Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Battle for Joan

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Battle for Joan

Article excerpt

By the early twentieth century, Joan of Arc had ridden under every political color. For militant royalists and Catholics, she bore the cross of Lorraine and the oriflamme of French kings; for anti-clericals who did not want it forgotten that the Church had burned her at the stake, she memorialized religious hypocrisy; for republicans who associated her victory over the English with the triumphant campaign of revolutionaries against the monarchical regimes invading France in 1792, she hoisted the flag of freedom. Joan came into her own as the darling of rival cults after Waterloo, when a resurgent Church called upon her to wield Napoleon's fallen sword against France's own revolutionary past.

In due course, historians dismissive of the supernatural but sworn to the Romantic idea of heroes and heroines embodying a collective identity dated the birth of the nation to Joan's advent. Like the Semitic scholar, Ernest Renan, who caused outrage with his Vie de Jésus by denying Jesus Christ's divinity, the historian Jules Michelet portrayed Joan in his Histoire de France (1855-67) not as a heaven-sent emissary but as a luminous patriot from France's peasant heartland. "This living enigma, this mysterious creature whom everyone considers supernatural, this angel or demon who wouldn't have surprised some people if she had flown away one day, was a young woman, a wingless girl fastened to a mortal body, who suffered and died a frightful death!" he wrote. "Always remember, Frenchmen, that our nation was born of a woman's heart, of her tenderness and tears, of the blood she shed for us." During the 1840s his disciple Jules Quicherat brought to light, in five octavo volumes, with much erudite commentary, the complete archival record of Joan's trials, thus contributing greatly to her humanization. A professor of philosophy named Jules Fabre subsequently translated all five volumes from Latin into French.

Undaunted by this scholarship was Bishop Félix Dupanloup of Orléans, a magisterial figure in the French episcopate who, two decades after Quicherat published his magnum opus, petitioned Pius IX to recognize the miraculous nature of Joan's deeds and dignify her appropriately. There were several reasons to urge her beatification in 1867. During the summer of that year, a widelyread liberal newspaper, Le Siècle, rallied groups in opposition to Napoleon III with plans for a monument honoring Voltaire. Beatifying Joan would be the Church's eloquent rejoinder. It would lead people who had distanced themselves from religion in desperate times to see that "Christian sanctity informs patriotic and civic virtues they admire." Furthermore, the bishop argued, a pro-Gallic gesture by Pius was certain to thwart French republicans demanding the withdrawal of the French auxiliary force garrisoned in Rome for the pope's protection since 1848.

But Joan was not to be beatified until 1909. In 1870 events occurred that dismissed all thought of it. Soon after the FrancoPrussian War broke out, France recalled its Roman garrison. (A Piedmontese-led army then entered Rome, installing Victor Emmanuel as king of a united Italy and confining Pius IX - Pio Nono - to the compound now called Vatican City).1 By January 1871, when an armistice agreement with Prussia was negotiated, 150,000 French soldiers had been killed. In March, left-wing insurgents, dead set against the armistice and scornful of the provisional government with its conservative country squires wanting peace at all costs, had proclaimed Paris an independent Commune. A new French army raised by the government, which now met in Versailles, having moved north from its seat of exile in Bordeaux, besieged the capital. On May 21 it broke through the gates and crushed the rebellion. During one week in which French were slaughtered by fellow French - the so-called "semaine sanglante" - blood colored the Seine red, and fires blazed out of control, including one that left City Hall, with all its civil records, a smoldering shell. …

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