Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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The Maid of Orleans

by Fred Lerner


One of the first books I ever owned was A Book of Heroes. Courtesy of the My Weekly Reader book club (which introduced me to printed science fiction with Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars) I learned about King Alfred and the burnt cakes, Robert Bruce and his spider, and a host of others that I’ve forgotten over the half century since I was in third grade. There’s one that I distinctly remember. It was in A Book of Heroes that I first learned the story of Joan of Arc.

I’m sure we all know it in outline. A peasant girl hears voices commanding her to deliver her native France from English occupation, persuades the dauphin to entrust her with command of his armies, crowns him king and leads French troops to one victory after another. Betrayed to the enemy and abandoned by her king, she is imprisoned, condemned as a heretic, and burnt at the stake. Posthumously rehabilitated, she becomes an icon of patriotism and sanctity, and is canonised in 1920.

I never looked much further into the story. As a child I watched her trial on television, shown on CBS’s “You Are There”, but it did not deviate from the version I had learned from A Book of Heroes. In college I had a splendid opportunity to explore every aspect of the legend. Working one summer as a page in Butler Library, I encountered the shelf list of Columbia’s Joan of Arc collection. Given a few weeks in the Rare Book room, a working knowledge of mediŠval and modern French, and a sufficient degree of interest, I could have made myself into an expert Arcologist. But I possessed none of these, and spent the summer reading Islandia and Empire City and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress instead.

At around that time I began to feel that I should become better acquainted with the life and work of Mark Twain. I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a boy, and in high school I came to The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Carl Naumburg, the Kipling Society’s American secretary, collected Twain as well as Kipling, which suggested that as an admirer of the one it might be worth my while to investigate the other. But there was so much Kipling to read, and so much about Kipling to learn, that I never got round to it.

I don’t remember what it was that led one of my colleagues in French class to mention the Sieur Louis de Conte’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, but her enthusiastic recommendation brought me to Baker Library and the sturdy volumes of The Oxford Mark Twain. This series reprints in facsimile the first American editions of his work, accompanying them with textual notes and a light critical apparatus. So I was able to read the same text that Mark Twain’s readers saw in 1896, when he published his biographical novel as if it were the valedictory memoir, written in 1492, of her page and secretary.

I had not expected Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to be an unabashed paean to the Maid of Orleans. I have dipped enough into his collected works to understand that Mark Twain’s reputation for cynicism is well deserved, and I am aware that there have been many writers who do not hold Joan in veneration. Even by Twain’s time psychiatry had developed its own explanation for young women who claimed to hear voices, and surely he did not need Mary Gentle to remind him that young women who associate themselves with armies rarely retain their virginity. (I can’t help thinking that Ash is meant, at least in part, as a challenge to the received portrait of Joan and her history.)

And I had not expected to stick out a 461 page book on a subject of little initial interest to me, by a writer whose books I approach more out of obligation than desire. To my surprise, it held my interest, and I found myself wishing that there had been more of it. I would like to read a narrative of Joan’s rehabilitation written with the detail — and the passion — that Twain devoted to her trial and martyrdom. I wonder if there is any book on Joan of Arc that makes the case against her appear equally attractive — I would like to read that, too.

But Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is cut from the same cloth as A Book of Heroes. When the Sieur Louis de Conte describes Joan as “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One” he is speaking in Mark Twain’s voice. Throughout the narrative he excoriates the pusillanimity of the dauphin who abandoned Joan and the duplicity of the bishops who persecuted her; but Joan’s abiding piety and the faith that sustained it receive nothing but his greatest respect.

“I have finished my story of Joan of Arc, that wonderful child, that sublime personality, that spirit which in one regard had had no peer and will have none — this: its purity from all alloy of self-seeking, self-interest, personal ambition.…[A] slender girl in her first young bloom, with the martyr’s crown upon her head, and in her hand the sword that severed her country’s bonds — shall not this, and no other, stand for PATRIOTISM through all the ages until time shall end?”

*

Mary Gordon’s Joan of Arc was my first encounter with the Penguin Lives series of brief biographies. There’s not too much one can say in fifty thousand words. A biographer working at that length must be highly selective, indeed, must assume that her reader will bring some prior knowledge of her subject. That is a safe assumption to make when that subject is Joan of Arc. “She may be the one person born before 1800, with the exception of Jesus Christ, that the average Westerner can name.” So, rather than recounting the details of Joan’s life and death, Gordon offers a modern reading of their significance.

