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Summer Books

Joan of Arc, patron of the vivid life

By Mary Gordon
Lipper/Viking, 176 pages,hardcover, $19.95


Joan was a teenage peasant girl -- 17 when she left her village, Domrémy; 19 when burned to death in the public square at Rouen. Unable to read or write, like most young women of her time, she could express herself clearly enough when she wanted to. At her first meeting with the lord of next village, she is recorded as saying:

“I am come before you from my Lord, so that you may tell the dauphin to be of good heart, and not to cease the war against his enemies. Before mid Lent the Lord will give him help. In fact, the kingdom does not belong to the dauphin but to my Lord. But my Lord wants the dauphin to be made king and to rule the kingdom and it is I who will take him to the coronation.”

That brief statement holds two mysteries that surround Joan’s life: Why should her Lord bother about the fate of the vacillating dauphin and his fractured country? And, how could this young woman hope to perform what she promises?

The author suggests that Joan might have seen a king’s presiding over a united France as the only way to stop the depredations of poorly paid English and Burgundian troops that harried the countryside when not engaged in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), a smoldering and debilitating struggle in which England and France fought for control of France. The Burgundians and a few English drove off Domrémy’s cattle and burned its church in 1425, the year 13-year-old Joan first heard her voices.

Mary Gordon, author of five novels including Final Payments and The Company of Women and a professor of English at Barnard College, does not retell Joan’s story in a conventional way. Rather she seizes a piece of the story and offers her meditations on it. Headings within chapters include “The King is Crowned; Then What?” and “Was She a Knight and What Kind of Knight Was She?”

After raising the siege at Rheims and escorting King Charles VII to his coronation in the Rheims cathedral, Joan said she wanted to return home. Instead she remained with the court until she persuaded the king to allow her to move against Paris. In a failed campaign, leading unpaid troops, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English and tried in an ecclestical court for heresy. Gordon describes it as “the first of the great witchcraft trials.”

She writes, “The fear of witchcraft was entering the European air at the end of the 14th century, and it was connected to anxieties about class and particularly gender mobility.” And later, “Joan was accused of idolatry in connection with two of her most characteristic acts: her relationship to her voices and her wearing of men’s clothing.”

Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, was chosen by officials of the University of Paris, Anglo-Burgundian sympathizers, to preside at Joan’s trial. Cauchon had lost his diocese at Rheims when the dauphinist forces, led by Joan, captured it. His prejudices and the judicial irregularities he allowed led to his decision being overturned in a rehabilitation trial years after Joan’s death.

Joan saw Cauchon’s court not as the church but as her enemies.

At her rehabilitation trial, the court pointed out that the young woman should have been held in an ecclestical prison, not a secular one, and should have been given a secular trial before being executed by the English government. The court questioned Cauchon’s sincerity. Cauchon died under suspicious circumstances, as his beard was being trimmed.

Gordon includes a chapter where she compares how Joan’s story has been dealt with in movies, plays and a Verdi opera.

Danish director Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a 1928 silent film, gets high marks, as does George Bernard Shaw’s play, although Shaw’s St. Joan seems to suffer “for less than 25 lines in a 125-page script” and “is religious only because her creator ... cannot make her otherwise.”

Gordon concludes her book with the statement that Joan should be perhaps not the patroness of France but “the patroness of the vivid life, prized not for military victories but for the gift of passionate action taken against ridiculous odds, for the grace of holding nothing back.”

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000