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Running Toward the Gunshots: A Few Words About Joan of Arc

So there’s another thing I’ve been thinking about, and reading about, and you can laugh at me all you want, but: Joan of Arc. I’ve been thinking, and reading, a lot about Joan of Arc. Patti Smith has a line in “Just Kids” about the optimism of little girls who choose “Joan” as their confirmation name; it got stuck in my head. Because you have to choose the name of a saint, basically, for those unfamiliar; you have to choose the saint you want to have your back. When you’re in trouble, or you need to make a very hard decision, and you need supernatural aid to keep going safely, you get to make one phone call, and it’s this particular saint, so think about the sort of trouble you’re likely to get into, and choose the one who will take your call: That’s part of what a confirmation name is about.

And yeah. Guess who I chose.

The thing about Joan of Arc is, I don’t know how many other saints were soldiers — Saint Michael is the only one that comes to mind, and he’s an archangel, so his existence is sort of questionable — but I do believe Joan of Arc may be the only person to be sainted for being a soldier. And it’s interesting, to know about her war. Her country was subject to a long-term invasion and occupation; the only way peasants like Joan were really involved,  aside from having a long war fought in their homes and being unshielded from its violence, was in terms of wanting to maintain their cultural identity, to stay French instead of being assimilated into the English culture. For a person who knows anything about our current wars — our current long-term invasions and occupations, our current struggles over cultural identity — this is interesting.

So, into this war comes Joan. Who is literally nobody: Poor, illiterate, a girl, not trained to do anything but clean the house and look after the sheep. Here comes Joan, from a place and a time where there is a popular folk legend that a girl will arise and save France. Here comes Joan, and she says God picked her; she says that the job of saving France is hers.

Whether or not she believed the story herself, what kind of courage does it take to do that? It’s basically like telling everybody that you’re Bigfoot. It’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but if no-one ever told Buffy that she was the Slayer, and she just stood up one day in the middle of class and was like, “guess what? I have superpowers, and I mean to kill vampires with them.” But not. Because even if you do proclaim out of nowhere that you are Bigfoot or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you still probably don’t decide that the next step is going to the Oval Office to visit the President, and explaining to him why he should give you command of the military and a role in deciding national policy.

I mean, I think I actually like the story better if she was making it up. If she just got wind of the myth — we don’t know if she heard it, but if you are a skeptic, you have to note that it specified the area in which she lived, and was therefore probably known by lots of people from that area — and had a very definitive opinion about the war, and thought she could do a better job than the people currently in charge, and then was like, “so that prophesied superhero you’ve all been talking about? It’s me. No, totally: That girl is actually real, and plus? She is me. Now hand me the keys to the army. And also, I want a sword.”

But at this point, the war was going badly. The King was broke; no-one thought they were going to win. It was going so very badly that, after a few basic security measures and tests and attempts to figure out who this woman was and what her agenda might be, the French monarchy was like, “okay, yeah, the illiterate teenager from nowhere who says God talks to her: WHY DON’T WE JUST PUT HER IN CHARGE.” It was a desperate move. If they were doing any better, they wouldn’t have tried it.

Or maybe they would have. Because Joan was very impressive, once she got started. The first man to whom she appealed said at first that she ought to be sent back to her father and whipped, and yet he eventually decided to help her. We also have testimony from her roommate at the King’s court, a woman named Marguerite: “I heard from those that brought her to the King that at first they thought she was mad” – uh, yeah, she just told everyone she was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who wouldn’t? — “and intended to put her away in some ditch, but while on the way they felt moved to do everything according to her good pleasure.”

And of course, there was one particular potentially-mad, potentially-ditch-bound teenager working very hard to make sure that these guys “felt moved” to do whatever she wanted; lots of Joan’s power came from the fact that people “felt moved” to obey her or agree with her when they heard her speak. Eventually, that would be what killed her.

But that’s not yet: First we have to get to the part where this random woman from out of nowhere with a ridiculous story manages to convince people to take her to the King, and to convince the King to see her. (“She was not readily received by the King,” says another first-person account. The King “desired that she should first be examined, and that he should know something of her life and estate, and if it were lawful for him to receive her.” Invasive virginity tests, if you’re wondering, were a part of this.) We have to get to the part where this random teenager with a wacky-ass theory about being a prophesied superhero convinces the King to listen to her and put her in charge. And here is what she says, how she opens that massively unlikely conversation:

“Most noble Lord Dauphin, I am come and am sent to you from God to give succor to the kingdom and to you.”

