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Friday, January 06, 2012

Happy 600th birthday

Today is the 600th birthday of one of the many French lasses who have captured my heart over the years: Jeanne d'Arc -- Joan of Arc to you.

Like Mark Twain (who wrote a gushing but accurate biographical novel about her), I have long considered Joan the most admirable creature produced by the human race during the past thousand years. She is the only non-artist of my trio of personal heroes -- Leonardo da Vinci, Gustav Mahler and Joan of Arc.

Then again, maybe she was an artist. Her medium was kicking ass.

When I was young, I read every English-language biography of Joan, and even some of the French material, back when my French was a lot better. I even came across (in the recesses of a UCLA library) an exact photographic reproduction of her trial transcript, which the notaries had verified with cool red bloodstains.

The best of the bios (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise) remains the one written by Vita Sackville-West. Although superbly written, the book has made many enemies over the years because Sackville-West -- the lover of Virginia Woolf -- implies, but never states, that she recognizes something in Joan that transgressed then-current sexual norms.

The evidence is intriguing, though hardly conclusive. There was a boy in Joan's life early on: He sued her for breach of promise, she won her case, and that's pretty much all we know about the matter. Joan wore male clothing throughout her career, and not just to go into battle -- most people forget that she spent many frustrating months on inactive status in the court of Charles VII. (Her costumes were costly, and she owned more horses than did the king. All saints have their weaknesses.) She slept with women whenever possible. Her male comrades-in-arms reported that she was comely and had nicely-shaped breasts (which they just happened to notice), yet she never aroused any sexual feelings. One soldier did try to cop a feel. You can guess her reaction.

Interpret all of that as you will. Shaw called her "the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages," and I suspect that he was right in more ways than he knew.

Joan's life teaches us that it is possible for anyone -- absolutely anyone, however unlikely -- to act in this world. She teaches us that it is possible to couple a genuine humility with an almost-infuriating level of self-confidence. Had she not lived, the Hundred Years' War would have turned out differently.

Neither arrogance nor self-regard had any place in her heart; she was pure action. She specialized in deeds, not reflection. I once hoped to be like her in that. Reflection, alas, can be the worst of habits.

I still don't know how she did what she did. The uncrowned King -- properly called the Dauphin -- granted her an audience mostly as an amusement. Speaking in private, she told him a Big Secret. Neither party ever revealed that Big Secret. Whatever it was, it convinced "Charlie-boy" (as Shaw called him) to give her control of the entire French army.

On a feminist note: Arguably, we should call her not Jeanne d'Arc but Jeanne Romée. The rules of nomenclature were still in flux; in her part of Europe, women retained the matronymic. Her mother Isabelle was named Romée, indicating that she had made a pilgrimage to Rome at some point.

Joan never referred to herself as Jeanne d'Arc; later writers gifted her with her father's name. The father may have come from Arc. We can't even be sure what his name was: Various documents from the time give it as Darc and Tart and Day and Dare and several other variations.

Joan always referred to herself as La Pucelle -- the Maid -- which was her nomme-de-guerre. Sort of like Bruce Wayne calling himself Batman.

In fact, she may be the closest thing to a comic book superhero that real life has ever offered. She had a cool name (cool by the standards of her day), a costume (the "white" armor, which wasn't really white), a putatively magic ring (sort of like the Green Lantern) and allegedly spooky powers. Although many feats of what we would now call ESP have been attributed to her, I can't offer hard proof that she ever did anything truly supernatural.

But she did once take a 70-foot fall out of a tower window -- and survived. Didn't even break a bone. So, like, there's that.

The finest modern Johannaphile writing in English is the famed medievalist Bonnie Wheeler; anything she has to say is worth your time. You may also want to look up an old book by Guy Endore, who also wrote Werewolf of London. The biographical chapters are pedestrian, but the 100 page "Discussion" at the end addresses the many bizarre rumors that Joan's legend has inspired over the years, and it is all great weird fun. W. S. Scott's bio is also worth reading.

Finally: I doubt that January 6 (the feast of the Epiphany) is her real birthday. The document which gives that date is filled with romanticized silliness. But tradition is tradition. Of all the onscreen Joans, the actress who most resembles the real thing is probably Jane Wiedlin, who played her in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. She was also in the Go-Gos.
I put a hold (at my library) on the Mark Twain book. Not sure I'm up to the non-fiction stuff right now. ... Thanks for this I didn't know that much about her.
We celebrate her birthday down here in New Orleans each year with a parade and many dress up balls. Every one dresses up in period costumes. To us, she is the Maid of Orleans. A gold statue of her stands in the French Quarter. 12th night and her birthday are the kick off of the carnival season. She's an integral part of the entire celebration.
In the totally fictional realm, Joan is one of the cool Immortals on the side of humans in the Alchemyst series by Michael Scott. You might enjoy a cartoon done by a friend and local artist, which you can view at
Cambridge: Your friend got the facts right, and is also guilty of some horrible punnage.

I should explain one issue raised on that site. The ecclesiastical trial she received did not condemn her to death. It declared her a heretic, then handed her over to secular authority. There was supposed to be a separate civil trial, but they skipped right over that part in -- you should pardon the expression -- the heat of the moment.
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