Today marks the day of Joan of Arc’s execution at the hands of the Rouen Inquisition under the thumb of the English occupiers of France in 1431, and consequently her Feast Day, as of 1920. She was accused of a myriad of charges, but ultimately it was her conviction as a relapsed heretic that led to her death by burning at the stake, as well as the desire of the English to demonize such an inspirational figure in the closing stages of the Hundred Years’ War. There are many interesting things about Joan’s life and death, but one of the most compelling aspects of her image is its timelessness, which is discussed at length (and in many manifestations) in two great books: a collection of essays edited by Dominique Goy-Blanquet entitled Joan of Arc, a Saint for All Reasons: Studies in Myth and Politics (2003) and Nora Heimann’s Joan of Arc in French Art and Culture (1700-1855): From Satire to Sanctity (2005).
Jehanne La Pucelle, the “Maid of Orleans” was famous in her own time and immediately after her death. I love the poem by her contemporary Christine de Pisan, directed to the French king but really all about Joan:
And you, the King of France, King Charles,
The seventh of that noble name,
Who fought a mighty war before
Good fortune came at all to you:
Do, now, observe your dignity Exalted by the Maid, who bent
Your enemies beneath your flag
In record time (that’s something new!)
That’s something new! It sounds so modern, but I guess Joan was pretty modern in the fifteenth century, which might account for some of her timelessness thereafter. She resurfaces pretty predictably in times of conflict: the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century, the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, World Wars I & II in the twentieth century. All of her cultural depictions could fill a museum, or an encyclopedia, but certainly she is transformed into a nineteenth-century romantic heroine by Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play, The Maid of Orleans. She was embraced by the Suffrage movements on both side of the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, and she remains a feminist hero(ine) in our own time. Joan’s eternal image can be seen in depictions from a succession of centuries, beginning with the late fifteenth-century manuscript poem Les Vigiles du roi Charles VII by Martial d’Auvergne (Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 5054) and proceeding into the last century.
The Maid of Orleans in Les Vigiles du Roi Charles VII, later 15th century, and riding into battle in Les Vies des femmes célèbres by Antoine Du Four, about 1505, Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France.
Joan of Arc in print in the seventeenth century: prints by Leonard Gaultier (1612) and William Marshall (1642), British Museum.
I’m skipping over the eighteenth century, when the imagery associated with Voltaire’s scandalous poem La Pucelle d’Orléans reduces Joan to a sexual object; you would think the Enlightenment would be a great time for the Maid as a victim of the Inquisition, but it isn’t. It’s in the following centuries that she really gains power as both an iconic and historical (with the release of the trial records in the 1840s) figure, tying into the emerging nationalist and feminist movements (sometimes at the same time).
Satirical print of the support for Napoleon among French “Amazonian” women, who rally around a statue of Joan, Jean Baptiste Genty, 1815, British Museum; Edward Penfield cover for Harper’s, April 1895, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Lillian Lancaster [Tennant] Map of France as Joan of Arc (or vice-versa), 1910, Garwood & Voight; Progam Cover for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress; Joan of Arc They are Calling You (a “weeping” France) sheet music, 1917, Library of Congress; U.S. war posters from the First and Second World Wars, Library of Congress.