What a Woman!

J.L. Nelson

  • Joan of Arc by Mary Gordon
    Weidenfeld, 168 pp, £12.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 297 64568 4
  • Joan of Arc: A Military Leader by Kelly DeVries
    Sutton, 242 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7509 1805 5
  • The Interrogation of Joan of Arc by Karen Sullivan
    Minnesota, 208 pp, £30.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 8166 3267 7

Every year on 8 May, a young woman dressed in armour and carrying a white banner rides in procession through the streets of Orléans in north-central France. Dignitaries of Church and State join in commemorating an event and a life. The event is the French relief of the city, after months of siege by the English, in 1429; the life is that of Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old girl from Lorraine told by heavenly voices to go ‘into France’ and to rescue Orléans. Having achieved her mission, Joan fell into the hands of the English and was burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft in the marketplace at Rouen on 30 May 1431, though she was subsequently rehabilitated. The relief of Orléans has been commemorated since the late 15th century. Joan’s declared sanctity, by contrast, is not even a century old. She was little known even in France until the First World War. Then her canonisation in 1920 – which had much to do with relegitimising the French Republic – made her a national icon. In 1923, Shaw’s Saint Joan had its first production; and in 1928, Carl Dreyer’s film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc had its first showing. By the end of the 20th century, Joan was known throughout the world for inspiring the campaign that ultimately brought the expulsion of the English from France; for having been burned by the English; for having heard voices; for dressing as a man and going into battle; for being one of le menu peuple who fearlessly confronted the authorities; for being a saint.

In 1841 Jules Quicherat published the records of Joan’s trial and rehabilitation, and from Michelet on, there have been many attempts to capture the historical Joan. The evidence for her life preserves many people’s memories of her: memories recorded, some 25 years after the end of her brief public career, by witnesses summoned to nullify her original condemnation in 1431. The rehabilitation records therefore need to be read with due allowance for memory’s tricks and the pressures of political circumstance on those remembering. By the 1450s, Joan had been appropriated by the French court – appropriated, too, by the Vaucouleurs men of her original retinue, by her own family, by the citizens of Orléans. She had already become the subject of multiple forms of social memory. The forms have proliferated, especially since the 1920s. In the Second World War, the Vichy French memorialised Joan as a model of patriotic suffering at the hands of the English, but she was just as fervently remembered as the prototype of a Resistance heroine. Conservatives and radicals, patriarchs and feminists, have continued a war over her body. Careful historians go back to the records of her original trial – official transcripts of her interrogation, translated into Latin from the original French, along with partial copies of the French minutes – though such a huge dossier poses its own interpretative problems.

Joan didn’t live to see the age of the printing press, but hers was already a world with a great appetite for the written word, both in Latin and in vernacular languages. After the Black Death the economy of Latin Europe provided new opportunities for enterprising peasants and for migrants to the towns. Fifteenth-century domestic architecture attests to prosperity; court cultures flourished. This was the golden age of Burgundy – of Ockeghem and the Limbourg Brothers. France to Joan in 1431 seemed a land where warfare had inflicted la grande pitié; yet the warfare, though chronic (the Hundred Years War had been going for ninety years), was intermittent and localised, and its impact on some sectors of the economy was stimulating.

As a child in Domrémy, Joan had had stories of chivalric romances read to her. Two famous intellectuals, Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson, lived just long enough to know of, and celebrate in suitable literary genres, her victories of 1429. She was unlettered, but using notaries and clerks, became a keen consumer and producer of written communications. Hearing ‘through rumour and public information’ of the Hussites in Bohemia, she sent them a letter in March 1430, to condemn their heretical ideas:

To tell you true, I would have visited you long ago with my avenging arm if the war with the English had not kept me here. But if I do not hear soon that you have mended your ways, that you have returned to the bosom of the Church, I shall perhaps leave the English and turn against you, to extirpate the dreadful superstition with my blade of iron and to snatch you from heresy or from life itself.

The military historian Kelly DeVries quotes this letter, noting doubts as to its authenticity but failing to register the irony of its timing: scarcely more than a year after it was written, Joan herself would be snatched from both heresy and life by representatives of the Church she loved. Ending his book with Joan’s capture and ‘the end of a military leader’, DeVries sticks to his last. He regrets that most recent historiography on Joan has tended to underplay, even ignore, ‘what she was famous for’: that is, her achievements as a soldier. He acknowledges the institutional hospitality of the Royal Armouries in Leeds. He describes vividly his first reading of the records of Joan’s trial and later rehabilitation: ‘After these wonderful experiences, all that I could think of was: what a woman!’

Such enthusiasm for his subject is engaging; and, taken on its own terms, his book is informative, with its 11 maps and plans. Yet none of these has a scale, and this is vexatious to any reader wanting to know the length of the journey from Vaucouleurs to Chinon which began Joan’s career. DeVries does not investigate whether Joan personally used violence in battle, nor how she acquired whatever military skills she possessed. He quotes the testimony of D’Alençon, her fellow warrior, at the rehabilitation hearings: ‘everyone marvelled . . . that she acted so wisely and clearly in waging war . . . and especially in the setting up of artillery.’ Yet he fails to test the claim, and makes no allowance for the effect of time and circumstance on D’Alençon’s memory; he also fudges the issue of Joan’s tactical responsibility. After describing the French decision to seize and garrison the bridge at Meung-sur-Loire on 15 June 1429, he comments: ‘Joan, or whoever the author of this tactic was, had prevented a quick combination of Talbot and Scales’s army with that of Fastolf . . . It was a rather intelligent strategy, which has not been given its weight in the study of Joan’s campaigns.’ Yet ‘a policy of frontal assault’ was scarcely new, or distinctively Joan’s.

DeVries acknowledges that there were repeated occasions in the critical months of April, May and June 1429, when Joan was kept out of the councils of the French commanders. He quotes the rehabilitation testimony of Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans, on the moment – 29 April – when Joan, marching with the French Army from Blois to relieve the siege of Orléans, realised that she was on the south bank of the Loire. The French, following the strategy of Dunois and others, had avoided the English strongholds to the west of the besieged city, and aimed to cross the river upstream of Orléans, at Chécy on the south bank (unfortunately not shown on any of DeVries’s maps), which was undefended by the English and allowed relatively easy access across the Loire to Orléans. Joan, who had thought she was on the north bank ‘going straight where the English are’, accused Dunois of deceiving her, and assured him that ‘the counsel of our Lord God is surer and wiser than yours.’ At this moment, Dunois recalled, the wind, which had been blowing upstream, suddenly changed direction, allowing the French boats carrying Dunois’s troops, and loaded with provisions for the besieged, to sail downstream to Orléans. DeVries notes logistical improbabilities in this report, but offers no comment on its implications for Joan’s knowledge of the terrain. Or if Dunois, remembering a miracle a quarter-century after the event, himself disregarded those implications, does that not indicate the low priority he attached to Joan’s military know-how? In the end, and here DeVries is right if unoriginal, Joan’s military contribution was to counter ‘the psychology of defeat’ suffered by the French since Agincourt. Joan inspired morale: ‘She had a fire and spirituality, which attracted soldiers to her.’ The corollary was an English conviction that she herself was diabolically inspired: ‘If one loses to an unorthodox leader, an excuse for the loss must be found.’

But why Joan? And why in 1429? French historians have often written with wonder of the devotion she displayed to the French Crown, coming as she did from a place on the very margins of the realm – as if loyalty was expected to dwindle with distance from a kingdom’s centre. Joan’s birthplace, Domrémy, lay in a region where power had been contested since before France and Germany existed. Authority here was peculiarly multi-layered and parcelled in a medieval world where those were the characteristics of political power. The Duchy of Burgundy, revived in the 14th century by the stroke of a dynast’s pen to create a principality for a younger son, had grown more powerful, but not by modern criteria more state-like, by infiltrating layers and acquiring parcels of power, not only in France but in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire which included much of Lorraine. Domrémy straddled the Meuse – or to be precise an arm of that river, whose tendency to meander and divide mirrored political geography – one part lying on the southern bank, in Burgundian territory, the other on the northern bank, in the royal captaincy of Vaucouleurs, acquired less than a century before by the French Crown. The house of Joan’s family was situated next door to the church, on the northern bank. It would be hard to imagine a more marginal location.

