The Dial/Volume 15/Number 171/The Story of Joan of Arc

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Story of Joan of Arc.[1]

"There is nothing in history more strange and yet more true than the story that has been told so often, but which never palls in its interest, that of the life of the maiden through whose instrumentality France regained her place among the nations."

Thus does the latest historian of Joan of Arc introduce his story of her life. And he adds:

"Sainte Beuve has written that, in his opinion, the way to honor the history of Joan of Arc is to tell the truth about her as simply as possible. This has been my object in the following pages."

It is no reproach to Lord Ronald that he has told the story of the heroine whom his mother loved ("my mother," he says, "had what the French call a culte" for Joan of Arc) rather as the affectionate admirer than the cold-blooded critic. There are times, indeed, when the judicial spirit looks ungraceful, especially in a young man. The book is written in a style of graphic simplicity, with as little affectation in the point of view or arrangement as in the diction. Through his very straightforwardness and idiomatic energy, the author often grows truly impressive and pathetic; while we never lose our faith in his truthfulness or his common sense. He has graphically rendered Jeanne's lovable qualities—those qualities that saints and martyrs, alas I do not inevitably possess. She is more than Michelet's woman of genius in these pages—more even than De Quincey's heroic saint. To Lord Ronald, whose research has breathed the breath of life into this dim and lovely shade, she is just the gentle, infinitely compassionate, but not unwise woman, who is the guardian angel in her family, or her village, or her nation, as opportunity may offer. Her people were well-to-do farmers, her father holding a certain position in the community as the oldest inhabitant (doyen) of the village, and ranking next to the mayor. The family owned "about twenty acres of land, twelve of which were arable, four were meadowlands, and four were used for fuel." Besides this, they had some two to three hundred francs kept safe for use in case of emergency, and the furniture, goods, and chattels of their modest home. "All told, the fortune of the family of Joan attained an annual income of about two hundred pounds of our money." A thousand dollars a year needs doubling, if not trebling, to reduce it to our standard; and Lord Ronald very sensibly remarks that it was "a not inconsiderable revenue at that time; and with it they were enabled to raise a family in comfort, and to give alms and hospitality to the poor."

Of this family, Jeanne was the fifth child, and, it would appear, was rather indulged by her parents. She was not, for all the wonderful visions that saved France, a mystic or a solitary; she joined in all the sports of her playmates, and was a leader and a favorite.

"She loved her mother tenderly, and in her trial she bore witness before men to the good influence that she had derived from that parent. . . . All that we gather of Joan's early years proves her nature to have been a compound of love and goodness. . . . From her earliest years she loved to help the weak and poor; she was known, when there was no room for the weary wayfarer to pass the night in her parents' house, to give up her bed to him, and to sleep on the floor by the hearth."

She was a pious little girl, and loved to listen at her mother's knee to the recital of the marvels of the saints; she was also patriotic, and almost as dearly loved to hear the brave deeds of Frenchmen in war. Her mother would rehearse these legends while spinning; and the little, glowing-faced maid would listen while her heart swelled. But though she felt intensely, she was a reticent child. No doubt the worthy Isambeau, or Mère D'Arc, sometimes whispered to a confidant that Joan "was never one to talk, but as good and willing a child as ever breathed,"—for, after all, vary the idiom, and the language of mothers is the same in all tongues and all generations. Perhaps, had the mother lived she might have persuaded Joan out of her visions—which had been the better for Mère d' Arc's daughter, and the worse for France.

It was a strange, heavy time,—a time of dreams and portents, a time of misery in many forms. There had been famines and horrible new diseases. The crazed and starving peasants had risen in revolt, aimlessly striking at the nearest, rushing about like mad dogs, biting, and being at last hunted down, at the end of a useless, brutal, bloody struggle. There were two popes, and religion itself seemed shaken. Society was in a ferment. In such times superstition flourishes. To Frenchmen especially, the day was full of bitterness. The French king had been stripped of his provinces until there remained to the dauphin, north of the Loire, only "a pitiful half-dozen places." No wonder visions came to the French maiden whose heart was hot with brooding over the humiliation of her country! Whatever they were—and we need not follow Michelet into an ingenious psychical dissertation, since Joan's character depends on their veracity not at all,—she undoubtedly counted them real, "and was not disobedient to the heavenly vision."

