The second item for the year’s reading list was a biography. I’ve never been particularly interested in biographies, but I found an exception. I was listening to the radio a week or two ago and ran across someone giving an interview about her biography of Joan of Arc. I kind of thought it was interesting, and remembered St. Joan from my medieval war obsession of my childhood. So I decided to check it out. Alas, a couple of Amazon reviews showed me quickly that this particular Joan biography was not something I’d like. My curiosity had already been piqued, so I did more research and found one more to my liking. I learned that, of all people, Mark Twain wrote a book on Joan of Arc, entitled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I expected this to be a simple biography. It was not. Rather, I found it to be a highly engaging, fictionalized account of Joan’s life from the perspective of a made-up lifelong friend, page, and secretary, which nonetheless remains very historically accurate.
I finished this book tonight, and it is already among my favorite books I’ve ever read. If Twain’s portrayal of St. Joan is at all accurate, and it seems to be based on my outside research, then she was without doubt one of the most outstanding women in history (besides my lovely wife, of course). If you’re not familiar with her story, I’ll give you the rundown:
It all happened during the medieval Hundred Years’ War between France and England, which had been raging for 92 years. The country was essentially divided in half, with the northern half firmly under the control of England. The southern half in theory still belonged the Charles VII, the Dauphin, heir of the French throne. This was meaningless, as he mostly was holding up in safety doing nothing while the English and French in his territory fought to no purpose but destruction. France’s situation was apparently hopeless. By the end of the hundred years, surely France would be naught but a British province.
In the midst of this turmoil, a 16-year-old peasant girl named Joan (or Jeanne in French) from the small village of Domrémy embarked on a strange quest. She claimed to have been told by angels and saints, which she called her Voices, that she was called by God to lead France to raise the ongoing siege of the city of Orléans, and to get the Dauphin crowned king at the city of Reims. This all seemed rather far-fetched, if not altogether impossible, but it worked. She impressed everyone she met along her journey, first securing a troop to go to the king at Chinon, then convincing the Dauphin to send her to Orléans to raise the siege, then actually raising the siege in only a week, and finally blazing a trail through enemy territory to the city of Reims, where the Dauphin was crowned king with Joan in a prominent place. All along the way, she demonstrated humility, mercy, intelligence, war prowess, bravery, and even prophetic abilities.
Alas, after her successes she fell victim to the evils of politics. She was not allowed to go home, but instead the king sent her out to continue her military work. Yet he also did not allow her to do what all she suggested. Because of the king and his advisors, she lost the chance to reclaim Paris, and in another battle was finally captured. She was ransomed by the English, who set up a series of brutally rigged trials for revenge against her victories. In the end, at the age of 19 she was burned at the stake as a heretic, primarily for cross-dressing (i.e. wearing men’s military attire in battle, and in her prison cell to prevent rape by guards). Twenty-five years later, the Pope ordered a retrial, in which she was declared innocent and a martyr.
I already feel as if I have sorely mistreated St. Joan by giving her story in this painfully brief form. Alas, time fails me to tell of her many virtues. To this day we possess the full transcripts of both her trials, in which her character is plainly shown as sincere, honest, pious, merciful, bold, innocent, and chaste. No one ever did find any real fault in her. The closest thing to a flaw which can be found in history is her temper, which was only ever provoked by people misbehaving (e.g. she drove out the prostitutes from her army’s camp in a rage, and lambasted the king’s advisors for being manipulative cowards). Even as a war hero, she claimed to have never killed anyone, and to have loved her banner 40 times more than her sword (which she seems to have found miraculously).
I want to dwell for the rest of this post on the challenges presented by Joan of Arc to us. The first challenges I want to peek at are theological. Most of you readers are, like myself, Protestants. So St. Joan makes for an odd case. On the one hand, she shows all the signs of being truly of God. Her prophecies all came true, including ones made during her trial that came true after her death. Her character was impeccable. The tide she turned in the war came against all odds, comparable to Old Testament campaigns where God was with Israel. Her accusers at her trial tried relentlessly to find evidence that her Voices came from demons rather than angels or saints, yet never could. On the other hand, though, she was a devout Catholic, who claimed in particular that she spoke with dead saints, and certainly adhered to an unlearned, medieval Catholic view of the sacraments and salvation. The same Voices which gave her the fulfilled prophecies also told her very Catholic things about how she would be saved. What are the implications of all this? In addition, if she was of God, then God apparently didn’t give up getting His hands dirty in war and national conflict with the coming of Christ. Instead, He seems to have picked sides and led the French to impossible victory using a young peasant girl, something which sounds more like a story from the book of Judges. If she wasn’t from God, then why did she achieve so much of the impossible in His name, giving true prophecies and being remembered as a martyr? What does this mean for how God acts today?
But theological questions aside, I also want to briefly consider the practical challenge St. Joan puts to us. She was only an ignorant, illiterate, and humble peasant girl, yet she felt called by God to accomplish great things, and following faithfully all the way through. Through dangers, political opposition, and severe injuries (she was once actually shot in the neck by a crossbow!), she persevered. She never yielded to the pressures of fear and intimidation. Her faith in God always remained strong, so much so that the only leverage her enemies could use against her was her desire to continue taking Communion. She was committed to her personal purity, and the purity of her entire army. She made her soldiers pray and worship on a regular basis. All reports show she was selfless as could be. Even when the king offered to give her anything in repayment for her help in his coronation, she asked for nothing but that the poor people of her hometown, which she never saw again, be free of taxes. (This request, by the way, was granted and stood for 300 years until the French Revolution.)
Basically, Joan of Arc was more noble, brave, persistent, and faithful than I am, and than many of us could ever hope to be. Even if she was crazy, or a heretic, or what have you (a question I think C. S. Lewis would have something to say about), the standard she sets is amazing and deserves emulation. We could all use to be a little more like Joan of Arc.
[P.S. For more on Joan of Arc, you can always check Wikipedia, or buy the book I read yourself.]