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!

Marjorie Annan Bryce in a Suffragette procession to mark George V’s coronation in 1911.

Marjorie Annan Bryce in a Suffragette procession to mark George V’s coronation in 1911.

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.

Clockwise from top left, Bergman; Falconetti; Seberg; Jovovich.

Clockwise from top left, Bergman; Falconetti; Seberg; Jovovich.

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.

Even while she was alive, but far more so after her death, the heroic part of her story sparked narratives of all kinds, in pictures, ballads, plays and also satires – most notoriously by Voltaire. But more, far more, followed the publication in 1841-49 of the proceedings of the Inquisition trial which had examined Joan for witchcraft and heresy. The transcript gives us the voice of this young woman across the centuries with almost unbearable immediacy; her spirit leaps from the page, uncompromising in its frankness, good sense and courage, and often breathtaking in its simple effectiveness. Some of her answers are justly famous. Asked if she was in a state of grace, she answered: ‘Si je le suis, que Dieu m’y garde; si je ne le suis pas, que Dieu m’y mette.’ (‘If I am, may I remain so. If I am not, may God put me there.’)

Mysterious virtue still radiates from the figure of Joan of Arc far beyond the borders of belief and nation, and all kinds of factions and interests have claimed possession of her. A deep fissure runs between her admirers, reproducing the historical French opposition between believers and free-thinkers, monarchists and republicans, conservatives and progressives. These cultural expressions are part of a political struggle, in France and beyond, to own the symbol – or, you could say, the brand. She’s the heroine every movement has wanted as its figurehead. Suffragettes dressed up as Joan on demonstrations and carried her banner; a huge, frenzied equestrian statue of her in full battle dress, sword upraised, by Anna Hyatt Huntingdon was erected on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with copies in Blois, San Francisco and Quebec. In modern times she has been seen as the supreme patron of female interests and feminist causes. In St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, designed by Lutyens and opened in 1911, the Lady Chapel enshrines a pantheon of women; in the west dome, St Joan has pride of place over an English heaven populated by a mixed bunch of writers, philanthropists and reformers – Cavell is there, and so are Queens Victoria and Alexandra, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Angela Burdett-Coutts. St Joan’s International Alliance, a Catholic body that was founded by suffragettes and is recognised today by both the Vatican and the UN, celebrated its centenary in 2011, and still distinguishes itself by its progressive campaigning for equal rights for men and women, focusing especially on contemporary problems – female circumcision, trafficking, poverty – and the persistent exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood. Joan offers a perfect counter-example, holding her own under questioning by prelates and canons. Without formal education, unable to read or write, she responded with such luminous clarity that when she repeated that her voices had returned to her, the scribe was moved to exclaim, ‘Responsio mortifera’ (‘a fatal reply’), in the margins of the court record. Benedict XVI recently advised that ‘hers is a beautiful example of holiness for lay people involved in politics, especially in difficult situations. Faith is the light that guided all her choices.’ He wouldn’t warm to all the company who gather round her standard: just as socialists, feminists and liberal Catholics rallied to her as the champion of the wrongly accused, so gay rights activists now claim her for themselves. In Lille in 2010, her statue was draped in pink: ‘le relooking queer de Jeanne d’Arc’, ran the headline on, showing that, during her afterlife at least, English has not been kept out of French.

Far from dying down, the storms of the last decades of the 19th century have continued to rage; Joan’s militancy and subsequent execution during a bitter civil war raise sharp questions about struggle, sacrifice and fanaticism which have new resonance in the many conflicts where women are engaged as soldiers, terrorists and victims. These issues have been raised in an unstoppable flow of books, films and other media. When Dreyer made his extraordinary film in 1928, and Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel composed the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher ten years later, both were working in the light of modern wars and prejudice. And their works are prophetic: the civil war in 15th-century France presages the treacheries both of the Occupation in France and of Dreyer’s native Denmark during the Third Reich, and similarly, the libretto for Honegger’s piece warns of the coming horrors of World War Two. In France today supporters of tainted causes also wish to sanctify their movements by association with her mana, or holy power, and Joan’s cult is once again dominated by anti-semitic, xenophobic, extreme right parties. Like Action Française in the first half of the 20th century, so the Front National in the present time proclaims her their patron, arguing that she personifies the patriotic cause of France for the French.

