A Passion for St. Joan

CIMG5044Joan of Arc has long been a heroine of mine. That she was a warrior when women rarely left their villages would have been enough to intrigue me, but that she led the French army to victory against the English while a teenaged peasant girl amazed me.

These days, as the main tourist draw, Joan is also the heroine of Rouen, in northern France. Not a lot of her era remains in the modern city, except a tower called a donjon, all that survives of the medieval castle built by Philippe Auguste in 1204. The “Tour Jeanne d’Arc” is not the tower in which she was imprisoned, which did not survive, but is possibly the tower in which she was threatened with torture instruments by French church officials commanded by the English.

The tower was not at all like the underground dungeon I’d imagined. It stands three stories tall, lit only by slits from which defenders would have fired arrows. The rooms off the central spiral stair were cramped and chilly, even in June. Did Joan have a bed, I wondered, or a pile of straw on the floor? Was there a drain or just a bucket?

During the months of her imprisonment, Joan was guarded by an entire company of soldiers, five of whom stayed in the room with her at all times. She was kept in leg irons and chained to a block of wood. Even though it allowed the judges to charge her with heresy, she wore masculine clothing throughout her imprisonment, to keep her guards from molesting her. Several times during her imprisonment, she had to call for help to protect her from her guards.

When my family visited Rouen several years ago, the tower hosted a small museum, which seemed mostly to consist of reproductions of artwork featuring Joan over the centuries, bending her image to suit the times in which it was created. I didn’t get a lot of time to examine the exhibits because my daughter Sorrell was sulky. She didn’t like the dark tower and wanted out as soon as possible.

On the left is the market building and the right is Church of St. Joan
On the left is the market building and the right is Church of St. Joan

I’d already dragged her to the Market Square, where Joan had been burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. A sign tucked into a garden near the modern church of St. Joan (completed in 1979) indicated the place where the pyre had stood. The sign is labeled “Le Bucher: Emplacement ou Jeanne d’Arc fut brulee” – the place where Joan was burnt.

The roofline of the market building nearby rises in jagged points, simulating tongues of fire. The windows of the church are also like stylized flames. The stained glass in the windows was salvaged from the Church of St. Vincent, which stood nearby and had been destroyed during World War II. I wanted to go into the church, but didn’t push my luck with Sorrell.

I tried to summarize Joan’s brief life for Sorrell, but 19 seems impossibly distant when you’re 7. Sorrell wasn’t interested in the fighting or the iconic image of a girl in armor. What captivated her most was the fact that Joan heard voices who directed her to serve the French prince and see him crowned king. Sorrell wanted to know why the voices didn’t tell Joan to become queen.

I suppose no one really knows the identities of Joan’s advisors. The only contemporary record of their existence is the biased trial transcripts left by the French judges. Whether Joan really heard the Archangel Michael or merely claimed to doesn’t in any way negate what she accomplished, as far as I’m concerned. I also don’t care if she actually gave orders to the French army or if she merely served as a figurehead. What matters to me is that she’s still known – still venerated – six centuries after her birth. So few women of those days – and even fewer peasant girls – exist in any sense any longer.

I fought not to let my excitement about being in Joan’s footsteps be dimmed by my daughter’s lack of enthusiasm. Joan’s story was so inspirational to me, on a level deeper than words, that I struggled to convey it to Sorrell.

And she just wasn’t interested.

I know that’s a moment all parents face – when your kid rejects something you’re passionate about. I wondered if I could inspire Sorrell with a visit to the Joan of Arc Wax Museum, but her dad put his foot down: No Joan of Arc kitsch. (Now, apparently, we’ve missed our chance. The museum was damaged by fire in October 2012 and has been closed.)

Instead, we found a playground and let Sorrell play on the swings for a while. I read in the guidebook about Joan’s martyrdom.

When the fire consuming the 19-year-old seemed in danger of burning itself out, the executioner added more wood and poured oil over it, burning her bones to embers. All the ashes of the pyre were then gathered up and flung into the river Seine, so no relic, no grave would serve to rally the French against the English. Her enemies tried to erase Jean, but her legend was strong enough to survive.

All this comes back to me now because I thought Sorrell had forgotten all about Joan and Rouen. Then, one morning on the way to school, Sorrell excitedly told me about the book she’s reading at bedtime, one of Michael Scott’s Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series. One of the characters – a warrior woman – fought alongside Joan of Arc. The glitter in Sorrell’s eye echoed my own passion for Joan of Arc.

2 thoughts on “A Passion for St. Joan

  1. Loren —

    Your article resonated with me because of its familiarity. I have enjoyed traveling as a young girl and then in the later teen years. But there was a lapse in between that my father somewhat affectionately called my “So-what-who-cares” days. It was frustrating for all of us, but for different reasons. I can even remember my father dramatically reading from the guidebook, “AND this is the OLDEST castle” or This is the BIGGEST _________” etc. But my mother told me recently that she realized a year or two after the “So-what-who-cares” days that I would make a comment that told her that I soaked it all in, albeit reluctantly. Now I see glimpses of this mindset in my boys (6 and 8) and I take heart in knowing that at least some of it is soaking in!

    1. Thanks so much for saying that. Joan is so important to me and my daughter’s eye-rolling had me nearly in tears. I don’t feel that she must love everything I love, but my feelings were really hurt by her indifference. I hope you’re right and things are secretly soaking in.

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