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Who, if Anyone, Deserves our Admiration?

Would Joan of Arc Make your List of Admirable People?

Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc Saved France [The patriotic poster on the left was commissioned by the United States Treasury Department at the time of the First World War. (Cynics have not failed to note that Joan saved France from America’s ally in WWI, the English.) More than a few men have fallen in love with a picture, and between the idealized generic beauty of her face and her form fitting armour Haskell Coffin’s heroine must have stolen the heart of many a young lad. But those who know her story, like Mark Twain, love her beyond any personal magnetism or physical allure she may have possessed.

In the photograph on the right we see one saint portraying another. St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) was another famous admirer, even writing poems and a play about her—though it should be remembered that Thérèse was a saint and not a poet, and that poems often lose something in translation.

If you watched all forty-odd films about Joan of Arc you would never suspect that we know more about her than any other medieval figure, more about her than just about anyone else until modern times. (Except with respect to the notions of its director the 1999 film, The Messenger, is exceptionally unhistorical.) And this wealth of information, combined with her brief but extraordinary career, has made her the third most studied and celebrated figure in Western culture after Jesus and Napoleon. As we acquaint ourselves with the facts and the stock image of Joan fades away—by her mere presence on the battlefield an illiterate peasant girl, shrouded in myth, spurs otherwise incompetent soldiers on to victory—our admiration is apt to be tinged at first with envy. At sixteen Joan spun wool and tended sheep, a pious girl who had never held a sword in her St Therese as Joan hand or probably even seen an Englishman. At seventeen she commanded the military forces of a nation: and she never lost a battle. One of those battles, the lifting of the Siege of Orleans, is found in Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy’s famous book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. After ninety-two years of engaging in dynastic and civil war the English were on the brink of achieving their goal: a dual monarchy. It took Joan just thirteen months to undo the victories of Poitiers, Crécy and Agincourt. The war continued on for another 22 years, but from the moment Joan arrived on the scene the English cause was doomed. It’s no wonder they thought she was a witch, a line they took for over 300 years. Being a witch, they insisted that she was ugly too. Yet the popular reappraisal of Joan began, not in France, but in England. Napoleon jumped on the bandwagon in 1803 and she’s been invoked by all and sundry ever since.

It should not be imagined that Joan was a mascot, a merely inspirational presence in the background of battle. On May 7, 1429, she took an arrow between her neck and shoulder during the assault on the fortified gateway called Les Tourelles. On June 11, during the battle of Jargeau, a stone projectile struck her helmet, knocking her off a scaling ladder. On September 8, during the assault on Paris, the bolt from a crossbow went through her thigh. (There are two schools of thought about these wounds: either they were much less severe than one would expect—the bolt from a crossbow was 9 inches long with a 3/4 inch diameter head of hardened steel while, according to Jean Dunois’ testimony, the arrow, shot from above, penetrated six inches—or Joan enjoyed God’s providential care.) Despite the military timidity, political indecision, and frequent opposition of others—she had many heated exchanges with Dunois in the war councils—her tactics and strategy invariably produced results. Many observers, but especially her comrades in the field, testified to her horsemanship, her skill with sword and lance (a weapon that was effectively used for the last time by British calvary against retreating Boers in 1899), her stamina, and, not least, her uncanny sense of where to place artillery. In the Rouen Trials she touchingly but naively remarked that she had “never killed any one.”

It is not generally known that Joan’s military genius was matched by her skillful defense—she had no advocate—before a court determined to “have her yet,” as Cauchon put it. Her presence of mind, subtle replies, and flawless memory must have driven them crazy. The trial lasted more than three grueling months while they wore her down with hardship and threats of torture. After trying every trick in the book the trained theologians and hand-picked prosecutors eventually had to resort to deception. Her biggest headache had always been how to avoid being seduced by her comrades or raped by the enemy. Rape was a weapon of war then as it is now, and although her close comrades professed that there was something about her that discouraged thoughts of seduction she had many enemies who had no such qualms. Hence the wearing of men’s clothing. It was the only chink in her armour, and eventually they found it. Her story is beyond improbable, beyond romantic, beyond tragic. If it wasn’t for the fact that we have complete records of the trial and the rehabilitation trial 24 years later—discovered in old archives in the nineteenth century and convergent with everything else that was known about her—she would be beyond belief.]

