1593: John Penry, Shakespeare’s midwife? 1718: John “Jack Ketch” Price, former hangman

1431: Joan of Arc

May 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1431, Joan of Arc (also Jeanne d’Arc, even though d’Arc wasn’t really her name at all) was burned at the stake for heresy in the marketplace of Rouen, France.

A Joan of Arc statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Very much has been written and said about this strange figure, the Maid of Orleans — not quite so much larger than life as she seems otherworldly to it: in her mystical exaltation, in her unthinkable elevation from the illiterate peasantry to military command (and bizarrely effective intervention in the intractable Hundred Years’ War).

Apotheosis to the ranks of France’s national heroes is the least of it; Joan’s iconography extends well outside her homelands and well beyond the project of feudal restoration that was her short life’s concern.

Her myth has had a robust afterlife, but her accomplishments in the flesh were quite real — staggering, even. At the nadir of France’s fortunes, she convinced the French dauphin Charles VII of her divine inspiration in April 1429 and, far more aggressive (and some would say lucky) than the army’s noble commanders, immediately relieved the English siege of Orleans. By July, she had captured Reims, where Charles was crowned king.

The next year, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the British, who in turn subjected her to an ecclesiastical inquiry — what became a remarkable, exhaustively documented three-week interrogation, in which she deftly matched wits with academic persecutors over the reality and nature of her divine visions.

She was immediately considered a martyr by her own side — and twenty years later, when the war had finally ended, another court reversed the verdict against her — but her universal appeal and cultural ubiquity remained a long time off.*

“Dark-minded man!”
The Maid of Orleans answered, “to act well
Brings with itself an ample recompense.
I have not reared the oriflamme of death —
Now God forbid! The banner of the Lord
Is this; and, come what will, me it behooves,
Mindful of Him whose minister I am,
To spare the fallen foe: that gracious God
Sends me a messenger of mercy forth,
Sends me to save this ravaged realm of France,
To England friendly as to all the world;
Only to those an enemy, whose lust
Of sway makes them the enemies of man.”

-Robert Southey

The romantic 19th century took up her standard when the trial records were uncovered — liberals cottoned to her lowly birth, conservatives to her monarchist project, all France to her proto-nationalism, all Catholics to her faith (she was elevated to sainthood in the early 20th century; May 30 is also her feast day). The Vichy government and the French Resistance both claimed her in World War II. Her gender and sexuality have invited modern attention, just as they did for her judges: she works (anachronistically, of course) as a girl-power pop feminism icon, and her masculine social role gives her queer cachet; she made a point of keeping her virginity, but may have been sexually assaulted in prison, an event that figures in Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.

Joan stands equal to such varied identities because the mysteriously personal qualities of her story invite the observer into it, and those qualities hold precisely because of her fiery end this day. What would Joan have been in five or ten years’ time, had she escaped capture or held to her temporary renunciation of wearing men’s clothes (the head-scratching but subtly profound charge that finally doomed her)? An aging commander with the gloss off her, a partisan of some faction of the abject French court, a hostage somewhere being ransomed for gold plate or quietly poisoned off?

Her myth and its antithesis work because she came in radiance from dust, and followed her conscience — her God, her will, her destiny, or what have you — back to dust.

Though adapted many times for the screen, the definitive Joan of Arc film remains the 1928 silent treament La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, scripted largely from the original trial transcripts. The movie’s lead Maria Falconetti — and indeed the very silence of the medium — convey something of that mysterious, multifaceted meaning left to us tantalizingly suspended between the 19-year-old who stood at the stake this day and the legend that arose from her ashes.

Books about Joan of Arc

(The Mark Twain book is in the public domain and available free at Project Gutenberg in both text (part 1 | part 2) and audio (part 1 | part 2) forms.)

* Shakespeare, for instance, writing Henry VI Part I about Charles VII’s English opposite number, has Joan in a rather more negative light than a modern reader is used to seeing — as a witch and a whore. In her last battlefield appearance, she summons demons …

Enter Fiends
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustom’d diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull’d
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.

… who fail to aid her although she offers them her body. Later, condemned to the stake, she cravenly tries to plead her belly by claiming that she slept with several other characters.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,France,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Myths,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Soldiers,The Supernatural,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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