Joan and Jill

V.G. Kiernan

  • Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism by Marina Warner
    Weidenfeld, 349 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 297 77638 X

In 1870, Daumier drew a cartoon of soldiers filing past a monument of the fatherland, with the caption: ‘Ceux qui vont mourir te saluent.’ Wandering about quiet French churches, one always comes on a dusty tablet with a list of long-forgotten names, and the brief valediction: ‘Morts pour la France’. Close to it very often stands Joan of Arc, in armour, sword in hand, as if pointing young men to the battlefield, to die for France, or whatever France has fought its wars for. It was tragically appropriate that she was canonised in 1920, just after a million men had died for France; she was wafted up to Heaven on a gale of high explosive and poison gas. A woman burned by the Inquisition for insubordination to Holy Church was not a person the Church could easily bring itself to honour, but towards the end of five centuries of waiting her promotion was rapid. She was made Venerable in 1903, a bizarre title for a girl of 19, and Beatified in 1909, when France was drifting towards war; drifting also into infidelity, which might be checked by a distinction conferred on the embodiment of French patriotism.

Personified France and canonised Joan are both enigmatic figures. With Joan, Marina Warner has succeeded as well as anyone could in plucking out the heart of her mystery. She is the heroine of this book: deservedly, for it is hard to think of any close parallel to her anywhere in history, even though in other times and climes, and under other gods, the storm and stress of war has sometimes given women the chance to come forward as leaders. We may think of the semi-deified chieftainess Veleda whom Tacitus describes, in the revolt of the Rhineland Germans against Rome, or of Lalla Fathma, the wrinkled old prophetess who inspired the resistance of the Kabyle tribesmen to Napoleon III. But this book is a study, not a eulogy, and admiration is seasoned by the critical spirit. ‘It is in some ways terrible to look upon such epic events with a cold eye,’ but it is necessary candour ‘to own that heroes and heroines are often the vessels of our most self-flattering illusions.’ She has gone carefully into the setting of events; some readers may wish for a rather fuller introduction to the Hundred Years War and what it was about, but there is a chronological table to assist their memories. Speaking of Joan’s strange encounter with Charles VII at Chinon, where today the docile tourist follows his guide from mouldering tower to tower, she finds an ‘irrational element’ in history which ‘will always defy analysis’, an idea that would have been worth saying more about.

Miss Warner is good at questions concerning women, and concerning religion: she is the author of a very serious study of the cult of the Virgin Mary. It is an acute observation that when a state of confusion has seized people’s notions of public right and wrong, as it did very deeply in late Medieval France, ‘there flourishes the preacher who links it firmly with private sin.’ A good part of religious history has consisted of people being adjured to repent of their own shortcomings, instead of complaining about Henry V or Mrs Thatcher. She is exact about linguistic matters, as is needful because many old French terms which come into the story require accurate understanding. Joan called herself ‘the maid of God’, and has for long now been to her countrymen ‘the maid of France’: the precise significance of the word pucelle is gone into. There are some intriguing speculations about gender in linguistic psychology, and why French abstract nouns are feminine. As to the book’s English, it is flexible and graphic; a purist may feel that now and then it lapses into colloquialisms unsuited to the dignity of the Muse.

At 16, Joan fell foul of her parents by refusing to marry a man of their choice. It was a declaration of independence nearly as youthful as Juliet’s, and might be said to presage her declaration of independence, not much later, on behalf of France. Her village of Domrémy lay in a troubled borderland, trampled by many marching feet. ‘Insecurity was the watchword for Joan’s childhood.’ Such an induction into life might well prepare an impressionable young woman to hear voices, speaking to her ear alone. One may guess that she had a more vivid aural than visual imagination. It was hard to get her to say anything distinct about the saints who visited her, when, for instance, she was pressed at her trial to specify whether St Michael wore wings or not. What Miss Warner emphasises, however, is that her experience was not of mystical rapture, but had a mundane, realistic bearing: she was being instructed to leave Domrémy and undertake a mission for her bleeding country, and this mission she carried out faithfully until it brought her to the dungeon and the stake. Over such things as the best use to be made of an influential grandee like René of Anjou she displayed a ‘natural businesslike instinct for success’. This fusion of heavenly inspiration with hard-headed peasant sense seems to put her in the same world as Cromwell and his fellow Puritans, zealots never doubting that God was immediately present on the battlefield, governing every ebb and flow of its fortunes, but never leaving it to Him to supply their gunpowder or sharpen their pikes.