It is a wonderful tale, that of her determining to forsake all that she loved, to lead the troops of the dauphin, "out of the great pity that she felt for the land of France"; her journey to the dauphin, and the manner in which her superb enthusiasm, her modesty, and her natural shrewd sense conquered first the common people (who never fail to respond, for good or evil, to the note of genuine and tremendous earnestness), then the soldiers and the nobles, last of all the priests themselves. Was the Maid a great general? Was she a leader? Or was she simply an enthusiast who came at the right moment?

No one can read the most direct accounts without suspecting that Joan had a long head. She knew nothing of the technique of war which, it is to be remembered, was simpler far in those days than these, but she intuitively seized upon the wisest plan of campaign, possibly because it was the most daring. Her personal courage is as well established as anything can be. Lord Ronald loves to dwell on it. Wounded at the siege of Orleans, she pulled out the arrow with her own hands, and then (having piously made her confession) returned to the fray and inspired the wavering soldiers. At Jargeau,—

"A stone from a catapult struck Joan on the helmet as she was in the act of mounting a ladder—she fell back, stunned, into the ditch, but soon revived, and rising, with her undaunted courage, she turned to hearten her followers, declaring that the victory would be theirs. In a few moments the place was in possession of the French."

At Troyes, the king, considering attack of so strongly fortified a place hopeless, would have abandoned the expedition to Rheims (since he dared not leave such a hornets' nest in his rear); but Joan pushed on the preparations for attack with such ingenious and overwhelming energy that the citizens of Troyes surrendered without a blow. Thus Charles advanced to Rheims, and was crowned King of France. No wonder her biographer exclaims enthusiastically:

"How had she been able not only to learn the tactics of a campaign, the rudiments of the art of war, but even the art itself? No one had shown a keener eye for selecting the weakest place to attack, or where artillery and culverin fire could be used with most effect, or had been quicker to avail himself of these weapons. No one saw with greater rapidity (that rarest of military gifts) when the decisive moment had arrived for a sudden attack, or had a better judgment for the right moment to head a charge and assault."

And he adds that the professional soldiers about her could only explain her victories by the belief "that in Joan of Arc was united not only the soul of patriotism and a faith to move mountains, but the qualities of a great captain as well."

All testimony agrees that Joan was more than a narrow zealot. She had nothing of the furious, almost venomous, partisanship that sometimes darkens her sex's devotion to a cause. Because she was a French patriot she was not therefore a hater of the English. Memoirs of her are full of her compassion for the foe. She ministered to the English wounded after the fight; "as far as she could, she prevented pillage "; even in the fury of battle she restrained her followers. Indeed, as Lord Ronald says, "she may be considered the precursor of all the noble hearts who in modern warfare follow armies in order to alleviate and help the sick and wounded." This were enough, had Joan no other claim on our reverence, to win it. The peasant from Domremy was the first of the Red Cross knights.

Even at this distant time, it is a painful task to follow the cruel ending of the story. The intrigues of jealous courtiers and of unsuccessful and envious captains on the French side helped the open enmity of the English. Their motives are clear enough: to discredit Charles's title, their only hope was to show that the Maid was a witch, thus putting the king in the odious position of being in collusion with the powers of evil. Joan was wounded, captured, sold to the English; and the ensuing drama was inevitable. She was tried as a sorceress. Lord Ronald quotes very fully from the notes of the proces-verbal, and it is interesting to see, even in this record of her enemies, how clearly the large sense and elevation of mind of this wonderful girl appear. When asked in what language her voices conversed,—"They speak to me in soft and beautiful French voices," said she. "Does not Saint Margaret speak in English?" was the instant inquiry. "How should she," was her answer, "when she is not on the English side?"