Dear Mister President, Your boss sent me, and I am going to save the entire country, because I am magic.

I mean, jeez.

But it turned out that Joan was really, uncannily good at leading an army. She had skills that no female person who’d spent her life tending house — the thing she was best at, she later told a room full of men, was sewing — had any reason to possess. “She was quite innocent, unless it be in warfare,” says the former roommate. “She rode on horseback and handled the lance like the best of the knights, and the soldiers marveled.” Uh, yeah: I’ll bet they did.

So it turned out she was good, and you all know this part of the story. She was very good at it, despite the fact that she was initially excluded from the important meetings, and despite the fact that she had no training, and despite the fact that she was a woman and people weren’t supposed to listen to those — “harlot,” was a common theory among the English at the time, because what would a woman be doing in the army unless was sleeping with all of the soldiers; one English soldier straight-up laughed at the idea of “surrendering to a woman” — and despite the fact that her whole authority was based on telling people that she had magic powers. She took an arrow in the neck, in the middle of a battle, and kept fighting. If you want to get a sense of what actually made it possible for her to get from a kitchen in the middle of nowhere, to standing in front of the King and making her case, to a leadership position in the military, to leading this one particular hopeless lost cause of a battle, the Siege of Orleans, and winning it, this is instructive. If you want to get a sense of the sheer willpower driving this woman, think about being just a little female teenager from nowhere with no military training, whose biggest talent was sewing, shoved into chaotic, close-range, hugely violent battle, and about what it would take for you not to freak the fuck out at this point, what it would take to keep fighting with an arrow in your neck.

But then they killed her. It was the Church, actually, that killed her – another group of people operating in God’s name. None of the men for whom she’d fought tried to rescue her; the French did have valuable political prisoners they could have exchanged for her, but Joan was just not worth it to them. As soon as she’d won the battle and gotten the King coronated, they stopped funding or backing her campaigns to any real extent; she wanted to fight or go home but the most noble lord Dauphin just figured that Joan was a cute little mascot for the court.  One begins to understand, at this point, why he was losing the war: The part where she was like, “okay, so now that we’re saving France, maybe we should take back PARIS,” and he was like, “ehhhhhh, it might be hard though,” kind of stands out. So she’d improved morale in the army, she looked good standing next to the King, and when the English captured her, well, who cares? It’s just the cute little mascot. It’s just Joan.

But what a lot of people don’t realize – what I didn’t realize, until I read up on it – is that they didn’t actually kill her for heresy. Her answers, when they tried to trip her up and make her say or confess something heretical, were typically-yet-shockingly smart and charismatic and convincing; she did so well, and won so many people over, that they had to stop questioning her in front of an audience. What they killed her for was cross-dressing.

As soon as Joan got away from home, Joan started to wear men’s clothes. It started well before she joined the army. She referred to herself as “The Maid,” and refused to answer when they asked her if “she had wanted to be a man,” but the men’s clothes were very important to her. And she refused to stop wearing them in prison: She said, at one point, that it was to deter rapists (they were much harder to take off than women’s clothes, it was harder to get at her crotch, even aside from the image thing) and at another point simply that God told her to wear them. She told them that even if they killed her for it, she couldn’t and wouldn’t stop cross-dressing. So, so much of the trial and imprisonment was focused simply on trying to make her stop. At one point, exasperated, she snapped out at a captor, “give me a woman’s dress to go to my mother’s house, and I will take it.”

But cross-dressing was against Biblical law. And Joan couldn’t read. So they got her to sign a paper saying, in part, that she promised to stop wearing men’s clothes – a paper she could not read, that most everyone agrees they misrepresented so that she would sign it – and they shaved her head so that she wouldn’t have a boy’s haircut, and they stripped her and put her in a woman’s dress, and then, the next time she dressed like a boy again, that was when they killed her.

Because she was a bitch: “Master Jean Le Fèvre, doctor of sacred theology, declared this woman to be obstinate, contumacious, disobedient.”

Because she was a slut and a queer: “[Her actions] are contrary to the honesty of womankind, forbidden by divine law, abominable to God and man, and prohibited under penalty of anathema by ecclesiastical decrees, such as the wearing of short, tight, and dissolute male habits… it is notorious that when she was captured she was wearing a loose cloak of cloth of gold, a cap on her head and her hair cropped round in man’s style. And in general, having cast aside all womanly decency, not only to the scorn of feminine modesty, but also of well-instructed men, she had worn the apparel and garments of most dissolute men… [This] is blasphemy of Our Lord and His saints, setting at nought the divine decrees, infringement of canon law, the scandal of her sex and womanly decency, the perversion of all modesty of outward bearing, the approbation and encouragement of most reprobate examples of conduct.”

