In 1954, I was a pupil at Les Dames de Marie, a French-speaking convent school in an expansive and pastoral suburb of Brussels. Every morning, as we crocodile-filed into our classrooms, we sang patriotic hymns. One of these, the ‘Marche Lorraine’, has a rousing chorus; in rapid ascending arpeggios as in a trumpet voluntary, we blasted out a paean to ‘the young shepherdess in clogs and woollen skirt’ who took up arms and walked out fearlessly to confront her king and restore him to his throne. One of the many verses goes:
Fiers enfants de la Lorraine
Des montagnes à la plaine,
Sur nous, plane ombre sereine,
Jeanne d’Arc, vierge souveraine!
The song was adopted by the Resistance during World War Two, because Domrémy, Joan of Arc’s birthplace, stood in the part of Lorraine that had not been ceded to Prussia after the French defeat in 1871, and from that time until the end of the First World War, the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine was the touchstone of French national pride. Joan of Arc, who had thrown an earlier occupying power out of France (or so traditional history had it), became the patron saint of the movement to expel the Germans from French territory. In 1940, when France had once more suffered a humiliating defeat at Germany’s hands, Joan was again cast as the symbol of resistance and became the figurehead of De Gaulle’s movement against the Vichy regime and the Third Reich. Sharing a history of warfare, death, occupation and deliverance, Belgian Catholics gladly adopted the French heroine.
Les Dames de Marie occupied a vast Gothic pile, decorated throughout in polished marble with busy polychrome wall paintings recalling stirring episodes in the history of church and state in Belgium. Although I can’t remember the exact subjects now, the atmosphere of those pictures remains pungently present in my mind: nationalism and piety, conservatism and propriety (bienséance) combined. In that era before Vatican II and the Common Market, Belgium observed any number of rituals, religious and secular: on the eve of the feast of St Nicholas, good children were given marzipan fruits while bad ones found their shoes filled with coal; on 1 May, the queenship of the Virgin Mary, bunches of lily of the valley were exchanged. Joan of Arc was one adoptive saint and heroine among many whose memory was kept with incense, flowers, singing and processions on her feast day, another spring festival since it fell on 30 May. The liturgical calendar afforded a counterweight to the cycle of the patriotic, secular year; it was inward-looking and folkloric, the creation of a small, culturally divided country, laden with desire for a strong retrospective personality and strict social order and with a longing for historical definition. A pervasive Victorian medievalism characterised its vision of the past, the 15th century acting as a reflecting pool for recent history – the wars and the hard-won peace. The effect was stultifying and often strained, even for a child who wasn’t conscious of the motives. But it was also potent: the Belgian convent prepared me to become a historian of Joan of Arc.[*]
When the figure of Joan of Arc came into focus, the depressive national mood was countered, for my childhood self, by a vision of gallantry under pressure, of a young woman’s heroism. The convent itself stood on the rue Edith Cavell, named after another heroine of the same selfless, courageous mould: Cavell (born 1865) worked as a nurse, a teacher and a spy in Belgium before and during World War One; after confessing that she had helped wounded soldiers to escape, she was shot as a traitor in Brussels in October 1915. It was only when I returned to live in England years later and saw the monument outside the National Portrait Gallery with the resounding slogan, ‘Patriotism is not enough,’ that I realised Cavell was English, not Belgian. But like Joan of Arc, she embodies a form of female independent-mindedness and courage and adventurousness. Both women stretched my horizons far beyond the dull observances of Uccle, and their experiences, even though they ended in horror and tragedy, offered an exciting contrast to the way the future looked to a well-brought-up girl in the 1950s. At the same time, they were martyrs, and martyrs were, I was raised to believe, the ideal expression of female virtue. Although Joan was a martyr in the sense that she was an unflinching witness to her principles, neither she nor Cavell was strictly speaking persecuted for her faith. It remains one of the many rough ironies of Joan’s story that she is not enrolled in the ranks of the virgin martyrs in the Church’s pantheon because she was condemned for heresy, apostasy and idolatry by the Church to which she steadily proclaimed her total loyalty.
Nevertheless, at the level of her legend, her sufferings during the trial and her death at the stake make her the successor of the early Christian martyrs whose marvellous fortitude was recounted to us. In 1959, I went as a boarder to St Mary’s, Ascot, where my education in the faith continued through Catholic Truth Society pamphlets as well as bedtime stories by the nuns: Joan of Arc was like the young saints Perpetua and Felicity in Roman North Africa who faced the wild beasts in the arena, and her torments recalled the sadistic horrors which any number of martyrs in the Golden Legend undergo before they are finally dispatched by their executioners.
The parallels between Joan’s sufferings and Jesus’ on Calvary are explicitly drawn out in her modern cult: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterwork of cinematic poetry, dwells in close-up on the ravaged face of Renée Falconetti, as if making a devotional icon of the face of Christ. His camera meditates lingeringly – even voluptuously – on the stages of her ordeal, including a scene of mockery by lewd jailers who put a string crown askew on her head. In a sober twist, the original film, which had disappeared, was found in a cupboard in a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s.
The fame of Joan of Arc began in her lifetime and, though it has dipped a little now and then, she has never vanished from view. Her image acts as a magic mirror of personal and political idealism and, in particular, of changing ideas about women’s heroism. She has proved an inexhaustible source of inspiration for writers, playwrights, film-makers, performers and composers. Several of the essential mythopoeic characteristics that have defined the charismatic leader throughout history are powerfully and intensely condensed in one brief life: she was young (19, she thought, when she was sent to the stake); she spoke directly with God and his angels and saints; she was courageous, convinced, lucid and eloquent, especially in defiance; she appeared from nowhere and had no normal, legitimating officialdom behind her at a time of terrible violence and unrest (she spoke truth to power). She was a virgin: ‘Jeanne la Pucelle’ (Joan the little flea, the maid), the troops called her. She was eccentric: she insisted on wearing men’s clothes although she wasn’t in disguise (everyone knew she was a girl). Above all, she was lucky (at first), and luck is a quality the ancient Greeks knew was a divine gift. Her presence at the battle at Orléans rallied the soldiers after months of stalemate, and the long terrible siege of the city was lifted.
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[*] Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism appeared in 1981 and will be reissued by Oxford in March at £25. The present text is based on the introduction.