Joan of Arc was naive, a holy fool – if she wasn’t in secret extremely shrewd and pragmatic. The saintly ‘voices’ she claimed to hear were schizophrenia – if they weren’t ergotism, or epilepsy, or purely a rhetorical device. She cross-dressed for practical reasons – if it wasn’t due to some religious idiosyncracy, or to protect herself from rape, or an issue of gender identity.
What we don’t know about Joan of Arc could fill a server farm. Yet the basic facts of her life are simple enough that they’ve continuously inspired children’s books. A teenage peasant who never held a formal position of power, she is more famous today than the French king she fought for or the English king she opposed. (Charles VII, to us, is simply the king who met Joan.) She has spawned movies, plays, fashion lines, advertisements and 1920s flapper hairstyles. Christians, feminists, transgender activists, neopagans, leftists, the French Resistance and Marine Le Pen supporters have all revered (and repurposed) her story.
It’s anyone’s guess how a teenage female peasant in 1429 was able to gain the respect of grizzled, chauvinistic French military aristocrats. Or how she managed to inspire their troops – troops who might have raped and terrorised female peasants on other occasions – to several unlikely victories. To intrigue us more, one of the knights she fought beside at the Siege of Orleans was Gilles de Rais, the proto-Bluebeard who would later be executed for supposed black magic and serial murder. How did she put up with him? How did the sacred and the profane march under one banner? These mysteries have tested the creativity of many writers.
For Shakespeare, whose generation was still bitter at Joan’s victories, the solution was simple: she had to be profane herself. The ‘Pucelle’ who appears in Henry VI Part I is a compulsive liar who consorts with ‘familiar spirits’. She isn’t a cool Lady Macbeth villain, either. Shakespeare and his co-writers seem to have truly hated her. (‘Pucelle’ – French for ‘virgin’ – sounds similar to ‘puzel’ – Middle English for ‘slut’ – and the play airs this pun relentlessly.) At her lowest moment, her pet demons abandon her and walk offstage indifferently. Even her trial and execution is played for laughs. When her shepherd father appears to witness her last moments, she repudiates him and claims to be of noble birth. He curses back: ‘O, burn her, burn her! hanging is too good.’ Then, immediately after claiming to be a lifelong celibate, the Pucelle flips the script and announces that she’s carrying the Dauphin’s child. (Or maybe the father is the Duke of Alencon. Or Reignier of Naples.) She might be the most rankly misogynistic character in any Shakespeare work – not simply for her evil, but because that evil is dim and insipid, an evil few woman actors would clamour to play. As Josephine Tay wrote, ‘I could be interested in a bad woman but never in a silly one.’
New Wave science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer offered a more interesting bad Joan in his two novels Image of the Beast (1968) and Blown (1969). His scenario imagines a race of powerful aliens who reincarnate throughout history, inspiring mortal legends about vampires, werewolves, ghosts and similar monsters. A modern Los Angeles detective learns that two such creatures were Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais. Madly in love, they resolved to reincarnate as a single being after their deaths. Their rebirth has backfired, however, resulting in a monstrous shared form: Gilles’s bearded head is now the size of a golfball and barely sentient, capable only of biting people and gibbering in archaic French. It dwells in the reincarnated Joan’s uterus and sometimes emerges from her vagina, at the end of a fleshy, snakelike tube. This proved to be the two books’ most famous image, and 1970s French editions featured a version illustrated by Moebius:
The golfball-head’s fangs are coated in a lethal, paralysing venom which kills several male characters during sex. Joan herself (now calling herself ‘Vivian Mabcrough’) looks passably human, though pulling on the fleshy tube causes her body to fall apart temporarily; its limbs and organs crawl around, trying to reassemble.
As a bigger surprise, ‘Vivian’ resembles a noir-movie femme fatale – the last form we would ever expect from Joan. She doesn’t appear to have any saintly qualities, and shares her true-love’s passion for serial killing. The protagonist of Blown speculates that Joan probably was guilty of heresy after all, but proved ‘too big a hero for the French’ not to get posthumously canonised. As to why a sadistic alien would fight the English in the Hundred Years War:
Maybe for herself. Who knows what she intended to do after she saved the nation for the French ruler? It’s possible that she meant to take over from him or perhaps to control France through him. […] I didn’t ask her what she and de Rais meant to do. But I’ll have a chance later on. Just now, I’m too stunned.
Farmer wasn’t the first author to place Joan and Gilles in an unholy union. In 1921, anthropologist Margaret Murray considered the idea very seriously. Her now-discredited work, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, proposed that paganism had survived well into the Middle Ages and that the victims of witch burnings were practitioners of a suppressed ‘Dianic’ religion. Murray’s theory, while dodgy from an academic standpoint, should be admired for its inventiveness. Earlier scholars, Murray claimed, had made a mistake by studying Joan and Gilles separately:
This individual treatment is probably owing to the wide divergence of the two characters; the simplicity and purity of the one is in marked contrast with the repulsive attributes of the other. Yet anthropologically speaking the tie between the two is as strongly marked as the contrast of character.