Marginality became dangerous early in the 15th century when Burgundy, ruled by a third-generation duke, and the Kingdom of France, ruled by the senior branch of the Valois family, supported, at one point, by the Count of Armagnac, came into conflict of a thoroughly traditional and predictable kind. This conflict sharpened when Henry V of England, who had revived dynastic claims of his own to the French Crown, offered to fight alongside Burgundy. The effects were duly felt in frontier regions – raiding and thieving in and around Domrémy became frequent. In 1423, the husband of Joan’s cousin was killed in a skirmish. Two years later, a pro-Burgundian Domrémy man was suspected of cattle-theft and murdered. In 1428, Joan and her family were forced to flee to nearby Neufchâtel for a fortnight after the pro-Burgundian governor of Champagne burned down the church at Domrémy. According to Joan’s testimony at her trial, 1425 was the year when she first heard ‘a voice from God’, late 1428 the time when ‘a voice from God told her that it was necessary for her to come into France . . . to raise the siege of Orléans . . . and to go to Robert de Beaudricourt in the town of Vaucouleurs, the captain of that place, that he would give her people to go with her.’ DeVries assigns priority to Joan’s experience of the ‘voice’, and suggests that ‘Burgundian troops’ burned the church at Domrémy on the Duke of Burgundy’s orders because ‘rumours of Joan’s “mission” were sweeping throughout the countryside and into the Burgundian court.’ Chronological problems apart, this is to move too swiftly, and anachronistically, to high-level ducal politics. The local context seems the right one to focus on at this early stage of Joan’s career.

Mary Gordon is no military specialist, nor a medievalist, yet her account of Joan’s initial motivation rings true: Joan’s mission was a psychological response to the trauma of the church’s destruction and her family’s enforced flight. Gordon further points out that Joan’s two-week stay at Neufchâtel, during which she worked at an inn where soldiers were quartered, gave her her first opportunity to ride a horse. Joan of Arc combines a lot of good sense on military and other matters with well-chosen pickings from medieval scholarship as well as from the trial records themselves. Gordon is good on Joan’s saints, Margaret, Catherine and Michael – ‘vivid examples of the active, rather than the contemplative, path to sanctity’ – and on her ‘appetite for action’. She notes that Joan testified to having learned the Paternoster from her mother; and that Jean Pasquerel, whom Joan chose as her confessor, had met Joan’s mother on pilgrimage. Joan ‘lacked self-interest’, yet ‘loved display’. She burst into tears when insulted by an English soldier as ‘the whore of the Armagnacs’; yet ‘no one reports a single tear shed either in her cell or under the pressure of the interrogation.’ Gordon is not always secure on historical context, confusing dynastic with national politics, exaggerating the peculiarities of the period – ‘the atmosphere of the time was a dark cloud of depression and entropy’ – and misreading epistolary rhetoric absolutely of its time and place as Joan’s personal boastfulness. Just occasionally, the style that’s made Gordon ‘one of America’s most revered writers’ jars a little. Of Joan’s entry to the Dauphin’s castle at Chinon, Gordon writes: ‘It’s as if Dorothy got to Oz with no interference from the wicked witch. As if a girl from the boondocks decided to see the President and made her way to the Oval Office without passing through metal detectors.’ This playfulness substitutes for an analysis of Joan’s rumoured prophetic gifts and the politicisation of prophecy in the period, and Gordon underestimates the Dauphin’s political sharpness.

Nevertheless this short Life for the most part scores high on insight. Gordon is perceptive on Joan’s cross-dressing, a term she rightly prefers to ‘transvestism’, for Joan never denied her femaleness: ‘in taking on the power and authority of men, she refused to give up the identity of a woman.’ Gordon appreciates the importance of this issue in the charges against Joan, and in its relationship to idolatry. For Joan, the practical utility of wearing male dress was inseparable from its significance as a sign of virginity. It was this, above all, that invested her with symbolic power, and the capacity to inspire devotion or terror. In her closing paragraphs, Gordon writes in the present tense: ‘Joan is a compelling figure’ who ‘inspires in those whom she compels a response that the word “hero” is too distant properly to serve. She asks to be made our own.’ As a saint, Joan is ‘not, perhaps, the patroness of France; rather the patroness of the vivid life, prized not for military victories but for the gift of passionate action taken against ridiculous odds, for the grace of holding nothing back’. If Joan ‘constantly demands new revisions’, Gordon offers one for this generation.

Karen Sullivan’s is a different kind of book, certainly the most intellectually taut and challenging of the three considered here. Though he uses rehabilitation evidence retrospectively, DeVries’s narrative stops before Joan’s trial: Sullivan, on the other hand, begins and ends with the trial. Gordon writes with empathy, even passion, and wants above all to understand Joan: Sullivan is detached, forensic and wants first to understand Joan’s interrogators in order to probe their relationship with the woman before the court. Neither DeVries nor Gordon wears methodology on their sleeve: Sullivan is a new historicist, a literary scholar bringing the tools of cutting-edge American criticism to historical texts – though in her case the thoroughness of the research makes the result as thought-provoking for medieval historians as for other sorts of medievalist.