Because she thought she was so fucking smart: “Master Denis Gastinel, licentiate in civil and canon law, gave his opinion in the following form… ‘[This] woman is scandalous, seditious, and wanton, towards God, the Church, and the faithful. She takes herself for an authority, a doctor and a judge.'”

And then they burned her alive.

When I was a little girl, they told me that when Joan burned, God saved her heart; it was so pure and good that the fire couldn’t touch it, and God saved it, to show everyone what a terrible thing they had done. This, it turns out, was untrue. What actually happened was something you don’t tell little girls about. What happened was this: They burned her alive, showed everyone the body, burned the body again, burned what was left from that, destroyed it until there was nothing left of it that looked anything at all like Joan any more — there were still a lot of people who liked her; they didn’t want anyone saving a finger bone — threw what was left in the river, and walked away.

“May the Most High keep you in happiness to the salvation of His Holy Church!” Is how they closed their letter to the church authorities, notifying them that the job was done.

But that isn’t the worst part. The worst part, actually, is that toward the end of it, they got Joan to crack. When she finally realized that she was going to die, and in one of the worst ways possible, she cracked, she gave up, she gave them what they wanted, she said she was sorry.

“Seeing then the nearness of her latter end, this wretched woman openly acknowledged and fully confessed that the spirits which she claimed had visibly appeared to her were only evil and lying spirits, that her deliverance from prison had been falsely promised by the spirits, who she confessed had mocked and deceived her.”

Stripped. Head shaved. Made to wear a dress. Questioned, questioned, questioned; called names, called names, called names. Imprisoned. They made a cage to keep her in. They put her in chains. Attempted rape, attempted rape, attempted rape. (“I tried several times, playing with her, to touch her breasts, trying to place my hands on her chest, which Jehanne would not suffer, but pushed me away with all her strength.”) Tried to jump out the window and die, at one point; it didn’t work; the charges against her therefore included “cowardice.” Joan of Arc, found guilty of cowardice. Abandoned by her friends, abandoned by her King. (Most noble Lord Dauphin, I am come and am sent to you from God to give succor to the kingdom and to you.) Made to fight the hopeless battle, arrow in the neck. The King made her submit to a stranger’s finger up her vagina, to prove she was a virgin, before he would talk to her. The men who took her to the King thought she was crazy and planned to put her in a ditch. The man who sent her to the King thought she ought to be sent back to her father and whipped. All of this, just because she stood up and said she was the girl, the very special girl, the girl who could save them all. And then they were going to burn her alive, and at that point, only at that point, she broke down. It wasn’t real, she was sorry, it wasn’t real, she was everything they said she was, she was evil, the mission was evil, the visions were evil, the visions lied, they told her she was going to be okay, God told her she was going to be okay, fuck God, fuck the most noble Lord Dauphin, fuck France, fuck everything, she didn’t want to be Joan of Arc any more.

That’s the worst thing, the thing so terrible that the official position of the Catholic church is that this was impossible and therefore never actually happened: Toward the end, it wasn’t that nobody believed Joan of Arc. It was that Joan of Arc didn’t believe herself.

And I don’t know if I believe in Jesus, but I believe in Joan of Arc. I believe that if you choose Joan to be your one phone call, then Joan comes through. I kind of — this is weird lapsed-Catholic God-has-a-plan-for-you stuff, so bear with me — don’t actually think it was an accident that this one line from a book I read a year ago got stuck in my head, this week, and that I ended up finding the trial transcripts online. Because I’d never read them before, and I was over the whole religion thing, but I ended up finding out that she was a real person. This real,  live, bitchy, funny, charming, smart, obstinate/contumacious/disobedient, gender-inappropriate, charismatic, determined person, who somehow managed to happen, a really long time ago. I don’t know what I believe about the God thing. But I believe that we’re human beings, and that the range of human possibility includes Joan of Arc.

Here’s a list of things that Joan is the patron saint of, issues on which it is decreed Joan shall have your back: “Captives, France, martyrs, opponents of Church authorities, people ridiculed for their piety, prisoners, rape victims.” And soldiers, particularly female ones. Which is to say: Joan has a very definitive opinion on Bradley Manning. Joan has a very definitive opinion on civilians who are killed in long-term invasions and occupations. Joan has a very definitive opinion on rape, and rape survivors; she has a very definitive opinion on being threatened with rape and death for telling your side of the story; she has a very definitive opinion on being ridiculed for one’s beliefs. And I, personally, would not want to piss off Joan.

