-arms.”
Furthermore, the charges asserted that there was “nothing about her to display and announce her sex, save Nature’s own distinctive marks.”
In other words, she dressed in men’s clothing but was clearly a women. This, Schibanoff explains, was a particular challenge to church tradition.
In earlier times, some women who masqueraded as men had been declared saints — if they were seeking to hide from those who would do violence to them or even simply marry them.
To appear in men’s clothing and still be clearly a woman was to undercut the separation of the sexes — and potentially to undercut male dominance. It was, in a way, a feminization of the idea of maleness. And the scary thing about that for churchmen was that, similarly, it could be seen as feminizing males.
Perhaps that had something to do with the snarky statement of one of the many clerics involved in Joan’s canonization process, discussed at length in an essay by Henry Ansgar Kelly, a UCLA Humanities professor:
“I find it surprising [this cleric wrote] to read that only Gabriel was sent to the Most Holy Virgin to announce the incarnation of the divine Redeemer, whereas two archangels, Gabriel and Michael, appeared to Joan, and in such a way that she really saw, heard, and even touched and adored them.”
The church’s uncertainty about Joan — the institution did take half a millennium before designating her a saint — goes in particular to her “voices.” Just how to understand this method of her inspiration?
In an essay on those voices, Karen Sullivan, a professor of medieval studies at Bard College in New York, notes that, for six centuries, the issue of their nature has gotten ever so complicated.
Indeed, consider this from her:
While the problems that such a mystical interpretation of Joan’s voices pose for non-Christians are self-evident, such a reading is also complicated by the church’s recognition of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, the figures with whom Joan eventually identifies her voices, as apocryphal and its removal of these saints from the calendar.
She jars our thoughts
So, if the church says that St. Catherine and St. Margaret never existed, how could they have appeared to Joan? Or is the church wrong in dismissing them? Or does it matter, really, who it was that Joan was listening to (if, in fact, she was listening to someone and not just the creation of her imagination)?
Questions such as these have kept the talk of Joan of Arc going for nearly six hundred years now.
And new insights, such as those in this book, aren’t likely ever to answer all the questions. And maybe that’s best.
Refusing to be pigeon-holed, Joan constantly jars our thoughts about faith, spirituality, war, inspiration, gender and life’s meaning.
Maybe that’s what a saint is.
Patrick T. Reardon