On this Memorial Day, in addition to all of those who served and died in our nation’s wars, there is one warrior of our oldest ally who should be given her due. May 30, 2021 is the 590th anniversary of the execution of a prisoner of war: France’s Jeanne d’Arc, known by English speakers as Joan of Arc.
On one of our trips to France we visited the city of Rouen, capital of Normandy Province. During the 14th and 15th Centuries series of wars between England and France Normandy was under English control. During the latter phase of those wars, Joan, as a young woman, assisted in leading French armies to victories. She was betrayed and captured by English allies, and taken to Rouen where she was condemned to death by burning at the stake.
There is an eponymous church in the Vieux Marche (Old Marketplace) at the site of Joan’s execution. There is also a museum that depicts here life and death in the former archbishop’s palace adjoining the Rouen cathedral. It is a most interesting and informative museum and well worth a visit.
There are many historical accounts of Joan’s story, which is too long to tell in detail here. Suffice it to say her fate was a result of the mix of politics and religion, where the church acts as the handmaiden of the state, and vice-versa. Here is a brief summary.
For reasons going back to the Norman Conquest, English monarchs claimed territory in France as part of their realm, and even claimed to be the rightful king of France. In the 14rh Century these claims led to a war that, on and off, lasted for about one hundred years.
Joan was the daughter of a farmer in eastern France. In her late teens, she believed she had a mission, guided by saints’ voices to rally the French armies to expel the English from France. Joan convinced the uncrowned king of France, Charles VII, to allow her to lead his army and escort him to Reims to be crowned in the traditional cathedral, and thus claim legitimacy as the French monarch. After several victorious battles, most notably at Orleans, Charles was able to travel with Joan to Reims and was crowned in July 1429. The next year, Joan was captured by English allies and taken to Rouen. There she was accused of heresy and being an agent of the devil and tried by a church tribunal and convicted. Joan, then 19, was burned at the stake in May 30, 1431.
In 1456, after the English had been finally expelled from most of France, including Normandy, another tribunal was empaneled and it exonerated Joan. The Pope declared her innocent and a martyr — a little late for her, of course. She was declared a national symbol of France by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803. Joan was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920.
Why was Joan of Arc tried and executed as a heretic, rather than just treated as a prisoner of war? Her status as a captive might be irrelevant; in those days most opposing soldiers captured were quite often summarily killed. The reasons seem to be twofold. First, the English pride was wounded by whom they doubtless considered a mere slip of a teenage girl, and a peasant at that. How could such a young person, a woman, lead an army that defeated them? She had to be a witch, or other agent of the devil. Second, the presiding judge Bishop Pierre Cauchon, though French, was a collaborator who wished to remain in favor with the English occupiers of Normandy. He did their bidding.
There have been s a number of revisionist attempts to discredit the Joan of Arc story as a myth. There are, however, contemporaneous documents, including transcripts of her trials that verify most of the facts.
Regardless, Joan’s story is compelling. Throughout subsequent French history she has been used by all political factions, including both sides of the 1789 Revolution, as a symbol of the righteousness of their causes.
Régine Pernoud, Marie-Véronique Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story. (1999). Translated by Jeremy duQuesnay Adams, late distinguished professor at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. (available from online booksellers and at libraries)
Shortly after her canonization, George Bernard Shaw, wrote a play Saint Joan. There have been a number of films made about Joan of Arc. Most take a good deal of dramatic license, as does Shaw’s play.
Here is a recent performance of Leonard Cohen’s rather haunting song “Joan of Arc,” sung live by Jennifer Warnes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaqRwj1mmU8