Joan of Arc—From Caxton to Shakespeare

Pierre Ferrand


Part I of II

mong the very few positive texts available in English about Joan of Arc until the end of the 18th Century was a translation by William Caxton of the Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc, the last work of the distinguished proto-feminist writer Christine de Pisan. Caxton printed his version of this poem of nearly 500 lines in 1489, when King Henry VII of England styled himself King of France, as English kings did until 1801.

Christine de Pisan had written the Ditie in 1429, in the heat of her enthusiasm for the 17-year old girl who had just contributed so notably to save the key city of Orleans from the English and had conducted the Dauphin Charles through hostile territory, to be consecrated King of France in Rheims. (Indeed, Christine thought she was merely 16.)

The poem hails the blessed maid, an honor to the female sex, inspired by the Holy Ghost, whose credentials have been carefully examined by scholars and wise men. It focuses on her youth and her humble origin ("simple bergiere" from Lorraine), which made her leadership role appear the more miraculous. Christine was impressed by her skill on horseback, the way she could bear heavy armor though still a young girl, and her courage, which matched or even surpassed that of the male heroes of old. She focuses on her two dramatic successes at Orleans and Rheims. She warned the enemies of France that Joan was invincible: "Do you wish to fight against God?"

Christine looked forward to her taking Paris and to utterly defeating the English and their allies in France so that there finally would be peace in the land. She hoped that she would then induce King Charles VII to lead the troops of Christendom on a crusade to reconquer the Holy Land, and this, indeed, seems to have been one of Joan’s own dreams.

Christine, though born in Italy, was a loyal Frenchwoman and well-informed, though no prophet. Joan failed to take Paris and was captured shortly afterwards. The last English troops left France (except for Calais) only a quarter century later, and Charles VII was no crusading king. However, he had eventually followed up on Joan’s early successes and managed to reconquer his realm. As a result, France remained independent and was not ruled by British kings.

The Ditie is no masterpiece but remains a fascinating document showing some of the reasons why contemporaries were inspired by Joan’s charisma. Christine died in 1431, the year Joan was burned at the stake, and we can regret that we do not have her comments about Joan’s failures, her long trial, and her cruel death.

A generation later, France’s great medieval poet, Francois Villon, included Joan in his catalogue of great real and fictional ladies, who are no more, like the snows of yesteryear. His two simple lines have moved generations of Frenchmen:

Ou est Jeanne, la bonne Pucelle
Qu’Anglois brulerent a Rouen?

(Where is Joan, the Good Maid
Which the English burned in Rouen?)

Villon presumably knew about the procedures in the 1450s nullifying the verdict of the ecclesiastical court of 1431, which had been the legal basis for Joan’s execution eagerly desired by the English to try to discredit Charles VII. To what extent Villon was aware that goodness and compassion were characteristics of Joan is not known.

Joan’s rehabilitation, based on broad-based testimony about events of a quarter century or more earlier, also had an evident political purpose. Charles VII did not want to remain under the stigma that his coronation had been the work of a heretic and a witch.

English Renaissance chronicles dealing with the Hundred Years’ War ignored the fact that the verdict against Joan had been thus repudiated by the Church, which had condemned her and which continued to describe her as a witch and to viciously slander her character. These views are echoed by William Shakespeare in his portrayal of her in Henry VI.

The first major English effort since Caxton of a favorable account of the Maid was by the 19-year-old poet Robert Southey, in a 6,000-verse epic published in 1793. He was then in sympathy with revolutionary France, and his romantic and almost totally unhistorical Joan was a child of nature and of the soil, in the spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and a radical fighter against oppression. His long poem, which ends with the coronation of Charles VII, is little read today.

More influential was the 1801 play, Die Jungfrau von Orleans ("The Maid of Orleans"), by the German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, an idealist. He exalted a romantic heroine who not only saves her country and her king but falls in love with a British knight and dies from her wounds on the battlefield. Like the same author’s William Tell, the play appealed to a great variety of nationalists in many countries and was much imitated. Variations on it were the librettos of operas by Giuseppe Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikowsky as late as 1878. Like Schiller’s work, these operas were not among the composers’ major achievements, but they are not without interest.

Southey (and Schiller), in their enthusiasm for Joan, were reacting against her "vilification" by no less a figure than Joan’s compatriot, Voltaire, who died on the same day as Joan (May 30). Schiller pointedly alludes to Voltaire’s mock-epic in 21 cantos, La Pucelle d’Orleans, in his prologue to his play, where he rebukes him as "dragging sublimity into the mud."

Voltaire, no romantic, was from an earlier generation and could not grow ecstatic about a pious peasant girl, however worthy, whose alleged powers to save France were derived from heaven and the fact that she had remained a maid. Indeed, for him and most literate French-men of the 18th Century, the first reaction when hearing about a "Pucelle d’Orleans" was laughter.

Not coincidentally, Voltaire’s mock-epic, first published by him in 1762, had the same name as that of a long and solemn poem issued in 1656 by Jean Chapelain, then a prominent and influential writer. Chapelain and his supporters thought it would be considered a masterpiece. It was, instead, branded (correctly) as ridiculously and unendingly dull by Nicholas Boileau and other arbiters of French classical taste. They launched a multitude of witty epigrams against it. As a result, the very name of Joan became a laughing stock in France for over a hundred years.

Voltaire’s own Pucelle d’Orleans is funny, bawdy, and, though lengthy, never dull. It is an uproarious satire of fundamentalist Catholic religion as well as of Voltaire’s personal enemies, obviously written for his own pleasure and that of his friends. His only historical focus is the defense of Orleans against the English. He added many droll and fantastic episodes, which are explicit parodies of the Italian Renaissance epics, particularly Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and also of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He was also inspired by the elegantly erotic tales of LaFontaine.

While he had his fun ridiculing claims of heavenly inspiration, Voltaire did not question Joan’s fundamental decency. Indeed, in his serious historical works, he treated Joan with respect. He was aware of her genuine achievements and sympathized with her as a victim of the type of clerical intolerance against which he fought all his life.

Voltaire expected to offend the Church and prissy guardians of conventional morality. He never knew that his light-hearted presentation of a largely imaginary and unhistorical Joan would also deeply offend the votaries of romanticism and nationalism and the hero worshipers who proliferated in the 19th and 20th Centuries. His mock epic was considered by them a most wicked deed, a symbol of his sarcastic nastiness, and was used to drag his own name into the mud. v

Notes: *A modern reprint of the Ditie (text, translation, and commentaries), was issued 1977, and is available on the Internet.

I do not claim that Caxton, whatever his other merits, was necessarily an admirer of Joan of Arc. Several years before printing his Ditie translation, Caxton printed in a chronicle he helped compile the baseless slander (used later by Shakespeare) that Joan attempted to avoid execution by claiming that she was pregnant. This is the first extant mention of that libel.

*The famous Mme de Stael, in her De l’Allemagne, II, 29, (published 1813), while praising Schiller’s Joan at length, points out correctly that the author would have improved his play if he had ended it with the historical trial and execution. She wrote, "What is more admirable than the behavior and the very answers of Joan during her trial!"

*1762 is the date of the first (partial) authorized edition of Voltaire’s Pucelle d’Orleans, long circulated in manuscript and sometimes printed by his enemies (with compromising additions) without his consent. J. Vercruysse finally published a complete critical edition in 1970, (Volume 7 of the Oeuvres Completes of Voltaire issued by the Voltaire Foundation)


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