Once in the late 1990s, when I was on my way to the Bibliothèque nationale in the rue Richelieu, I passed a shop window in which a book about Joan of Arc was displayed. It was a study I hadn’t come across, so I went in and began browsing. Very soon, in mounting horror, I realised that I was in no ordinary bookshop; after glancing through the Jeanne d’Arc materials, I found shelfloads on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, embedded in fresh anti-semitic propaganda; many privately published cheaply printed documents were for sale, alongside terrifying, hideous postcards of a kind I have seen only in documentation of the Third Reich. In the back, a young man wearing a stiff high collar and cravat, no doubt in some gesture towards an imaginary ancien régime, was handling sales. Beside him, on a shelf, there was a bust of Hitler.

It seems hardly to be believed, as I tell it, and it was frightening and distressing and very sobering that Joan of Arc was being used as bait for such activities. When I left the place, I realised there was no name over the door, and the window was taped up where someone had no doubt lobbed a cobblestone. But apart from feeling defiled, for a while after this encounter I also felt robbed of a heroine.

Looking at the situation today, a few years later, it has only deteriorated, since Marine Le Pen, who inherited the leadership of the Front National from her father, is profiting from the disarray in the Eurozone. Jean-Marie Le Pen nauseatingly called Joan ‘my little sister’, Marine holds the party’s rally on her feast day and in 2011 invoked her at immense length, claiming that Joan’s campaign against the godons in France anticipated the Front National’s vision of an ethnically purified population.

When I wrote my book about Joan of Arc, which was published in 1981, I was fired up by the idea of her heroism, but in the last decade or more, I have found myself keeping the wrong company (I no longer have ‘all the right enemies’), and it has left a hole in the imaginary map, and created a need for another way of thinking about heroism, female as well as male. The claim on Joan of Arc as the guiding force of reaction and racism demands vigorous rebuttal. Some efforts have been made, but less successfully than one might wish. In 1997, a powerful group of writers, including the philosopher Alain Badiou and the political theorist Alain Finkielkraut, assembled in the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris to rescue Joan’s memory from the grip of these propagandists, chiefly by recourse to the poet who put the case most fervently for her generosity, tolerance, humanity, and her universalism: Charles Péguy, the socialist utopian and author of the long miracle play, Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc, which he dedicated to her and ‘à toutes celles et à tous ceux qui auront vécu leur vie humaine’. One of the speakers was Florence Delay who, under the pseudonym Florence Carrez, played the title role in Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, the classic film made by Robert Bresson in 1962; Delay became a writer not long after her role in Bresson’s film, and is now an académicienne. She drew attention to Péguy’s dream of fusing faith, hope and charity with the three Republican virtues in order to establish a universal socialism as the means of deliverance for France – and following France, for other nations. She then made a less fuzzy and more contemporary point when she quoted an exchange between Joan of Arc and her interrogators about her vision of the archangel Michael:

‘How did you know that it was St Michael?’

‘By the way he spoke and his language of angels.’

‘How did you know it was the language of angels?’

‘I soon believed it was. I wanted to believe that it was.’

Delay singles out this last answer – ‘J’ai eu la volonté de le croire’ – as an example of Joan’s gift of honest avowal, as well as her way of turning a phrase. Delay’s perspective belongs in the individualist tradition recognisable from the radical protest movements of the 1960s, and identifies Joan as a symbol of artistic integrity and personal truth – the highest and most cherished freedoms. But in this position, uncompromising commitment to a principle becomes a good in itself, or, as Bernard Williams explored in his last book, a higher authority is accorded to truthfulness (sincerity, assertion) than to truth (precision, accuracy). Ardent conviction proves more persuasive than accurate witnessing; intensity trumps scepticism and hesitation. Joan holds out a hope of certainty. But in recent decades, many developments in civil and international conflict have shown that personal conviction does not create ethical grounds for action (‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’). Joan of Arc exercises the thrilling spell of self-belief and sacrifice, but it is shadowed now by the danger that such positions lead to ‘conviction politics’, to faith wars and fanaticism. That is why Joan of Arc is held hostage by the far right and why it has proved so difficult to extricate her from their claims.