Interdisciplinarity is a hard row to hoe, but medievalists have hoed harder than most. Sullivan’s approach is, she says, ‘rhetorical’: the records are texts to be deconstructed rather than a collection of factual statements through which the reality of the past can be transparently read as it has been, she alleges, by historians. There’s some straw-mannery about this critique. The historical study of documents – the sub-discipline known as diplomatics – has proved exceptionally fruitful in recent years, shedding the image it once had of naive and dessicated positivism. But neither the subject, nor its fruitfulness, is new. In the hands of Marc Bloch, or of Jean Mabillon, the author of the great De re diplomatica (1681), archival materials, charters and legal records were unpicked, decoded and recontextualised no less vigorously and no less sensitively than chronicles. Diplomatics came alive as historical anthropology. Dominick LaCapra and Hayden White took a well-marked path. Still, Sullivan’s is an ever-timely warning against the temptation (who is immune?) to mistake documentary evidence as a medium through which the voice of the long-dead is unproblematically audible.

In the case of Joan of Arc, the temptation to hear such a voice is strong precisely because the evidence is voluminous and exceptionally well preserved, and because the voice itself sounds so distinctive, so attractive, ‘clear as a bell’, in the apt phrase of Marina Warner, to whose Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981), Sullivan, Gordon and DeVries all acknowledge debts, and which, for this reviewer, remains the best book on the subject. But the clarity can be deceptive. For the fact is that the record preserves not just one voice but many, and our reception is marred by interference. Sullivan starts from the premise that questions shape answers. (Marc Bloch said that a witness remains dumb until you ask him, or her, a question.) Her interrogation of the records of Joan’s trial is as rigorous (with sometimes even a whiff of scholasticism) as that inflicted on Joan by 15th-century clergy. She argues that on the key issue of the voices, the questioners elicited, and so produced, responses they had predetermined. Joan never mentioned particular saints during the early days of her trial. She attributed her voices only under pressure from her interrogators, and thus ‘collaborated with the clerics in the construction of truth’. Yet Sullivan also says the ‘shift’ was Joan’s own decision, and that the saints she ‘chose’ were peculiarly apt for a virgin messenger in the symbolic world of 15th-century France. Here The Interrogation of Joan of Arc overstates its case. It’s possible to maintain that Joan consistently identified her voices with her saints, but also that she believed that they did not wish her to reveal their identities: ‘The voice comes on the part of God, and I believe that I do not tell you entirely that which I know, and I have greater fear of failing them by saying something which displeases these voices than I have of responding to you.’

Sullivan’s juxtaposition of medieval and modern interrogation techniques is eerily illuminating. The late 14th-century inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich advised his colleagues to give the impression of having a lot of information about a suspect: ‘Tell me the truth because you will see that I know all about your case.’ The US Army interrogation manual (1978) recommends confronting ‘the source’ with a large dossier padded with extra paper: ‘If the technique is successful, the source will be impressed with the “voluminous” file, conclude that everything is known and resign himself to complete co-operation.’ Interrogators across the centuries have advocated deception in order to secure a confession and ‘compel truth, located within’ the suspect ‘but in opposition to him, to speak out in his stead’. Augustine in The City of God appreciated the cruel dilemma of the judge applying torture in this world of appearances ‘where the truth is not known’, yet he was clear that the judge must do his job, ‘for the claims of human society require it.’ Sullivan might have compared the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, evidence of other medieval trial records with Joan’s. By the 15th century, the agents of Church and Crown were eagerly mastering inquisitorial techniques – these trials represented the machinery of new power. Within late medieval and early modern court societies, accusations of heresy and witchcraft were tools of state every bit as politicised as prophecy. The Hundred Years War, even in its last phase, retained aspects of a civil war. Joan, remorselessly discarded by the Armagnacs when circumstances turned, was the victim of rival claimants to France.

Sullivan’s main conclusion is that two irreducibly opposed cultures confronted each other in Joan’s trial: learned and popular, written and oral, clerical and lay, Latin and vernacular. This reinscribes a rather well-worn dualism, belied, surely, by the plentiful evidence these same trial records offer for a shared culture embracing Joan and her questioners. The analogy with modern interrogations suggests as much. Sullivan herself notes that ‘both peasant visionaries and clerical examiners appear to have expected those who alleged supernatural encounters to furnish signs,’ and that Joan’s answer when asked if she was in a state of grace – ‘if I am not, may God put me there, and, if I am, may he keep me there’ – echoed the preaching of parish priests. She concludes one of several sets of deep reflections on Joan’s assumption of male dress:

One can argue with equal conviction that Joan was distinguished by an active, almost Blakean initiative in transforming herself into what she wanted to be and that she was marked by a more passive, almost Marian willingness to serve as the handmaid of the Lord. It is not clear that these two portraits of Joan are irreconcilable, that the woman who believed herself destined to go to the aid of her country might not also have taken pleasure in that for which she felt ordained.

