Friday, January 6, 2012

Six Hundred Years Ago... (Jillian)

Today is a phenomenal, once-in-a-century occasion. Today, the 6th of January 2012, is the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc. Born in 1412, she would die at nineteen, burned at the stake by her English enemies. Hers is a story that has endured the centuries, one that had inexplicably become personal to this humble writer. Despite the ways in which we have misconstrued and misunderstood her, we still remember her better than many figures of our own more "enlightened" age.

I could write (and probably should) write a book about her. As far as stories go, hers is both history and legend. She has become a symbol beyond a saintly martyr to represent feminism, French nationalism and even new age groups. Questions abound. Was she crazy or did she actually hear the voices of saints? Was she a witch as the English claimed her to be? Did she actually lead the ragtag French army to victory, crown a king and pave the way for a stronger, united France?

In the midst of our questions, the facts remain fascinating to me. We don't know the nature of her voices - but Joan had faith that they were real, that they were from God, and that their counsel was the only path to her rescue... even if that rescue happened to be through fire. Hers ultimately is a story of that awesome faith. She did not aspire to be a saint. She wore masculine clothing to protect herself. Somehow, against all odds, she rose from humble obscurity to meet the king, and he believed in her mission - so much so that he commissioned armor for her and gave her command of his army (even if the generals didn't much like her). This is HUGE. Why? Women in battle, much less leading battles from horse back in expensive armor was UNHEARD of in the Middle Ages.

At the start of her mission, she sent a request to the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois to unearth an ancient sword that had been buried and forgotten behind the altar there since the 700s. The monks did as they were told, dug it up, wiped the rust off and presented it to her. There is also speculation that said sword was used by French hero Charles Martel in the 700s to drive the Saracens from France.

She chased prostitutes away from the army camp. Legend has it that she broke the above mentioned sword doing so.

She was injured in the Battle at Orleans in 1429. An arrow pierced her left shoulder, just an inch or two above the heart. The English were ecstatic. "We killed the witch!" they shouted. Joan was actually very much alive. She pulled the arrow out of her chest with her bare hands, mounted her horse and rejoined the battle. The French won their first major victory.

She reported that her voices told her sometime around the battle of Orleans, that she would have "a year and little more" before her mission would end in her capture. She was right. She was pulled backwards off her horse by Burgundian soldiers in that period of time, and sold to the English for a sum of 10,000 francs.

While imprisoned in the town of Beaurevoir, she disobeyed her voices and dared to jump from the tower in which she was held. She sustained few injuries and almost, almost escaped.

She was tried by the English Church, holding fort in Rouen, Normandy. They were determined to see her tried and killed as a heretic. To do so, they bombarded her with interrogations to confuse her answers, but she did not give into them. Their main argument (shoddy at best) was her use of men's clothes. They forced her into submission with the promise that if she wore a dress she could hear Mass and take the Eucharist. She recanted later on, on counsel of her voices, sensing a deception.

They burned her at the stake on 30 May 1431. The wood was wet, so the fire smoldered and she burned slowly and painfully. When she cried for a crucifix to be brought before her, one of the priests, taken by pity, complied. Her ashes were gathered up and thrown into the muddy Seine River, but it was reported that her heart did not burn. Whether or not it did, witnesses - monks and priests alike - murmured remorsefully that they'd just burned a saint. This is a recorded fact.

I know that she is with me today in her enduring story - though colored by legend and rumor of six hundred years it may be. She is strong enough to with stand that.


For a thoughtful article on her 600th birthday, read what Christopher Howse of the Daily Telegraph had to say.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Auld Lang Syne (Jillian)

The characters from It's a Wonderful Life get ready to sing "Auld Lang Syne."

As you well know, I get curious about life's little mysteries and find myself on mini-journeys to explore them. Today's is the phrase and song "Auld Lang Syne", sung not just at New Years Eve but also at funerals and farewell gatherings (thank you wikipedia).

I remember finding this song way in the back of a old children's Christmas carol book that my sister and I "improved" with crayon. I remember thinking - when I was old enough to read - that the phrase couldn't be English, didn't sound like any Christmas song I'd ever heard of and wondered what the fuss was all about when they sang it at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

First of all, according to the wonderful Oxford Dictionaries, "auld lang syne" is an 18th century Scottish phrase meaning "times long past" or "for old time's sake." So... vernacular Scotch-English. Definitely nothing to do with Christmas, as was my original instinct all those years ago, crayon in hand. (Sorry, Mom!)

What thrills me about songs like this is its endurance through the ages. According to Wikipedia, it was a poem by Robert Burns in 1788, set to a traditional folk tune... which makes me think the tune, and perhaps the sentiment is hundreds of years older than we think. And yet, old as it is, we return to it and sing it without fail year after year in the presence of our loved ones.

Like the old Christmas carols that rose from Nativity plays (Coventry Carol), Gregorian chants (O Come O Come Emmanuel), or side-track legends (Good King Wenceslas), there is something undefinable but potent about these songs' ability to endure and inspire... that the past and the future are both not nearly as far away as we think them to be, and that with all the lessons we've learned and the hopes we've gathered, good things can happen.

New Years, so soon after Christmas, is soaked in Christmastide hope (and it's particularly true when you consider how Christmas doesn't official end until Epiphany, the 6th of January). Knowing the gift God has bestowed, we can go into the new year and leave the old behind with joy.

Here are the lyrics to this timeless song:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne? [days gone by/long time since]

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

And surely you’ll buy your pint-cup,
And surely I’ll by mine!
And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught
For auld lang syne!

May 2012 be full of discoveries and writing whimsies!

- Jillian


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