The truth, according to Murray, was that Joan and Gilles belonged to the same Dianic cult. Their deaths at the stake (which happened a decade apart with no obvious connection) were both religious martyrdoms. The tribunal that sentenced Joan wasn’t just a pro-English kangaroo court, but part of a deliberate anti-pagan purge. Why else was Joan asked so many questions about the ‘Fairy Tree’ in her home village? Gilles, meanwhile, came from a pagan lineage with ‘a strong suggestion of a strain of fairy blood’ and raised to believe that he was the ‘Incarnate God of fertility’:
He could not decide to which religion he would belong, the old or the new, and his life was one long struggle. The old religion demanded human sacrifices and he gave them, the new religion regarded murder as mortal sin and he tried to offer expiation; openly he had Christian masses and prayers celebrated with the utmost pomp, secretly he followed the ancient cult; when he was about to remove the bodies of the human victims from the castle of Champtocé, he swore his accomplices to secrecy by the binding oaths of both religions; on the other hand members of the old faith, whom he consulted when in trouble, warned him that as long as he professed Christianity and practised its rites they could do nothing for him.
On the spot where Gilles was executed his daughter erected a monument, to which came all nursing mothers to pray for an abundance of milk. Here again is a strong suggestion that he was regarded as the Incarnate God of fertility. Another suggestive fact is the length of time-nine years-which elapsed between the death of Joan and the death of Gilles. This is a usual interval when the Incarnate God is given a time-limit.
Murray found a way to neaten all the tension and mystery in Joan’s story. How did a peasant girl singlehandedly win over the French military brass? She must have been backed by ‘an unseen power, which Charles VII feared and from which he unwillingly accepted help’. That power was ‘the underlying religion which permeated the lower orders of the people in France as in England’. Why did troops respect her? Because ‘the men-at-arms, drawn from the lower orders, followed without hesitation one whom they believed to have been sent by their God, while the whole army was commanded by Marshal Gilles de Rais, who apparently tried to belong to both religions at once.’ Murray reconciled the sacred and the profane in a neopagan synthesis. We can thank her influence, at least, for giving us The Wicker Man.
By now, even the Anglo world has been won over to a kinder image of Joan. Two centuries after Shakespeare, a succession of Victorian writers began to rehabilitate her. In an 1847 essay, Thomas De Quincey conceded that ‘La Pucelle d’Orleans, the victorious enemy of England, has been destined to receive her deepest commemoration from the magnanimous justice of Englishmen.’ With all his rambling charm, he tried to banish the suggestion that Joan was as lewd and grubby as other peasants:
M. Michelet, indeed, says that La Pucelle was not a shepherdess. I beg his pardon: she was. What he rests upon, I guess pretty well: it is the evidence of a woman called Haumette, the most confidential friend of Joanna. Now, she is a good witness, and a good girl, and I like her; for she makes a natural and affectionate report of Joanna’s ordinary life. But still, however good she may be as a witness, Joanna is better; and she, when speaking to the Dauphin, calls herself in the Latin report Bergereta. Even Haumette confesses that Joanna tended sheep in her girlhood. And I believe, that, if Miss Haumette were taking coffee alone with me this very evening (February 12, 1847)–in which there would be no subject for scandal or for maiden blushes, because I am an intense philosopher, and Miss H. would be hard upon four hundred and fifty years old–she would admit the following comment upon her evidence to be right. A Frenchman, about thirty years ago, M. Simond, in his Travels, mentioned incidentally the following hideous scene as one steadily observed and watched by himself in France at a period some trifle before the French Revolution:–A peasant was ploughing; and the team that drew his plough was a donkey and a woman. Both were regularly harnessed: both pulled alike. This is bad enough: but the Frenchman adds, that, in distributing his lashes, the peasant was obviously desirous of being impartial: or, if either of the yoke-fellows had a right to complain, certainly it was not the donkey. Now, in any country, where such degradation of females could be tolerated by the state of manners, a woman of delicacy would shrink from acknowledging, either for herself or her friend, that she had ever been addicted to any mode of labor not strictly domestic; because, if once owning herself a prædial servant, she would be sensible that this confession extended by probability in the hearer’s thoughts to having incurred indignities of this horrible kind. Haumette clearly thinks it more dignified for Joanna to have been darning the stockings of her horny-hoofed father, Monsieur D’Arc, than keeping sheep, lest she might then be suspected of having ever done something worse. But, luckily, there was no danger ofthat: Joanna never was in service; and my opinion is that her father should have mended his own stockings, since probably he was the party to make the holes in them, as many a better man than D’Arc does; meaning by that not myself, because, though certainly a better man than D’Arc, I protest against doing anything of the kind.
De Quincey was soon followed by Charles Dickens, who devoted a chapter to Joan’s life in A Child’s History of England. Dickens managed the feat of praising Joan’s bravery while still slinging mud at the French cause:
From the moment of her capture, neither the French King nor one single man in all his court raised a finger to save her. […]
[I]t is no wonder, that they, who were in all things false to themselves, false to one another, false to their country, false to Heaven, false to Earth, should be monsters of ingratitude and treachery to a helpless peasant girl.