Nothing in Sullivan’s careful construction of her case for opposed cultures and discourses prepares us for her chilling conclusion: that Joan finally yielded to her interrogators and ‘started accepting the truth as they had always wanted her to accept it’. Sullivan refers here not to Joan’s recantation, a week before her death, which she revoked within days, but to her frame of mind throughout that final week. Against the – comforting – orthodoxy that after the revocation Joan reaffirmed the convictions she had maintained during her trial, Sullivan argues that her revocation was only partial, that in the end she surrendered. This is the most impressive part of an arresting book. It is also the bit that matters most.

Perhaps the best way to appraise Sullivan’s argument is briefly to re-examine the course of events in that final week. On 24 May 1431, two months after her trial had finished, and after two months in prison at Rouen, Joan was led out into the cemetery of St-Ouen, before a large crowd. A stake had been prepared for her. As the chief judge began to read out her sentence, Joan abjured her revelations ‘in all things referred to our holy mother the Church, and to us, the judges’, and agreed to accept women’s dress. She was consigned to life-long imprisonment. Four days later, when the judges revisited her prison cell, they found her in men’s clothes. Joan had renounced her abjuration. Sullivan scrutinises the new interrogation that followed. It reveals Joan in a state of mental ‘disturbance’ but ‘less confident than before’. Testimony given by clerics at the rehabilitation hearings indicates that Joan had suffered an attempted rape, but if so, this was not investigated on 28 May. The interrogators returned to Joan’s voices: had they spoken to her on or since 24 May? Joan replied that ‘they had told her, when she was on the scaffold . . . to respond boldly.’ She had disobeyed them in abjuring, ‘consenting to an enormous treason in order to save her life’. Yet at the same time Joan, in Sullivan’s view, now ‘cast doubt’ on her abjuration, for she said that she had never meant to imply (entendre) that she renounced her voices. Sullivan insists on the distinction between ‘claiming she had not’ renounced them and ‘claiming she had not understood herself to say this’. Joan thereby ‘suggested a split between her action and her consciousness’. Sullivan’s method is coolly analytical as ever. But does it quite allow for the context in which Joan committed her ‘treason’ on 24 May, or for the working of her memory afterwards?

On 30 May, as another stake was being erected, this time in the marketplace, the judges came to visit Joan for the last time. They reminded her that her voices had promised ‘release from prison’, and invited her to agree that ‘the contrary’ had in fact occurred. This, she said – in a flash perhaps of her old irony – ‘she perceived well’. Responding to further questions, Joan insisted that ‘she had really heard the voices,’ ‘really had revelations’: ‘soient bons, soient mauvais esperils, ilz me sont apparus.’ But, the judges pressed her, what did her voices look like? ‘They came to her in great multitude and in minimal size.’ Joan had allegedly spoken once before of multitudes of angels appearing with St Michael, yet never before had she described her voices as very small; and she made no mention now of her three saints. Sullivan’s interpretation of this response is crucial to her argument. At her trial, Joan had indicated that her ‘voices’ were life-sized persons – St Michael was ‘a very true worthy man’ – and embraceable. Now, Sullivan writes, Joan portrayed her voices ‘in neutral “scientific” mode’. Further, these ‘miniaturised’ voices had ‘lost their individuality’. Joan had ceased ‘to have an interpersonal relationship’ with her voices, and her attitude to them ‘became “objective”’, and lacked meaning or emotion.

Sullivan’s evidence for this is slim. She fails to persuade the reader that Joan’s changed perception signified an acceptance of the interrogators’ truth in place of her own, still less a general ‘disillusionment’. Joan had always perceived her voices ‘objectively’, in the sense of external to herself, and possessed of their own independent reality. ‘Miniaturising’ need not be a symptom of neutrality or detachment, and to construe Joan’s meaning here demands further consideration of ways in which bodies could be culturally, and personally, constructed then. Joan realised, as she had on an earlier occasion, when she unsuccessfully attempted to escape from the tower of Beaurevoir before being brought to Rouen for trial, that she had misconstrued what her voices had meant in promising her ‘release’ from prison. Her mistake, she knew, was no fault of theirs. Joan’s changed way of remembering, and representing, her voices was surely conditioned by, and expressive of, her situation on the morning of 30 May. That morning, asked if she ‘had voices’, Joan answered that ‘in this belief she would persevere to the end.’ The end, in one sense, was only minutes away: in another sense, the end was a beginning.