Joan’s time of triumph was as brief as it was brilliant. How much it contributed to turning the tables against the English may be hard to compute. Whether or not she had a military flair that was responsible for the rapid ejection of the English from their strongholds on the Loire, and the raising of the siege of Orleans, matters less, Miss Warner sensibly observes, than ‘the historical truth that her contemporaries, on both sides, thought that she had’. And she reminds us that the English still took her very seriously after her countrymen were ready to discard her, or they would not have organised so elaborate, protracted and expensive a trial to make sure of eliminating her morally as well as physically. After the failure to take Paris by storm in 1429 her star declined as rapidly as it had risen. It may be permissible to conclude that Paris was not over-desirous of being stormed, or liberated, or that there was no strong general feeling in favour of her determination to push on the fighting. Charles, at any rate, as Miss Warner says, was ready now to rely on a more cautious, diplomatic approach, and Chivalry and its grand gestures were becoming outmoded. Its ideology was used up, and ‘words, images, legends and emblems formed the thin ice covering the dark pool of social chaos.’ There is irony in the grand gestures being abandoned by a decadent aristocracy, not too unfairly pictured by Shakespeare before Agincourt, to a peasant girl.

No attempt was made to ransom her from captivity. ‘Put not thy trust in princes’ was a thought that must have occurred to her. It does not seem to have occurred to her at any stage to put her faith in the people instead, the common people, her own class, instead of blossoming into a well-equipped knight on horseback, with a regular military retinue. Risings of the poor were taking place here and there, under the burden of the wars, murders of gentlefolk were reported, as Miss Warner notes. The same was to happen again in the France of the religious wars, and in the Germany of the Thirty Years War, but in all these cases only fitfully and ineffectually: peasant revolts pitted against the professional soldiery were doomed to failure. Joan must have seen plenty of peasant misery round Domrémy, but it may have been natural for her to overlook native oppression. Her mission was simply, as she told her judges, ‘to boot the English out of France’.

She came from the frontier, where patriotic impulses have been born in many lands. But at her point in time it can scarcely be possible to say whether she was nationalist or monarchist: the one sentiment was emerging from the other. She venerated the blood royal, as a sacred ichor. From the sacred blood of kings to the sacred soil of their countries there was an unbroken emotional flow, and the soil imbibed and never lost the strong element of irrationality dissolved in the blood. It was only round the figure of the king that national feeling could crystallise. But superstitious reverence for royalty was to remain part of popular mentality all over the Continent for ages, and to do the peasantry immense harm by blindfolding it to the fact that the king was, far more than anything else; the headman of the aristocratic bloodsuckers who battened on it. Nationalism, the offspring of monarchism, would demand further enormous sacrifices. In its most virulent form, it had its cradle in the Anglo-French wars, succeeded later by Franco-Spanish, and then in turn by Franco-German. It has been both potent stimulus and dangerous drug. Joan unwittingly, or her legend, helped to brew it. It is not easy to guess what she would have felt if her voices had told her that one day she would be made a saint, over the graves of a million French soldiers and their English allies.