Nevertheless, Dickens ended the chapter with one of his typically magnificent paragraphs:
In the picturesque old town of Rouen, where weeds and grass grow high on the cathedral towers, and the venerable Norman streets are still warm in the blessed sunlight though the monkish fires that once gleamed horribly upon them have long grown cold, there is a statue of Jeanne d’Arc, in the scene of her last agony, the square to which she has given its present name. I know some statues of modern times – even in the World’s metropolis, I think – which commemorate less constancy, less earnestness, smaller claims upon the world’s attention, and much greater impostors.
Ali Alizadeh’s new novel, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, is a fast, dizzy, contemporary version of the legend. Alizadeh freely melds Jeanne’s first-person voice (pining and reminiscing from her prison in Normandy) with the views of an omniscient narrator in the twenty-first century. The story shifts between ‘she’-voice and ‘I’-voice without warning, often in the same paragraph. It’s an interesting effect, and could work very well in an audiobook edition with surround-sound. There are other modern touches. Battle scenes are presented with the same rhythm as live news updates (‘7:04 am … 8:33 am … 9:17 am …’). In one scene, Jeanne even kicks her pageboy and swears, ‘You fucking idiot! You didn’t wake me up for the battle!’ Further on, in a blend of modern cussing and old-timey diction, Jeanne’s companion Captain La Hire calls the English ‘a clowder of fucking pussies’.
Alizadeh’s twist on the story is making Jeanne a lesbian. To my knowledge, no novelist has tried such a thing before. This fact surprises me, since it’s not a very big leap – at least, not compared to Joan as a sexed-up, murderous space alien. The idea might even have occurred to a fanfiction writer somewhere. As it happens, Alizadeh’s Jeanne isn’t celibate, either. She finds a lover in Pierronne the Breton, another female religious visionary who is also doomed to be burned at the stake. (There was a real Pierronne, though we’ll likely never know if she met the real Joan.)
Alizadeh turns Jeanne’s sexuality into something more than an incidental fact. We find it driving her whole quest, from the moment the Voices promise her ‘great happiness/ beyond common womanhood’. Jeanne asks them, ‘Will anyone ever love me?’ and they respond: ‘the one/ with clear blue eyes/ from a distant place/ she with hair the colour of fire’. These Voices aren’t exactly in harmony with Church doctrine. Instead, they suggest a personalised, Lacanish mission to follow one’s desire. Near the end of the novel, as Jeanne faces execution, a ‘remorseful theologian’ asks her if she can describe the angel she saw when her Voices first appeared. She answers: ‘I’m sure the angel was me. There was no-one else.’
How much you like the novel will depend on how much you like that thesis. My own favourite scenes are the ones where Alizadeh channels the hagiographic literary tradition. I’ve always loved stories about saints holding their own against various tempters – human or demonic – who try to threaten and seduce them away from their faith. The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc has plenty of grotesque figures to challenge its heroine, from the gaolers who brutalise her to the slimier social predators that her glory attracts.
We meet Lady Isabel le Despenser, an English noblewoman who visits Jeanne’s cell and offers to upgrade the furnishings. Lady Isabel is a celebrity-hound, and the sort of aristocratic slummer who (in a later century) could be seen touring Bedlam with a parasol. She bombards Jeanne with condescending high culture references even as Jeanne is in danger of rape by her gaolers:
I will read to you from The Canterbury Tales. One episode features an Amazon princess, a female warrior, and I am sure you will appreciate—
Please, countess. I’m not safe in here.
In Jeanne’s flashbacks, two even worse characters appear at the same time as she meets Pierronne. There’s Brother Richard, an apocalyptic preacher who could justly be called the Alex Jones of the fifteenth century. With him is Madame Catherine de la Rochelle, a phony religious seer who claims to receive messages from ‘the White Lady of Heaven’ and has parasitised a series of French courts. Unable to raise her game above mediocre cold readings, she secretly resents Jeanne for eclipsing her. Half-Tartuffe, half-Salieri, Madame Catherine acts as a shady parody of Jeanne’s Voices (one of whom claims to be Saint Catherine). Shortly after Jeanne and Pierronne make love, Madame Catherine passes a night with Jeanne in the same bedroom, promising her that she will see the White Lady of Heaven. No apparition greets them at the stroke of midnight. The night becomes a dismal mockery of a much happier night Jeanne enjoyed in that room.
Finally, when Jeanne is captured and tried, Madame Catherine leaps at the chance to sell her out: ‘I had the misfortune of spending a night with this woman, during which I tried to persuade her to see the light of truth and renounce her sinful ways. But she told me, Catherine, I do not desire the love of your God. I have the protection of the spirits of the fountains, the demons of the forest, the lord of the underworld.’
In another era, Joan might still become a saint of Hades. Values change. Party lines are redrawn. Dogma gets amended. But sainthood often enough outlasts religion, cheating the scythe of amnesia that cuts down everything else. Gods die; saints survive and shift their patronage.
Image: Still from Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc