Telling about Joan of Arc will be a real undertaking, and I think this last word fits her well.
During the various articles of this blog we talked about numerous extraordinary women. Sometimes imaginary, like Wonder Woman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Other times in the flesh, like Mata Hari or Julie Taymor.
Today, 30 May, on the anniversary of her death, we tell the story of this woman in flesh and blood, but so entered into mass culture in the last 600 years, that she is almost transfigured to an emblem of strength, courage, resourcefulness, faith.
But what has Giovanna D’Arco ever done 600 years ago, at a time when a woman at most could wash the clothes of her husband and children? He “only” helped to revive the fortunes of his country, France, during the Hundred Years’ War, leading the armies against those of the British.
Read on, now we tell you about the incredible and compelling story.
The early years of Joan of Arc
Our protagonist today, Jeanne D’Arc, Italianized in Giovanna D’Arco, was born around 1412 in Domrémy, in a peasant family. From an early age, according to the testimonies of the time, Joan was very devoted and often offered charity to the most needy. At the age of thirteen he began to have sensations, visions. He saw some saints and the Archangel Michael, accompanied by gleams.
After these visions, the girl decided to devote herself entirely to God, vowing chastity. I do not deny that talking about holiness, visions and Christian vows makes me a little strange, just a few days ago we talked about the dark world of World Goth Day and it has not been too long since Dracula, prince of darkness and demonic incarnation!
However, since the figure of Joan of Arc is extremely interesting and emblematic, we move forward with professionalism.
In 1428, due to the Hundred Years’ War pitting the Kingdom of France against the Kingdom of England and Burgundy, Joan of Arc’s family fled to escape the ravages of the Burgundian troops. The following year, when the British were ending the occupation of Orléans (a geographically and economically important city), Giovanna began to hear even more insistent voices, telling her to go to the rescue of Charles, The Dolphin of France, who was ousted from the throne.
Joan of Arc at war
Giovanna D’Arco then went to meet Charles, without even notifying her parents. In 1429 Giovanna was about 17 years old, just to make the necessary reflections.
Arriving at the castle, during an assembly in the presence of three hundred nobles, Joan of Arc approached Charles and knelt down, telling him that she had been sent by God to help him and his kingdom. Charles, not trusting immediately, sent the young woman to take thorough examinations, but then became convinced. He entrusted her with the task of accompanying a military expedition to the rescue of besieged Orléans.
Giovanna shaped the troops by setting an example, imposing an almost monastic lifestyle on them, forbidding violence and looting, driving away prostitutes, and banning blasphemy. The effect of all this rigor was to establish a relationship of trust between the soldiers and Joan of Arc, instilling in men a burning desire to collect.
Giovanna accompanied the troops dressed as a soldier, in one hand the sword and in the other a white banner with depicted God blessing the cornflower French. Also in the banner were the archangels Michele and Gabriel, the first of whom had spoken during the visions of the young woman. Giovanna then becomes the Pucelle D’Orléans (the Pulzella D’Orléans), because that’s what the voices called her.
Symbolic also becomes the image of Giovanna riding a white steed and preceded by a procession of priests, acclaimed by the crowd. In fact, by now the crowd followed her wherever the Pulzella went, such was the relationship with the people that the young woman had managed to create.
In a series of battles between 4 May and 7 May 1429, French troops took control of the British fortifications. Joan was injured but later returned to the front to encourage a final assault. By mid-June, the French had rejected the British and, in doing so, had shown a kind of invincibility.
Although Charles seemed to have accepted Joan’s commitment and mission, she showed no full confidence in her judgment or her counsel.
After his victory at Orléans, Joan continued to encourage him to hurry to Reims to be crowned king, but he and his advisers were more cautious. However, Charles and his entourage finally entered Reims, and the Dolphin was crowned Charles VII on 18 July 1429. Joan was by her side, occupying a visible place during the ceremonies.
Capture and process of Joan of Arc
In the spring of 1430, King Charles VII ordered Joan to face the Burgundian onslaught. During the battle, the horse unseated her, leaving her out of the city gates. The Burgunders took her captive and detained her for several months, negotiating with the British, who considered her a valuable commodity for their propaganda. Eventually the Burgunders traded Joan for 10,000 francs.
Charles VII was not sure what to do. He was still not convinced of Joan’s divine inspiration. In fact, he distanced himself and made no attempt to free her. Although Joan’s actions were against the English army, she was handed over to church officials who insisted on having her tried as a heretic.
The trial and conviction
The charges were seventy, including witchcraft, heresy and disguise as a man.
Initially, the trial was held in public, but became private when Giovanna seemed to have the upper hand over her accusers. Between February 21 and March 24, 1431, the court questioned her nearly a dozen times. Joan always maintained her humility and continued to stand innocent.
Instead of being held in a church prison with her nuns as guards, Giovanna was incarcerated in a military prison. They threatened her with rape and torture, although neither was ever recorded. He protected himself by tightly tying his soldier’s clothes along with dozens of ropes. Frustrated that he could not break her, the court eventually used her military clothes against her, accusing her of dressing up as a man.
This last thought is summed up well in the fourth cover of the book The Trial of Condemnation by Giovanna D’Arco, edited by Teresa Cremisi: the violent contrast between the clear convictions of Giovanna and, on the other hand, the almost unassailable strength of the institutions and their proven mechanisms, constitutes for those who read today the documents of this process an element of poignant drama.
On May 29, 1431, the court announced that Joan of Arc was guilty of heresy.
On the morning of May 30, two Dominican fries picked her up in her cell, where Pulzella asked to receive the Eucharist. Sacramento granted it, even though it was in violation of ecclesiastical norms.
Giovanna was then led into the market square of Rouen and burned at the stake, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people. She was dressed in white, in a long dress, and tied her to a pole over a large amount of wood. In this way Joan would not have died suffocated by smoke but burned alive.
Giovanna D’Arco died at the age of 19, holding a narrow cross to her chest, made with two twigs. A legend tells of how his heart survived the unaffected fire. His ashes were collected and scattered in the Seine.
Saint Joan of Arc
It took almost 500 years before Joan of Arc became a Santa. The beatification process began in the late 1800s and ended in 1909 under Pope Pius X. While it was Pope Benetto XV who made it Holy on May 16, 1920, after she was granted intercessorian power for miracles performed.
Giovanna D’Arco also became Patron of France, as well as telegraphy and radio. She is also revered as a protector of religious persecuted and martyrs, the armed forces and the police. His liturgical memory is today 30 May, on the occasion of his killing at the stake in 1431. To this day she is the most revered French saint.
Joan of Arc in mass culture
For almost six centuries Giovanna D’Arco has inspired artistic and cultural works, indeed she is still inspiring them. Next, divided into categories, we take a brief point on the various arts that have paid homage to the Pulzella D’Orléans.
The first work on Giovanna D’Arco dates back as far as 1429, when the young woman was still alive, to narrate her deeds. From there on we can count hundreds of volumes in which Giovanna is the main protagonist of the story or a secondary figure.
Let’s quote, for example, Henry VI part I of William Shakespeare. Or the works of Coleridge, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Bertold Brecht to understand the vastness of literary types that have embraced our heroine today. In 1972 Patti Smith also recounted it, in one of her poems from the seventh heavens collection.
The story of Giovanna D’Arco is also part of many children’s stories, to convey to the smallest very important values such as faith, compassion and perseverance.
Giovanna D’Arco has been the subject of numerous operas and classics, for example by Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky. Recently, in 2017, David Byrne composed a rock opera: Joan Arc: Into the Fire, where Giovanna D’Arco is imagined as “a religious maniac who brings together an army to kill people” (words of Byrne himself, not mine!)
As for songs and themed albums, we have to go back to 1917 to find an engraving. But we move on to the 70s to find Leonard Cohen with a song dedicated to Pulzella on the album Songs of Love and Hate. In Italy, in 1974, Fabrizio de André translated Cohen’s work into his Songs. Here are some lines from the song Giovanna D’Arco:
Those are your words that I wanted to hear
I spied on you every day riding
and to hear you so now I know what I want
win such a cold heroine, embrace her pride.
Also in the 70s we find Patti Smith who in the song Kimberly of the album Horses says she feels just like Giovanna D’Arco.
In recent years, Elton John, The Smiths, Garbage and Red Hot Chili Peppers have not forgotten about our protagonist today. Not even Katy Perry and Madonna have forgotten it, with questionable results however compared to those of previous artists.
Cinema and television
Our journey in the representations of the icon that is Giovanna D’Arco continues in the world of film and television.
Not only France, Giovanna’s motherland, has dedicated films to her patron. We can also count other countries, such as Italy, the UK, the USA and even Japan. The first films date back to the late 800s in France, with some short films, including one by George Méliès, simply titled Joan of Arc. Of course, the States have to do things bigger than continental Europe, and the first two films (1917 and 1921) are called Joan the Woman and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse respectively.
A film that is occasionally broadcast on TV is The Trial of Joan of Arc: a Swedish film from 1963 based on the original cards of the same process.
The film best known for our generation is 1999 by Luc Besson, starring Milla Jovovich as Giovanna D’Arco and with John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman. In this film Giovanna is depicted as a woman whose mental illness is mistaken for divine visions.
The last film production was in 2019, with a French film by Bruno Dumont, a sequel to his first film of 2017.
Giovanna D’Arco also appears on the small screen already as a reference in some TV shows of the 70s but gets one of her own in 2003-2005 with the series Joan of Arcadia. In this series Joan is a girl who has conversations with God and uses them to do good.
But Giovanna also appears in an episode of The Simpsons (played by Lisa) and in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in which Willow disguises herself because she too had been burned as our protagonist today.
Other cultural references
We talked about literature, music, film and TV, but The influence of Giovanna D’Arco went far beyond that. There are comics, video games, sculptures, all kinds of images.
But I would end this article with a not insignificant detail: the short haircut to Joan of Arc. This cut had a profound effect on female hairstyles in the twentieth century.
In 1909, the Parisian hairdresser Antoine took Joan of Arc as a source of inspiration for the bobsled, which ended centuries of taboo against women who cut their hair. The style became popular in the 1920s and was associated with constriction-free women and influenced almost all subsequent Western hairstyles. Even today this hairstyle is known in French as coupé à la Jeanne d’Arc (haircut to Joan of Arc).
It seems minor but Joan of Arc, through a detail that may seem frivolous as a haircut, has empowered women for more than a century. And, through his exploits, he empowered women by six.