It is easiest to feel with her at her trial, which Miss Warner describes carefully, but movingly. It has ‘the nightmarish ambiguity, formlessness, confusing menace of The Trial or The Castle’ by Kafka. In the dock, tormented with long questionings by subtle theologians and inexorable enemies, she can serve as patron saint of legions of men and women in our own unhallowed age, undergoing other kinds of interrogation, often with no less atrocious penalties to come. Questioned over and over again about what happened at Chinon, her answers grew incoherent, ‘filled with contradictions and denials’. She was only 19. Fear of the waiting flames drove her into a recantation, but she withdrew it and doomed herself by declaring that she had heard her voices again. She understood little of the niceties of divinity in which her judges were entrapping her: what stands out is an unshakable faith in her mission, without regard to the authority of the Church; she was as certain as Wycliffe or Hus of ‘the primacy of the individual conscience’. In this light we may view her, not fancifully, as a forerunner of the Reformation, little as any thought of heresy entered her mind. There is irony again in the letter apparently written by her in 1430 to the Hussites, threatening to lead a crusade against them if they did not give up their heresy. Miss Warner thinks it may well be authentic, though we are allowed to hope that it was only meant to provide her with a certificate of orthodoxy.

We are given a fascinating and fantastic picture of the mental condition of the time, thronged with high-born dabblers in astrology and magic, a countryside more than half-pagan, an ‘apocalyptic tradition’ decked in imagery ‘highly coloured, often erotic’, abounding in signs and wonders, prophets and prophetesses, with inquisitors sniffing quiveringly at their tails. How the demented Europe of the late Middle Ages could give birth to modern Europe, rationalism, science and the rest is the greatest wonder of all; no doubt a good deal of the old lunacy hangs about us yet, and astrology is making a strong recovery. Miss Warner insists again that Joan stood apart from all the mystico-rhapsodical fermentation, and thinks of her as losing her hold on her followers because she could not meet their credulous appetite for ‘more assurances, for more prodigies’. This must happen, she adds, to all leaders who build on ‘miraculous powers’ instead of ‘moral teachings’. But a peasant girl could not offer herself as a teacher: her claim could only be founded on something supernatural, and there was a contradiction Joan could not escape from between the marvellous expectations she aroused and the straightforward tasks she wanted men to carry out.

Women restless under their common lot of being cooped up have always lain under a temptation or proclivity to see visions or hear voices. Prophecy, it is pointed out here, was one of the few careers open to talent, especially for women, and was a vocation not prohibited, but perilous because the Church was always mistrustful of what it might lead to. It must have been all the more perilous for an illiterate village girl whom her betters would be quick to think presumptuous. Joan, as Miss Warner says, came from a social level very inferior to that of the mostly well-born, well-educated women mystics of the best Medieval period. It was of great moment to her prosecutors to brand her as physically, as well as spiritually, impure; her portrayal as both ‘a harlot and a witch’ lasted in England down to the 18th century. For hagiographers, on the contrary, her essential attribute was always her virginity. In a man-made world she had to don male attire, as Miss Warner sees. She had to adopt male values also, including the obsession with virginity, which may be understood as a projection onto woman of man’s guilty consciousness of his own animal impulses, felt as degrading, as these have always been, because of the warping of sexual relations by society and family: hence woman is polluted, contaminated, by man’s touch, as the priest is by woman’s.

Women of the people suffered dreadfully, as always when hordes of soldiers not much different from brigands have been marching about. It must be supposed that feeling for them, as well as for the peasantry, was part of the electric energy which carried Joan from Domrémy into history. At any rate, she was to grow into a heroine of feminists as well as patriots. Rejection of marriage and parental command, a rehearsal for her rejection of ecclesiastical authority, may be said to constitute her a true feminist in her own person. Miss Warner remarks on the appeal this rejection could have for those women – very numerous, as cults of several female saints indicate – who longed for the same emancipation. She remarks that feminist issues were being canvassed in the 15th century, more than ever again before the 18th (this is perhaps to overlook 17th-century England), though only in narrow ‘educated circles’. Women of the upper classes suffered far less from the hardships of war, but they might well have an inkling of how the masculine feudal world and all its beliefs were crumbling: Jill was in a good position to know how shaky was the house that Jack built.