Another rather different development has contributed to the altered character of Joan of Arc. One aspect of Joan’s proto-feminist claim for equality has twisted into an unexpected shape as superstars and supermodels have been magnetised by her story, and especially by her physical prowess. With young women aspiring to hard-bodied muscle power, gyms filling with ever more ingenious machinery devised to build up their strength, and classes booming in an increasingly exotic range of martial arts, some interpretations of Joan of Arc have given stars a way of showing off the new aesthetic of female beauty. The significance of her adopted androgyny – her short hair, her male attire – has once again mutated. For the inquisitors in 1430-31, cross-dressing contravened the laws of nature and of God and fuelled the most ferociously pursued accusations against her; during many centuries of her subsequent cult, artists overlooked this guise and depicted Joan with long flowing hair, while her armour was moulded to a womanly body and was often worn over skirts. But the 1960s fashion for urchin looks allowed Joan a new boyishness. The acceptability – even desirability – of a masculine appearance can be measured rather neatly in the difference between the womanly Ingrid Bergman, cast as Joan of Arc in 1948 and the gamine Jean Seberg of Otto Preminger’s film of 1957. In the postwar reign of the teenager, Joan of Arc became a symbol of a rebel with a cause, a Rimbaud with a halo. She stood for civil disobedience and youth protest, especially against pressure from the state, and was embodied by vulnerable figures – the waif-like Seberg and the more impressive yet also beguiling Sandrine Bonnaire in Jacques Rivette’s monumental two-part meditation from 1994.

Current ideals of female beauty are taller, leaner, tougher and stronger by contrast with the not so distant past when gym-sculpted physiques still struck a conventional eye as mannish. The tomboy heroines who beckoned to my generation of girls – Jo in Little Women and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books – have faded, since a degree of emancipation has achieved some freedoms for women. There’s no longer any need to dress as a boy when hampering petticoats, tight-lacing, keeping your knees together and mincing belong to the past, or when you can win Olympic gold in taekwondo or join the army if you wish and, if you’re in the US army, fight on the front line. Robert Mapplethorpe’s studies of the body-builder Lisa Lyon in his 1983 book (purposely called Lady: Lisa Lyon) were deliberately disturbing to conventional concepts of gender. But by the mid-1980s, supermodels and later, film stars (Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie) were familiarising the public with an Olympian, virago ideal. Madonna, no giantess, is more muscular than Marilyn Monroe or Joan Crawford was. But it would be a mistake to think that fashionable ideas of beauty and appropriate appearances are sealed from realities; rather, the new acknowledgment of female physical strength matches a rise in female fighting, sport and, to some extent, action – from leadership (Mrs Thatcher ruled in that decade) to crime.

The image of Joan of Arc continues to act as a barometer of these social changes, but not only that. Her representations interact with the shifts in gender expectations and endorse them: she is the most significant Amazonian heroine in history, and her life of ardent action continues to inspire and shape the way passionate female engagement is depicted and narrated. For a long time Madonna was hoping and planning to play her, while the director Luc Besson cast the supermodel Milla Jovovich as a sword-wielding superwoman in his violent and repellent film The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). Joan witnesses the rape and murder of her sister and becomes a furious fighter, bent on revenge. This heroine has little of the interiority or vision of other Joans in literature or cinema. In a similar vein, Dinos Chapman recently encased the Russian model and fundraiser Natalia Vodianova in golden armour for a Christmas special feature in a glossy magazine. He wanted Vodianova to pose as Joan because, he said, she ‘is an archetypal strong woman … a female symbol of might and resilience’. The photograph was shot so that she would look ‘as if she’s just stepped out of a force field … a post-apocalyptic avenging angel’. The most recent episode in the video game series called Final Fantasy features a nameless apocalyptic redeemer along similar lines: a childlike, tousled hoyden in a crustaceous suit of sci-fi medieval armour, who wages just war against ‘the false gods enslaving mankind’. But Joan still enthrals girls: the writer Bidisha tells me that the ‘bronze breastplate’ ideal dominates teen romances; this logic brought the Twilight idol Kristen Stewart to the screen as Snow White in the recent epic Snow White and the Huntsman. The fairy-tale heroine was no longer to be seen sweeping up – she donned armour cap-à-pie and charged into battle.

