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!
[*] 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.
Vol. 34 No. 24 · 20 December 2012
From Andrew McCulloch
Marina Warner’s choice of Joan of Arc as a heroine is made possible by a highly selective reading of Joan of Arc’s history, which concentrates on her trial at Rouen and ignores her mission and her behaviour (LRB, 6 December). I fail, therefore, to see the ‘abuse of history’ of which she accuses Marine Le Pen, or why there should be a ‘vigorous rebuttal’ of the claim that the myth of Joan of Arc is a ‘guiding force of reaction and racism’.
Warner’s Joan of Arc is a singular female embodiment of selfless courage, who was adventurous, independent-minded and a ‘proto-feminist’. Joan of Arc’s fourfold mission was to secure the crown for Charles VII, expel the English from France, raise the siege of Orléans, and deliver Charles, the Duke of Orléans, from the captivity of the English. Raising the siege of Orléans was easy compared to the three other tasks. One of Joan of Arc’s problems was that she was plus royaliste que le roi. There was far more to securing the crown of the justifiably paranoid Charles VII than his mystical crowning at Reims. Like the petulant teenager she sometimes was, Joan could only think in terms of absolutes, and military force was the answer where instruction failed. However, the role of a feudal king, particularly a financially poor one like Charles, was to orchestrate a war of position. He became king in the end thanks to political efforts made in the face of the threat of internecine warfare within the nobility.
Joan of Arc’s contribution to France’s military history is zero, and marked by its carelessness with the lives of those around her. Her tactic – tactic? – of throwing herself into the thick of a battle and in effect challenging the chivalrous males in her entourage to come to her aid was bound to lead to her downfall, and did. Those captured with her were ransomed, as was the aristocratic custom, but she was not. I would not write off as misogynist the complaint of one of her enemies that she was ‘the simplest thing he ever saw, and in what she did there was neither rhyme nor reason’. If the right want her they can surely have her.
Vol. 35 No. 1 · 3 January 2013
From R.W. Johnson
Marina Warner begins her story of Joan by recollecting her time as a pupil at a Belgian convent school in 1954 (LRB, 6 December 2012). Had she been in a French convent she would have been overwhelmed by the celebrations of that year’s Joan of Arc, Geneviève de Galard, the only French woman among the beleaguered troops at Dien Bien Phu. Celebrated for her heroism as the Vietminh closed in, she was awarded the Legion of Honour, appeared on the cover of Paris Match, was given a ticker-tape parade and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Eisenhower. She is still alive today, married to a French general.
I find it no more surprising that Joan has been appropriated by the Front National than that the Union Jack has been similarly appropriated by the National Front. What is interesting is that Joan is all about defeat: her own defeat, first of all, and its apotheosis at the stake but France’s defeat too – the French were losing badly in the Hundred Years War when Joan took a hand. Similarly, the media hype around Galard (BBC radio was more interested in her than they were in the actual siege) had to do with the fact that the French were losing the war in Indochina. Not surprisingly, there was a boom in Jeanne d’Arc devotion after 1871 and again after 1940. We need our hero figures precisely when we’re getting walloped. That was what the great celebration of Dunkirk was all about. Marine Le Pen calls on Joan because her followers are desperately afraid that France is being overwhelmed by foreign Muslims.
Vol. 35 No. 2 · 24 January 2013
From Marina Warner
Andrew McCullough, in his response to my piece about Joan of Arc, ends by saying, ‘If the right want her they can surely have her’; R.W. Johnson seems to be tarring her with the same brush, recalling a dim heroine of colonial propaganda from the French war in Indochina (Letters, 20 December 2012 and Letters, 3 January). Both show startling complacency about mythical and political symbols brandished by propagandists for their ideological ends (or is it weariness they’re suffering from?); they also incidentally reveal how the Front National’s historiography is gaining ground. This is disturbing for many reasons, not least because it exposes such holes in historical memory.
I don’t single out Joan of Arc for her military skills or political acumen – though the lifting of the siege of Orleans changed the direction of the Hundred Years War, and the coronation at Rheims was a symbolic triumph – but focus on her trial because it gives us one of the most vivid, fully recorded voices in history; with forthrightness, sincerity and flashes of wit, an unlettered young woman conspicuously stands up to the crushing power of church and state. After hundreds of years, her spirit rises off the page, and identifies her with ideals of integrity and justice, freedom of thought and worship, safety from persecution and torture, resistance to oppressors and respect for individuals.
The magnetism the historical person exerts has since been enriched by historical, poetic and cinematic accretions that can’t now be chipped off her. It’s clearly in the interests of the Front National to claim this national heroine and saint as their political precursor, and Marine Le Pen wants Joan’s stardust to rub off on her personally, unlikely as that may seem. One of the misapprehensions which it suits the Front National to perpetuate concerns the role of the English. In 1429-30, Joan was fighting against the French as much as against the English: the Burgundians were supporting the claim of the English king, the baby Henry VI, to the French throne (according to the Treaty of Troyes, the son of Henry V and his queen, the French princess Catherine, was the legitimate heir). Joan was condemned to the stake by a court dominated by French clerics, many of them from Paris.
Seeing dynastic, feudal conflicts through the lens of modern ethnic nationalism distorts understanding of the past, and the Hundred Years War remains messily complicated. In Johnson’s case, it’s particularly disturbing that he finds it possible to equate the experience of defeat in World War Two with the perception of ‘being overwhelmed by foreign Muslims’. It is this kind of move that concedes ground to the Front National, who have forgotten that ‘foreign Muslims’ fought in great numbers with the Liberation forces that freed France from the Occupation; together with other Muslims, both then and later in the case of the Harkis in the Algerian war, these French troops were notoriously shabbily treated, and many of today’s tensions can be traced back to this expedient forgetting.