She disclaimed anything miraculous in the revival of an apparently dead infant because of her prayers; she said, as she had said at the time when the populace besought her to cure sickness by the touch of her rings, that she could not cure the sick. She refused steadily to betray anything that might harm the king, who had made no effort to save her. Once Beaupère asked her the usual mediæval test question, whether she was in a state of grace. She avoided the presumption of confidence and the danger of denial in much the same manner that an English martyr did later, answering: "If I am not, may God place me in it; if I am already, may He keep me in it." When asked what she thought of the murder of the Duke of Orleans, she answered out of a pure and merciful heart; and no statesman could have spoken more wisely, since she neither inculpates Charles nor approves the infamous act. She said: "It was a great misfortune for the kingdom of France."

But where the victim is condemned beforehand, what avails defence? There is no need to repeat the brutal and treacherous devices of Beauvais. He was paid his price and earned his wages. Baffled by Joan's constancy, her enemies did not scruple to resort to torture as a persuader of confession. They brought Joan to the rack; and there are few nobler answers than the words spoken by this lonely girl, deserted by all except her dauntless soul, sick and feeble, and exhausted by a most cruel imprisonment. "Even," she said, "if you tear me limb from limb, and even if you kill me, I will not tell you anything further. And even were I forced to do so, I should afterwards declare that it was only because of the torture that I had spoken differently."

But when fear failed, fraud succeeded. Just what happened at the stake, where Joan was persuaded to make what was proclaimed by the English to be a recantation, it is difficult to decide. De Quincey vehemently rejects the "calumny," as he calls it. Michelet believes that she tried to save her life; "whether she said the word, is uncertain; but I affirm that she thought it," is his phrase. But Michelet had his own theories of women, which it was necessary to his peace of mind that he should support in the case of every woman; and a little twisting was sometimes necessary. It appears from obtainable evidence that Joan,—how worked upon, who shall say?—did put her mark to something that day in the square at Rouen, when she was brought to the stake and taken away. In view of her courage before and of her fortitude afterward, the most likely solution is that she was as much tricked as bullied into an abjuration that she only half comprehended. Certain it is that she seems to have believed herself to have only promised to abandon her man's dress and to submit herself to the will of the church. Cochon's plot appears the more atrocious the more it is investigated. The unfortunate girl protected her modesty at the cost of her life. She resumed the man's dress that she was forbidden to wear; and whether the danger were real, or only a base threat, it was equally efficacious. Joan was brought before her judges. She admitted that she had seen her supernatural guides, that they had told her that she had "commited a bad deed" in denying what she had done. "Then," cried the bishop, "you retract your abjuration?" "It was," said Joan—and this is the clearest testimony we have on the vexed subject—"it was from the fear of being burnt that I retracted what I had done; but I never intended to deny or revoke my voices." And when Cochon asked her if she no longer dreaded being burnt, she answered, "I had rather die than endure any longer what I have now to undergo." Whereupon Cochon fared gaily to Warwick and said to him in English, "You can dine now with a good appetite. We have caught her at last." On the 30th of May, 1431,—the next day but one,—Joan of Arc met her dreadful fate. She died with a patience and constancy—the first natural recoil past—that affected even her judges and made an indelible impression on the weeping spectators. And not only on the spectators: the imagination of France has never been more deeply stirred. Twenty years later, the French clergy, after a solemn trial, rehabilitated the memory of Joan. Her family was ennobled, and monuments were erected by the king to the giver of his crown: a tardy justice, to which, however, was added what Joan would have valued more than all—the enduring love of her countrymen.

Lord Gower's book is printed and illustrated sumptuously; the etched illustrations of the scenes of the story being supplied by Mr. Lee Latrobe Bateman, who made the sketches from the spot during a pious journey which Lord Ronald and he made together to the scenes of Joan's life. It is seldom, I may add, that one leaves a work of history with a feeling of more confidence in the research, judgment, and conscientious fidelity of the historian.

  1. Joan of Arc. By Lord Ronald Gower, F. S. A. London: John Nimmo. Imported by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.