Travelling through France and visiting churches (as I do very often) one comes across a lot of statues of St Joan, the Maid of Orléans. Like rampant St George in English churches, she looks at you, shield in one hand, impossibly huge sword in the other and encased in form fitting armour that would make a young Madonna jealous.
In fact, it’s interesting that this cult of Joan has often depicted her as a sexy, Xena-like warrior saint…or a pretty, dream-like warrior waif, eyes heavenward, looking for all the world like an angel waiting for her bus home.
In truth (though there’s only one actual sketch of her and it’s execution is pretty woeful – I saw it at Chinon and it does no-one any favours) she was supposed to be a bit dumpy, remarkably plain and extremely simple.
She was also supposed to be a virgin. This was proven by a bunch of Catholic leaders in a closed meeting with her. I have no idea how they proved it, given she’d ridden horses all over France by this stage and seen quite a bit of fighting action. I’m no gynaecologist but I reckon that would skew any chances of visual proof of virginity.
So, the story goes that Joan emerged to spot the Dauphin, Charles VII in a crowd, led his armies against the English and wound up on a stake. If you want to believe the superstition (and many millions do) she was told by god to go and kill lots of people so that France could be ruled by the Dauphin rather than the English king…clearly something god wanted for reasons of his own, something he does a lot of.
However, I think it went a little differently…
In a nutshell…The Dauphin, either alone or (more likely) in league with a secret band of political fellows, planned the whole thing. He wanted dominion over France; believed it was his right to have it. He needed a cunning plan and he either thought of one himself or (more likely) a very clever person close to him did. That plan became the Cult of Joan.
Secret agents were sent out to find an effective symbol for the French to unite behind. They found Mad Joan, a simple milkmaid with a split personality problem and voices in her head that she figured must be divine.
The agents convinced Mad Joan that the voices she heard were from god, not that she took much convincing, and she was soon out and about telling the world at large how god thought France was the greatest thing since Sancerre and a lovely slice of liverot. She, like all other god fearing people of the time did not, however, bother to explain why this god seemed to hate any other kind of Christian. It was possibly because it would weaken the central argument that they (being the Dauphin and his followers) wanted to rule France rather than have the English do it to them.
And, amazingly, it worked. The French armies saw nothing wrong with fighting under the command of a mere child of 17 who could snicker snack along with the best of them. And poor Mad Joan was really convinced that she was doing god’s mysterious work.
I’d just like to make a slight diversion here while on the subject of god’s mysterious work.
The whole Joan thing took place during an almighty power struggle between the French and the English in what became known as the Hundred Years War. The French wanted their country for themselves without being vassals to a foreign sovereignty while the English just wanted a much bigger slice of Europe for themselves. The solution for both was to gather together as many fellow countrymen as they could and try and kill as many of their opponents as possible.
I fail to see anything ‘godlike’ or, dare I say it, Christian in either aim. After all, both sides believed in the same god; they prayed to him constantly (or so we’re told), built massive structures proclaiming his goodness and wisdom over everything and everyone and yet they each fought in his name. Surely that’s wrong.
Mind you, I don’t understand why the different branches of Islam keep trying to kill each other either and that’s happening constantly all over the world, so I guess it’s just me. Oh, and god moving in his mysterious ways. Sounds like a right joker to me.
Anyway, back to Mad Joan as she ploughed her way through the rank and file of the English fighters. And she was pretty good at it too, from all accounts. Battle after battle she helped win, leading her men ever onward. She was so keen on total decimation, in fact, that during a temporary truce at one stage, she was bereft, kicking her heels impatiently, for a chance to return to the blood-letting and horrors of war.
Like a lot of war criminals, she was eventually brought to justice and in a court case reeking of religious mumbo jumbo to hide the fact that they were actually planning to emulate a poor, crazy teenager, she was sentenced and duly burnt at the stake. The reason given for her execution? Because she was wearing men’s clothing which went against biblical law. That was heresy…apparently.
Of course, Charles and his crew continued the fight, especially given he’d managed to become king, mostly because of the Joan Plan. The war went on for another 22 years, ending, in part, upon the accession of Henry VI in England. He was too young and not very good at it. His lack of leadership skills ended almost a century of pointless, bloody war.
And what of Joan? She had a posthumous retrial, and was found innocent in 1456. Didn’t do poor Mad Joan a lot of good though as she’d died in 1431 having been burnt three times to deter relic hunters and crazed monks.
So, a messenger of god’s will fighting in his name with the almost obligatory flaming sword of righteousness or a very cunning plan to put someone on a throne by killing lots of people. You decide.
I have no idea whether anyone else has come up with this ground breaking theory before me and I apologise, most humbly, if they have. I’ve made it all up from things I’ve read and seen while in France this time.