“There is no one like her.” Gordon begins her brief “biographical meditation” with a visit to the market square in Rouen where Joan was burned to death, in the hope that it will help her to understand “the mystery of a girl…who stands in our imagination for the single-minded triumph of the she — and it must be a she — who feared nothing, knew herself right and fully able and the chosen of the Lord”. Gordon’s meditation is a feminist one, and I can think of no one better suited to a feminist biographer than Joan of Arc.

A psychoanalytically-minded historian equipped with a time machine and a fluent knowledge of late mediŠval French could probably provide us with a better understanding of what Joan’s flouting the conventions of sex and gender meant to her. Absent that I find Gordon’s analysis of her personality persuasive. Her Joan is a peasant girl motivated by an irresistable inner calling toward two goals: driving the English from France, and preserving her own virginity. That she was able to achieve the latter while working so hard at the former is indeed “a psychological anomaly”, another sign of Joan’s uniqueness.

Virginity, Gordon observes, “was the minimum condition for a woman entering a traditionally male sphere”. It offered mediŠval women escape from the subservience inherent in wife- and motherhood, the only other options open to the vast majority of them. Its association with sainthood doubtless contributed to Joan’s ability to win the support of her people as well as their leaders; and that same association may have protected her from rape at the hands of men who would not scruple to torture or kill her. “Could it be that Joan’s enemies feared her even more than they hated her and that the seat of their fear was Joan’s virgin body?” By the time that Gordon asks that question, she has made a good case for a positive answer.

Joan has appeared in the writings of many literary giants: Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, De Quincey, Twain, Brecht, and Shaw among them. After suggesting a reason for this — it “marks the richness of what Joan suggests, the variousness of our needs for her or for some pure girl who entered the larger world and gave her life for it” — Gordon veers off into critiques of their approaches.

Gordon’s offhand observation resonates in my mind with Mark Twain’s phrase, “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One”. Perhaps the reason that Joan of Arc has appealed to the Western imagination for nearly six hundred years is that her passion offers a feminine counterpart to one that has been described as “the greatest story ever told”. And not just a feminine one, but a human one. An ordinary person can hardly identify with one whom he or she believes to be the son of God, sent to die for the sins of all mankind. But one can imagine oneself a humble peasant chosen to live and die for the redemption of one’s country.

*

There’s no such thing as a definitive biography, but at any given time there are books that are generally regarded as the most authoritative. Mary Gordon relied heavily on Joan of Arc by Edward Lucie-Smith (1977) and Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism by Marina Warner (1981); and two titles, SimÚon Luce’s Jeanne d’Arc Ó Domremy (1887) and W.S. Scott’s Jeanne d’Arc (1974) are cited over and over again in Joanne of Arc: Reality and Myth. This slim volume contains four presentations given fifteen years ago at a symposium at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. I chose it from the Dartmouth library shelves in preference to any of the standard biographies, for the same reason I chose Gordon’s book: I am less interested in what Joan did than in what Joan has come to mean.

How were the Dauphin and his Court to know whether Joan’s visions came from God or from the Devil? Jan van Herwaarden suggests that “only the purity of the messenger — in Joan’s case, her virginity — offered any guarantee in this respect”. Likewise the judges at Rouen could not convict her of witchcraft. As Marina Warner explains, “Joan’s virginity proved her virtue; it contradicted all the known lewdness and sensuality of the devil’s dames, the witches”.

Joan was burned as a heretic, not as a witch. The danger that she represented to the English hold on France was surely a factor in her demise. But she represented another, subtler threat to the late-mediŠval power structure. During her trial Joan made clear her reverence for the saints and sacraments of the Roman church. But, as van Herwaarden observes, she justified her conduct by claiming a direct relationship to God and his messengers, bypassing the institutional framework of the church. Were she able to look back upon her career from half a millennium later, would she not be horrified to realise that this made her something of an anticipatory Protestant?

I don’t know that any Protestant apologists have made such a claim. But it wouldn’t be the only attempt at appropriating Joan in support of some cause she never heard of. At the end of the 19th century, Warner tells us, she was claimed as patron by both the socialists and the right-wing Action Franšaise; and in our own time Le Pen and the Front Nationale have adopted her as a symbol.

Catholic, feminist, chauvinist, or skeptic — it seems that everyone can find room for Joan of Arc in a book of heroes.