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.

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