Friday, January 6, 2012

Celebrating Joan of Arc's 600th Birthday (whether she was born on that day or not)

Happy 600th Birthday, Joan of Arc! Although it's a bit too convenient that the Saint happened to be born on the Epiphany, and it is more likely that her birth date is simply unknown, I still like the idea of celebrating Joan's birth. Her death date is, of course, quite certain (30 May 1431), but she was many things before she was burned at the stake. She was a pious girl, an outspoken woman, a battle leader, a key participant in a king's coronation. She was a woman who refused to wear a dress, and a peasant who refused to be silenced when she had something to say. She demanded that the people around her listen, and, quite surprisingly, they did. She wouldn't have been tried and executed in such a public manner if she hadn't made a lot of people very nervous. She was barely more than a child, and she would probably have lived a quiet life completely outside of the historical record if she hadn't stood up and made people take notice of her. She insisted on entering and changing the course of history.

So often we define Joan by her death, and it is true that her death was so spectacular that we could hardly forget it. Not only was Joan the only person in history to be both convicted of heresy and canonized by the Catholic Church, but her manner of execution was horrific even by the standards of her time (perhaps even more so by the standards of her time). Her body was burned twice and her ashes were thrown in the river -- not a sight that people could forget. Representations of the saint in film often focus almost exclusively on her trial and moment of death, and movie posters show larger images of Joan engulfed in flames. To the left, Ingrid Bergman screams in pain amid technicolor flames with the caption, "Greatest of all spectacles!" Her death holds a morbid fascination; it is the culminating point of her story. Yet she would have been neither executed nor canonized if she hadn't led an extraordinary, though extraordinarily brief, life. And, as I've written before, her story has continued beyond as well. Her story has been appropriated by every possible political and religious and ideological agenda, and it is hard to extract her from the complex web of retellings and associations. But the very fact that her story has taken on such a life of its own indicates that many found her life, as well as her death, both fascinating and inspirational.


  1. I find that you have written and made me understand this strong capable young woman as no one else has. She was a special young lady with the ability to make people listen to her. Thank you for remembering Joan. This is great information. Thank you Kristi for informing us yet again.

  2. Apologies for the tardy comment! MLA and my unanticipated adventures in the Bay Area had me a bit more than preoccupied.

    I really appreciate how you remind us of our tendency to focus on the spectacle of her death rather than on the remarkable life she lived. Focusing on the latter is so deeply important, and yet you're right -- it is all too easy (especially with Joan) to simply hone in on the conclusions of things, on the results of a person's story and their actions rather than the intricate journey that led to them.

    Joan is such an enigmatic historical figure, and it's always refreshing to see people choosing to examine her life with due care and complexity, rather than presenting it as a series of events that simply led up to her death.

    Incidentally, I've always wanted to ask you what you thought about Luc Bessen's *The Messenger,* and its pathologizing of Joan, her perception of the world, and her role within it. I figure this might be a great space to talk about it!

  3. I'm glad that you both enjoyed the post! I just couldn't resist posting something for Joan's 600th birthday. As someone who very often focuses on her death (and I had to cut the post substantially because I found myself doing it here even when that was part of my point!), I wanted to take a moment to think about her life as well.

    As you say, Kate, it's easy to see the events of her life as all leading toward her death, but she certainly wouldn't have seen it that way as she was living. The first examination done of her at the request of the dauphin viewed her as legitimate, indicating that no one could have see the results of the later examination coming. So many factors led to both her capture and execution that are, really, separate from her life in the early stages of her active career leading up to and including Charles's coronation. And if we forget this fact, it's always fascinating to look back at Christine de Pizan's poem about Joan, which is so filled with hope.

    As for the Messenger, I have some very strong feelings about that film (as you can imagine). It's an interesting film in many ways, and I think it gets some of the brutality of the war right even if the facts might not be exactly accurate. But I do feel quite disturbed by the way in which Joan's visions are presented as increasingly insane throughout the film. It certainly pathologizes her, and in quite a spectacular way. I have trouble with arguments about whether or not Joan was crazy for a couple of reasons. First, there's simply no way to prove anything about her mental state, and I'm not sure how productive it is to try. Second, it's anachronistic – the question at the times was not whether she was sane, but whether the voices were coming from God or from the devil. Third, the way in which Joan's sanity has been discussed tends to tell us a lot more about the period in which those discussions take place than it does about Joan. In her time, visionary women held a place in the culture. In the 19th century, she was described as hysterical. Now, she's described as schizophrenic. All of these designations and categories seem to me to be quite specific to the time and place that creates them. Even if one does think Joan was insane, we know an awful lot about her visions. She saw and spoke with very specific saints, and seems to have been greatly comforted by these communications rather then upset by then. Certainly, it's a film, and there's room for theatrical license, and I wouldn't say that people shouldn't watch or enjoy it, but I think that the way that Joan's visions get depicted, which is actually really frightening, depicts Joan in a very specific and perhaps harmful way. On a bit of a tangent, I have been interested to see how different films deal with the visions, and it seems that they either don't really deal with them or they exaggerate them. Either we don't want her to have visions at all, since that doesn't fit with our modern notions of a reasonable person, or we want them to be spectacular affairs. The Ingrid Bergman film, for example, which begins with Joan's canonization and really does depict her as a saint, actually shows her repeatedly attempting to communicate with her voices without any response at all. Only at the very end does a shining cloud appear, indicating a divine response to her death. I could go on and on here, but you've brought up some great points, Kate. Really interesting stuff – thanks!


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