Now, I would argue that Joan is also the patron saint of queer folks in the military, victims of gender policing, cross-dressers, queer folks and women in politics, people and especially women who come from out of nowhere to exercise political voice, people and especially women who are violently assaulted or killed for having effective political voices — Joan has a very definitive opinion on Gabrielle Giffords; Gabrielle Giffords is alive, after being shot in the head at point-blank range and reported as dead, and a gay intern just out of his teens saved her life; “it was probably not the best idea to run toward the gunshots, but people needed help,” he said, and I must remind you, Joan, she has very definitive opinions sometimes — lapsed Catholics, lapsed Catholic women, women who have huge-ass troubles with the sexism of Catholics, and feminism. This is perhaps blasphemous, but Joan is also the patron saint of blasphemy.

And the retrial was started by her mother. That’s what it took: Joan’s mother, going around to all of the important authorities, asking them please, could you just change the record to reflect that her daughter was not evil? This other poor, illiterate woman from out of nowhere, making everyone listen to her. Families: Things run in them. And Joan was found not-evil, at the retrial, but she wasn’t declared a saint until 1920. The year after American women got the right to vote.  Meaning we couldn’t take her name until after feminism had won one of its biggest victories. That’s another reason I believe in Joan, more than anything: She opened the door, very politely waited for us to walk through, and then came in and took her rightful place.


  1. Jennifer P wrote:

    This is about the third time I’ve read this, and it made me cry – again – and I think it might be the best piece of writing I’ve read in a year.


    Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  2. rowmyboat wrote:

    Might I suggest, for the reading public, Vita Sackville-West’s biography of Joan? (Vita, better known as being very close to Virginia Woolf.)

    Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Brianne wrote:

    Hi. My name is Brianne. I’m going to start off by saying that this is likely going to turn into a fairly lengthy and bizarre comment.

    Like you, I was raised Catholic. I can’t remember a time when I actually believed in any of it, despite the fact that both sides of my family were (and still are) very religious. I’ve always been the sole scientific mind. Luckily, my grandmother and father both saw this and encouraged me with strong female role-models: Susan B. Anthony (Grandma’s favourite — “She went to jail so you could vote!”), Marie Curie, and of course, Joan of Arc.

    Though I spent every Sunday in CCD, the only thing that really sunk in were the saints. I liked them. They had better stories. But more importantly, they were real people that had led good lives. I could get behind that.

    After three years of being dismissed by my doctor (he called me a “hormonal teenage girl”), I was finally diagnosed with cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to be exact. Things didn’t look good for me. Not only had it spread throughout my body — not only did I have skeletal involvement — but I also had a metastatic colony growing on my spine. That means death sentence. I was given about a year to live. Somehow, a little luck was with me: By chance, I was paired with an oncologist who was as stubborn as I was, and together we decided to fight this as hard as we could.

    The type of chemo I was on typically gets spaced a month apart between treatments because it takes the body that long to recover. Mine was every Tuesday for ten weeks since it had to be treated aggressively. I went through surgeries, too. I had to get chemo injected directly into my spine. It was brutal.

    At one point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew I was going to die — I was sure that the treatment itself would kill me. I had one session left, and I didn’t want to do it. I could barely walk at that point.

    And that was when the lifelong atheist said “Ms. Joan of Arc, if you can hear me, give me your armour. Please help me. I can’t think of anybody else to ask.”

    I used to get imaging done every other week to check the progress of my treatment. Up until that point, the big tumour in my clavicle had only receded slightly.

    That day, it was gone. All of it. As my oncologist put it “It’s like you never had cancer to begin with.”

    Both of us are scientific people. Once, years later, we discussed what had happened. To this day (I work where I was treated, taking care of sick children, but extra-special care of my oncologist’s patients), he calls me his “miracle patient”. It makes both of us uncomfortable.

    I still don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I’m exempt from believing in Joan of Arc.

    Take what you will from my story: I’m perfectly aware that it sounds a little (a lot) crazy. I did not learn anything new from your article, but it resonated with me all the same — the thing about Joan of Arc being your one phone call. You’re right about that. When you call, she’s somebody who will pick up. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but she will.

    Friday, January 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink