The Second Coming of Joan of Arc

This play is billed as a historically authentic treatment of the subject allegedly based on the eyewitness accounts given during the postwar appeal of Joan's case, but it misrepresents or misinterprets those accounts while adding a sizable dose of fiction. Since I've translated the appellate documents and other sources, I will make the following comments:

This play was based - very loosely - on a book by novelist Vita Sackville-West, which even feminist professor Bonnie Wheeler of the International Joan of Arc Society has denounced as "dead wrong". The author then put forward claims which even Sackville-West herself didn't make while transforming Joan into an "anorexic teen runaway" with modern radical political views and lesbian tendencies; all of which are contradicted by the evidence. To use some examples:
  • The implication is made that Joan was a lesbian, evidently based solely on the fact that Sackville-West mentions - sometimes out of context - some of the testimony at the posthumous appeal of Joan's case given by a group of women such as Charlotte Boucher (who had been only 9 years old when she "slept with" Joan at Orleans), Hauviette de Sionne (only 12 or less at the time), and Marguerite La Touroulde, who described a common medieval practice whereby whenever Joan and the men in her group were billeted for the night in a house in which there weren't enough beds for everyone, they always placed Joan with the little girls of the house or the hostess rather than the men (her male bodyguard, Jean d'Aulon, frequently slept in the same room with her, and so the hostess or a little girl was also placed in the room for propriety's sake, and sometimes in the same bed if there weren't enough beds to go around. Joan was similarly known to have "slept with" her sister at home, but that doesn't mean she was having sex with her). More importantly, these very same witnesses say that Joan was chaste rather than sexually active, which rules out the notion that these witnesses were describing a sexual relationship with her. Sackville-West herself says as much when she notes that the above was "the custom" in that era.
  • Similarly, the claim that Joan "died for the right to wear male clothing" ignores the eyewitness accounts given on that subject even in Sackville-West's book, to say nothing of the full testimony in the original documents: several witnesses said that Joan herself told them that she had to continue wearing her soldier's clothing (of a type which was designed so that the hip-boots, hosen and tunic could be fastened securely together with coords) because her guards had attempted to rape her on several occasions, attempts which were thwarted by the above type of clothing. She said that her alleged "relapse" was the result of the guards taking away the dress that had been provided her, leaving her nothing to wear but the soldier's clothing; the judges were then brought in to view the "relapse". Only her enemies claimed that she insisted on wearing male clothing as a personal preference rather than out of necessity: this was the claim they had to make, since the medieval Church allowed an exemption in cases in which the woman was wearing such clothing for protection or as a disguise while trying to escape a dangerous situation, etc, as stated in medieval Church documents such as St. Thomas Aquinas' famous "Summa Theologica", for example. We know from numerous other documents that it was standard procedure for women to adopt such clothing for their own protection : a particularly ironic example from the same time period is the case of a duchess named Jacqueline of Hainault (sister-in-law to the same Duke of Bedford who initiated the prosecution against Joan): Jacqueline personally led her faction during the war of succession in Holland, and like Joan, she wore soldiers' clothing when needed. Bedford only prosecuted Joan because it was in his interest to do so just as her enemies also routinely accused her of prostituting herself with men, for example, because this was a convenient bit of slander with which to tarnish her reputation.
  • Regarding the old myth that Joan was guilty of her accusers' claims of "disobedience" against the Church: those charges were soundly debunked during the appellate trial. The presiding Inquisitor, Jean Brehal, rejects them one by one in a massive document called the "Recollectio F. Iohannis Brehalli", basing his arguments on the eyewitness testimony. Unlike the theological distortions put forward to convict her, Brehal's arguments have been confirmed by experts on ecclesiastic law and procedure. The eyewitness accounts - and even Sackville-West's book, for that matter - show that Joan was the victim of an English-orchestrated court stacked with pro-English clergy, some of whom nevertheless had to be threatened in order to force a guilty verdict. This is one of the reasons why Inquisitor Brehal described Joan not only as an orthodox Catholic, but also a martyr for the Church.
  • Nor did Joan ever make any radical statements or complaints on gender issues. There are multiple quotes from her stating that her role in the army was to carry her banner while staying out of the fighting, and she added that she had never killed anyone. Carrying a banner didn't violate gender norms. Moreover, Joan was quoted as saying that "I would rather stay home with my poor mother and spin wool", explaining that she left home only reluctantly. When another woman (Catherine de La Rochelle) expressed interest in getting involved, Joan told her to "go home to your husband and tend to your household". The attempt to insert modern radical politics into her motives is not only an anachronism, but also contradicted by her own words. Her stated goal was to place Charles VII on his throne, not to overthrow the patriarchy. Far from being angry at men, she said she had a special fondness for Charles VII, Duke Charles of Orleans, and Duke Jean II d'Alencon, among others, upon whom she bestowed various affectionate terms. One witness reported that "she especially loved a certain honorable man whom she knew to be of chaste habits". At no point in the record do we find a single comment expressing bitterness over "gender roles" or the "patriarchy" or any similar issue, and there are plenty of comments (such as those cited above) which seem to be, if anything, more akin to the views of Queen Victoria than modern feminism.
  • Nor was Joan the angry, irreverent person portrayed in the play: the eyewitness accounts repeatedly describe her as "sweet-natured", and say that she wept even when English troops were killed by her soldiers. Granted, she was irritable at those times when all of us would be irritable (being wounded twice and sleeping in plate armor tends to make one rather grumpy); additionally, the witnesses said that she became angry "whenever she heard the name of God blasphemed" or found prostitutes among the soldiers, or heard her commanders swearing, etc; but this is an example of piety, not evidence that she fit the hackneyed stereotype of a perpetually "angry Amazon" (for lack of a better term). The eyewitnesses describe a few humorous quips made by Joan which modern pop authors always interpret as angry or irreverent outbursts despite the fact that the witnesses say that she was "elated" rather than angry when she made these comments, and the targets of these quips themselves remained her ardent supporters (such as Lord Dunois, who served as one of her commanders; or Friar Seguin, who was among the theologians at Poitiers who advised Charles VII to give her command of an army). The notion that she was irreverent towards the Church is based on the transcript of the Condemnation Trial, which was later denounced as a falsified document by many of the men who had taken part in that trial: many of her comments were edited out of the record, and others were "creatively translated" into Latin to make her appear unorthodox. Again, even Sackville-West mentions this.
  • The notion that Joan's father Jacques was an incestuous alcoholic is fiction: even V. Sackville-West merely mentioned another novelist's invented claim that her father stayed in Rheims for an extra length of time after the coronation allegedly to sample the wines there rather than to see his daughter (Joan was still in the nearby area for quite some time). The fallacy of such a scenario should be obvious. No claim of incest was ever made against him at all: in fact even Sackville-West described Jacques as, quote, "a pious and decent man" of an "upright disposition" (or words to that effect). He had a certain harshness, but only in regard to the very same issues which provoked his daughter's anger: just as Joan forcibly drove the prostitutes from her army, her father told her brothers to "drown her" if it turned out that she herself was associating with soldiers for the purpose of becoming a prostitute. Some authors have ironically tried to cast this as a fatal "rift" between she and her family even though they both shared the same views on this particular subject (and despite the fact that Joan herself said that, far from being alienated from her family, she liked to look at a ring her parents had given her because it reminded her of them). Her alleged status as a "runaway" is also a distortion: even the Condemnation transcript quotes her as saying that she left home in the company of her uncle, Durand Lassois, which is also corroborated by the other eyewitness accounts.
  • On the "anorexia" issue: this is an attempt to modernize the practice, required of all medieval Catholics, of fasting at regular intervals for the purpose of "mortifying the flesh" and gaining greater empathy for the poor. The extremely pious sometimes fasted permanently. Joan was said to have normally eaten "only twice a day" (according to her page, Louis), which would presumably be roughly equivalent to the normal quota allowed by the Church during Lent (normally one regular meal plus an amount of solid food equal to an additional small meal). Predictably, Carolyn Gage sees Joan as if she were a modern teen struggling with food-related neuroses and weight-loss programs. A typical 15th century "weight-loss program" was the standard peasant diet.

Many other comments could be made, but hopefully the above will suffice. No reputable historian has ever condoned the views given in this play, which is a fictionalized account.

See the review of Gage's play at the Medieval History Database

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