We declare that you are fallen again into your former errors and under the sentence of excommunication which you originally incurred we decree that you are a relapsed heretic; and by this sentence which we deliver in writing and pronounce from this tribunal, we denounce you as a rotten member, which, so that you shall not infect the other members of Christ, must be cast out of the unity of the Church, cut off from her body, and given over to the secular power: we cast you off, separate and abandon you, praying this same secular power on this side of death and the mutilation of your limbs, to moderate its judgment towards you, and if true signs of repentance appear in you to permit the sacrament of penance to be administered to you.

(from the sentence publicly read to Joan before she was burnt at the stake)

In the course of an interview Fr. Benedict Groeschel told investigative reporter and author of The Miracle Detective, Randall Sullivan: “And Joan of Arc, there’s a girl. She said she spoke to the saints, when what she really saw were statues. But they spoke to her. Was she crazy? I don’t know. I do know that she stopped the longest war in European history. Winston Churchill, no less, said of Joan, ‘Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years.’ Freud, on the other hand, called her a schizophrenic. Who’s right? You decide. Was she both mad and blessed? It’s entirely possible, my friend. Entirely possible.”

[Nobody could accuse Mark Twain of being well-disposed towards Christianity or of being on particularly friendly terms with the deity. Au contraire! Nevertheless, as with so many others, he fell under Joan’s spell. George Bernard Shaw claimed that he was infatuated by her—perhaps there’s something about a woman in armour—but then, as Bernard Levin remarked, Joan was ‘the only woman who ever managed to wipe the smirk from Shaw’s face.’ In point of fact, the fictionalized book that Twain wrote about her, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, was solidly researched and much more reliable than Shaw’s great play. If the critics were unimpressed and the public suspected a joke, the book being so out of character, Twain was unperturbed. On his 73rd birthday, when all his major books were far behind and he could judge without prejudice, he gave his final verdict: ‘I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others: 12 years of preparation & a year of writing. The others needed no preparation, & got none.’ The following passage is from the end of an essay on Joan that Twain wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 1904.]

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counseled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character. In the records of the Trials this comes out in clear and shining detail. She was gentle and winning and affectionate, she loved her home and friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. And always she was a girl; and dear and worshipful, as is meet for that estate: when she fell wounded, the first time, she was frightened, and cried when she saw her blood gushing from her breast; but she was Joan of Arc! and when presently she found that her generals were sounding the retreat, she staggered to her feet and led the assault again and took that place by storm.

There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character.

How strange it is!—that almost invariably the artist remembers only one detail—one minor and meaningless detail of the personality of Joan of Arc: to wit, that she was a peasant girl—and forgets all the rest; and so he paints her as a strapping middle-aged fishwoman, with costume to match, and in her face the spirituality of a ham. He is slave to his one idea, and forgets to observe that the supremely great souls are never lodged in gross bodies. No brawn, no muscle, could endure the work that their bodies must do; they do their miracles by the spirit, which has fifty times the strength and staying power of brawn and muscle. The Napoleons are little, not big; and they work twenty hours in the twenty-four, and come up fresh, while the big soldiers with the little hearts faint around them with fatigue. We know what Joan of Arc was like without asking—merely by what she did. The artist should paint her spirit—then he could not fail to paint her body aright. She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel: a lithe young slender figure, instinct with “the unbought grace of youth,” dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.

Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances—her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life,—she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

A perfect woman, nobly plann’d,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a spirit still, and bright
With something of an angel light.

William Wordsworth

Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.

G. K. Chesterton

Jeanne’s mission was on the surface warlike, but it really had the effect of ending a century of war, and her love and charity were so broad, that they could only be matched by Him who prayed for His murderers.

Arthur Conan Doyle

More Thoughts about Joan of Arc

Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.

Louis Kossuth (19th Century European Freedom Fighter)

As I wrote she guided my hand, and the words came tumbling out at such a speed that my pen rushed across the paper and I could barely write fast enough to put them down.... I do not profess to understand [her].

George Bernard Shaw

The history of this woman brings us time and again to tears.

Jules Michelet (19th Century French Historian)

There now appeared upon the ravaged scene an Angel of Deliverance, the noblest patriot of France, the most splendid of her heroes, the most beloved of her saints, the most inspiring of all her memories, the peasant Maid, the ever-shining, ever-glorious Joan of Arc.

Winston Churchill

Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.

Mark Twain

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