What had been transgressive and strange, contributing a crucial element to Joan’s uncanny powers during her lifetime, has become an erotic desideratum of the art/fashion/entertainment industry. As a result, the ethical questions her choice originally raised and which brought her before the Inquisition (should a girl act like a boy?) and the historical difference it embodied (the rarity of a young woman taking such a step) seem unimaginably distant.

There are signs, however, that in spite of the loud claims of the French right and her current fashionable avatars, Joan of Arc has become once again the focus of a thoughtful examination of sincerity, faith and individual freedom. In a poem called ‘An Alphabet of Goddesses’, Edwin Morgan invoked her in a bleak and powerful litany to Lethe, in which he chants the names of women in history who have been treated badly. He observed no hierarchy: sibyls, anonymous prisoners, celebrated writers each take their place, side by side, and Joan is one of them:

She has been lobotomised with Naomi Ginsberg but she does not forget.
She has been stoned in Khomeini’s brickyard but she does not forget.
She has hung in a cage at Cumae wasting away but she does not forget.
She has burned in Israeli phosphorus for hours but she does not forget.
She has crackled in the marketplace at Rouen but she does not forget.
She has been injected with kerosene in Belsen but she does not forget.
She has drunk the lees of Chappaquiddick but she does not forget.
There is nothing you can pay her for the waters
of oblivion. High in a glittering sieve
she holds them, pans for grains of mercy.
There is no ferry, no other life.
Hunger and thirst after righteousness.

More recently the American composer Richard Einhorn wrote an oratorio, Voices of Light, to accompany the Dreyer film. The piece is huge, composed for full symphony orchestra and chorus, and it engulfs the listener in rapturous, Messiah-like choruses, which cast Joan as the promised saviour, and then sets flying a single voice or pair of voices to rise and lament alone. It follows the intense close-ups of the film, but accompanies the unfolding of Joan’s trial obliquely, feelingly, providing a profound emotional response to the suffering visible on the screen.

Einhorn is not a believer, and his composition, like Morgan’s poem, is rooted in a sense of Joan as a universal witness to the dangers of injustice and corruption. The montage of writings that he has set for the choir and soloists juxtaposes passages from scripture such as the denunciation of cross-dressing from Deuteronomy, medieval women’s mystical lyric poetry (some of it by contemporaries of Joan), and extracts from her initial trial and her letters and from the rehabilitation trial of 1452. ‘I sought a religious figure,’ Einhorn wrote in the programme, ‘a hero, that wouldn’t easily fit a preconceived mould, someone who combined a joyful, perhaps even erotic yearning for transcendence with the courage to confront the intense physical and emotional pain that so often accompanies a deep spiritual journey.’ Voices of Light dramatises Joan of Arc as the symbol of the unjustly accused, the prisoner of conscience, the resoluteness of innocence; it shows her as everyman and everywoman, someone who knows what suffering is.