It was a frequent theme of later writings that ‘God had chosen a woman to save France.’ Part Two of the book is called ‘The Afterlife of Joan of Arc’, a story as remarkable in its way as her real life on earth. It was an excellent idea to trace the successive aspects and meanings she took on for later ages; very few individuals in history can have gone through so many transformations, or reincarnations. Her strange career fitted her for these protean shifts, and if she herself changed her attire in her season of action her admirers were to dress her up in a whole wardrobe of costumes. They make a striking illustration of how history has been made by, or under cover of, symbols, far more than through recognition of facts. Collective thinking has been a kind of symbolic logic, made up of emotive images and associations – a process quite other than the more or less rational calculations of individual life.

The magic lantern of folk fancy was soon at work, turning Joan into the paladin of the Hundred Years War. For the more learned, Classical Renaissance leanings turned ‘the most famous of European heroines’ into an Amazon, a Diana: they were aided, Miss Warner believes, by the quite bogus name ‘Joan of Arc’ which was being bestowed on her, with its suggestion of bow and arrow. In the Wars of Religion she was claimed as champion by the Catholic party, and her memory was worked up particularly by the very Catholic and royalist city of Orleans, scene of her brightest victory. Four centuries later, in the fascist era, she was being invoked by reactionary French clericalism, and trumpeted by Maurras as upholder of ‘the natural order’, military monarchy. But for a long time there had been a tug of war for possession of her image between this faction and its opponents, who prized her as victim of religious bigotry, falsely accused like Dreyfus. Each vied with the other in strident patriotism, and after 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine ‘symbols of national integrity were beyond price.’

Joan as a Lorrainer made a perfect emblem for all revanchists: a heroine from Brittany or Provence would not have been nearly so serviceable. While waiting for the day of revenge France was building up its overseas possessions; from patriotic defence to imperial aggression has often been a woefully short step. Miss Warner refers to Jules Ferry, another Lorrainer and one of Joan’s secularist patrons, as ‘an active positivist and socialist’. It would be more to the point to call him, as history calls him, a prominent imperialist, an instigator of the bloody conquest of Vietnam with its promise of worse bloodshed in days to come, more young men sent to join the ranks of the morts pour la France. Chauvinism could fit Joan into this as easily as into recovery of her native province. Few Londoners ever notice the ludicrous incongruity of a monument outside Parliament in honour of Boadicea, leading the revolt of Britain against the Roman Empire, with an inscription proudly predicting the still wider conquests of the ‘British’ Empire.

Quite apart from her place in French politics, on both sides, Joan found an impressive galaxy of admirers abroad, as multifarious as Southey and Coleridge, Mark Twain and Bernard Shaw. It was inevitable that she should find her way onto the stage, and, with Gounod, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, into grand opera. This might have been thought the grand finale of her death-and-transfiguration, but there was still another height for her to scale, and in our century she has been riding again to victory and defeat across the silver screen. Miss Warner traces her career there too. But altogether, she writes, Joan has been cramped into a limited range of characters, ‘the available lexicon of female types’. At many points – during a discussion of the Neoplatonic idealising and mythologising of women into allegories and personifications, for example – the salient impression made by this book is the extraordinary entanglement of delusion and mystification that man’s vagrant mind has conjured up round woman. He has hidden her real self in a labyrinth, and forgotten the way back. It is very much like the white man’s fumblings and self-deceptions about the inscrutable oriental.

Mystified by women, men have reassured themselves by expecting them always in the end to capitulate to nature by falling in love with one of them. The Joan of latterday romance regularly had to fall in love, as Miss Warner shows, thus offering her sacrifice ‘on the altar of male supremacy’. Schiller made his Maid of Orleans fall in love with an English soldier, a wretched bathos worthy of any Hollywood manufacturer. A far better choice would be Voltaire’s satirical epic La Pucelle, which Miss Warner speaks of as ‘wickedly funny, racy, bawdy, clever’, and which readers of Lytton Strachey will remember Frederick the Great’s breathless impatience to get hold of. Her book is one more reminder of the importance of having history looked at afresh by intelligent women: hitherto the human race has contemplated itself and its record blind in one eye.