joan of arc and the nation of france -- 3/06/18

Today's selection -- from A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins. Joan of Arc, the "Maid of Orleans," appeared during the Hundred Years' War between France and England and helped turn the tide of that war in France's favor. More importantly, in a time when the boundaries between England and France were unclear and ever-changing, and those whom we now consider Frenchmen fought on both sides of the conflict, her rhetoric and actions helped forge a separate and clear national identity for the French:

"The Maid of Orleans was a myth in her own time and has been seen as something of a mystery ever since -- which has enabled her to be adopted for political propaganda purposes by right, left and centre, if most recently by the Front National, which congregates annually before her gilded statue in the Rue de Rivoli. However, she becomes much less mysterious when placed back in her medieval context, even if the bare facts of her short life of nineteen years are strange enough. An illiterate but shrewd country girl who heard the voices of various saints telling her she had been chosen to expel the English from France, she put on male clothing for protection and made her way in 1429 to Chinon to see Charles VII. Since the English and their Burgundian allies controlled almost all of the north, including Paris and Reims, the king, indecisive and suspicious as he was, was in dire straits. Having given him a secret message from her voices -- probably that he was not a bastard, though even his own mother Isabeau had said that he was -- she was questioned at length by priests and had her virginity checked. She was then attached in April 1429 to a small force sent to attempt to relieve the besieged city of Orleans, a key stronghold on the Loire without which Charles would be unable to proceed to the traditional coronation at Reims.

Saint Joan of Arc

"The listless English army having left a gap in their defences, her unit was easily able to enter the city with fresh supplies. The over­cautious commander Jean d'Orleans regarded her as something of a nuisance, excluded her from war councils and tried to keep her out of the action, but Joan was irrepressible. She inspired the troops, kept them from swearing, dictated defiant ultimatums to the enemy in which she described herself as 'Joan the Maid, the envoy of the King of heaven', and took part in several actions, in one of which she was lightly wounded. There is no doubt that her courage and conviction as standard-bearer -- she is not thought to have fought with a sword -- made a decisive contribution to the lifting of the siege, which was achieved in nine days. But while her magic seemed to go on work­ing for a while, she was captured by the Burgundians the following year, sold on to the English and, under pressure from the clerics of the Sorbonne, tried in Rauen as a heretic. She performed well in a prolonged battle of wits, but was condemned and burnt at the stake -- to be rehabilitated in 1456 and made a saint in 1920. ...

"There were Frenchmen on both sides in this dynastic war of succession, [but] she always referred to the enemy as the English and, indeed, in her rehabilitation trial of 1456 it was assumed that she had been engaged in a war of national liberation from the English. What she symbolized was a new patriotism, a new sense of essential differ­ence from what would from now on be the 'hereditary enemy', in fact the emergence of a nation from the wreckage of the old feudal order. And this new status was formalized by Charles VII, once he began to capitalize on his victory, when he forced the Vatican in 1438 to accept the Gallican principle of the financial and organizational indepen­dence of the French Church."


Cecil Jenkins


A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated


Little, Brown Group


Copyright Cecil Jenkins, 2017


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