Historiographic honesty can also illuminate present circumstances; in other words, a lieu de mémoire, as Joan of Arc is for France and beyond, can be explored to discover what happened and own up to it. It is surprising but encouraging, for example, that in Notre Dame today, the new plaque in front of the statue of Joan of Arc announces that in this very place, in 1452, 25 years after her death at the stake in Rouen, the assembled prelates and doctors of the Church declared null and void the Inquisition trial which had sentenced her. For a long time, the history of the Church’s involvement in Joan’s death was obscured: the English, helped by a few French quislings, were chiefly blamed. Joan remained rehabilitated, a hero of the nation, but not sanctified. But in the 1890s, when anti-clerical, socialist movements were strongly gaining ground, Joan of Arc was first made ‘venerable’, then beatified, and finally, in 1920, canonised as part of a wave of modern saints for modern times – her companions were Thérèse of Lisieux, the Curé d’Ars and John Bosco – in order to recapture the faithful. In those proceedings, the Church did not admit fault as it does now. Rivette’s film draws on the rehabilitation trial far more deeply than those of his predecessors, for whom Joan’s persecution in Rouen and her death at the stake were the climax and end of the story. By contrast, Rivette and his fellow screenwriters Christine Laurent and Pascale Bonitzer punctuate a cadenced, intense re-creation with the testimony of witnesses from the 1452 records. Speaking straight to camera in close-up, they bring a warmth and touchingness to Joan’s character and give her story the depth of personal memory.

Since François Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election, another phase in the public struggle for Joan has begun. Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister and now foreign secretary, is determined to wrest Jeanne from the right, and is supporting a new museum to tell her story in Rouen, where Fabius himself comes from and where she died. A historial, the museum is being devised with the help of scholars and promises to be a virtual reality son-et-lumière journey (visitors will enter the fire). It will occupy the Gothic archbishop’s palace, where Joan was held during part of the trial. Monseigneur has given it up smilingly, in a symbolic show of ecumenism and solidarity with the modern state in the all-important memory work on the patrimoine.

Another place associated with the historical Joan, the tower at Beaurevoir where she was held prisoner and from which she fell, gave me a glimpse of this purposeful heroine’s doubts and falterings. I found its ruins, thirty years ago, one of the most inspiring sites I visited as I retraced her footsteps. They afforded a deeper insight into the cost of her vocation – she knew her voices did not want her to throw herself down, but she was in despair. Allowing her to feel doubt admits more than a human weakness to her nature; her sense of desolation at Beaurevoir reveals how important the interactions with others’ beliefs were in the progress of her mission.

Stressing her state of individual exception and autonomy excludes ideas of collectivity and representation, and throws the weight of ethical choice onto the person acting alone. This vision has high romantic value, but social dynamics give the lie to it, while the politics of present conflicts ask for a different heroism, one founded in co-operation. Brecht ruefully challenges the role of heroes in the celebrated exchange towards the end of The Life of Galileo (1938). When the astronomer’s friend Andrea comments, ‘Pity the land that has no heroes,’ Galileo ruefully replies: ‘No, pity the land that needs a hero.’ If a society is working harmoniously together, it should not need to turn to a sole inspired leader.

I used to believe that Galileo’s wishful thinking could come true, but now I doubt it. National rituals came to seem to me like elements in the machinery of state repression, and organised historic ceremonies a form of brainwashing. But this position is too blunt, and ultimately defeatist. On the one hand, historians’ work on memory, led by the French commitment to lieux de mémoire and the records of the patrimoine, have sparked unprecedented interest in telling the story of the past in terms that bring its meaning to life; on the other, the writings of someone like W.G. Sebald or the films of a director like Rivette have uncovered the perpetual, productive interplay between fact and fantasy, memory and forgetting, reliable and unreliable witness. Both disciplines – historiography and the arts – have developed a paramount concern with narrative. What is remembered and what is forgotten are narrative choices that will always have moral implications.

Heroes and symbols are the compass points and moorings of our shared stories; abandoning the search to identify and define them, out of a high-minded distaste for propaganda, lets political factions manipulate them to their own ends. When Marine Le Pen calls on Joan of Arc’s name, she needs to be confronted about her abuse of history. Joan’s multiple resurrections and transformations show how charged symbolic figures like her remain. Surrendering this mythic territory to the forces of reaction allows them far too easy a victory.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 34 No. 24 · 20 December 2012

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.

Andrew McCulloch
Collingham, Nottinghamshire

Vol. 35 No. 1 · 3 January 2013

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.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Vol. 35 No. 2 · 24 January 2013

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.

Marina Warner
London NW5

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences