JOAN OF ARC, by Regine Pernoud (Translated by Edward Hyams) (Macdonald, 35s.).
Reviewed by MERIOL TREVOR THIS book is most interesting, especially to one like myself whose knowledge of the fifteenth century is minimal, and whose idea of Saint Joan is entirely created by Bernard Shaw.
Regine Pernoud has told the story of Joan's life with extracts from the records of the trial of condemnation in 1431 and from the witnesses in the process of rehabilitation which ended in 1456 with the solemn cancellation of the earlier judgment. The author adds a commentary discussing the many problems involved.
The hook was acclaimed in France in 1962 and we are lucky to have a translation so soon. Edward Hyams gives his reasons for adopting a literalist method, though some may feel he goes too far with such constructions as "Me, I know .
But at the end one feels as if one had read the book in French, which was perhaps what he intended. The illustrations are remarkable and nearly all from the Fifteenth century, including some hair-raising doodles of executions, made at the trial.
It is strange to think that had not the English tried to destroy Joan's influence by getting her condemned for heresy and witchcraft, we should never have known what she was like. She could write her name, and dictated a few necessary letters. There would have been a cult for her in France, but she would have been a figure of pious legend.
From the trial records she emerges real and alive, and set among other living people. Bernard Shaw in fact hit off very well her simple, shrewd, single minded goodness and force of character; some of his best lines came straight from the trial records. But here we have the whole context, complete with childhood companions, old mother, pages, captains and clerks.
Is it all very medieval and remote from us now? Yes, in one way. That whole kingly and litigious society, unselfconsciously hierarchical, crudely violent and credulously pious, has become only a npemory, except perhaps tit a few members of the Roman Curia. Yet Joan's life and death, as Shaw saw, raise the perennial problem of the inspired individual's battle to preserve integrity of conscience under pressure from recognised authority.
Shaw gave Cauchon a better case than he had; he was an unjust judge, acting in the name of the Church which later condemned him and exonerated his victim. Joan's appeals to the Pope were ignored.
Cauchon caught Joan by making her obedience to the Church depend on her leaving off her male attire, and then left her in conditions where it was not safe for her to do so. Her plea to be sent to an ecclesiastical prison and guarded by women was illegally refused: she was kept in irons in a secular prison by men who were her political enemies. As for that unnatural attire; she had to live with soldiers. She did not act like a man and remained proud of her womanly skills: "Let me alone for spinning!" She chased off the camp-following women with her sword: her companions testified that although she could raise sexual response in them, none would dare to touch her.
She heard Mass often, confessed often. Nobody could swear in her presence; she ticked off the Due d'Alencon when he did, as he remembered long after.
Whatever we make of Joan's "voice" and her heavenly advisers, Saints Catherine and Margaret, Joan was convinced that it was God who sent her to drive out the English and crown the Dauphin. It was a vocation to right a wrong and she did it in the most disinterested and honourable way; she carried her standard in battle so as not to have to kill anyone; she showed active mercy to prisoners and the wounded; she bore no malice against the English.
Although she believed utterly that her visions came from God she was by no means credulous. When a visionary woman came to
her, Joan spent a couple of nights in her room, decided it was all nonsense and sent her packing. When she was brought rosaries to touch she laughted and said: "Touch them yourself!"
Joan is an original saint. She was a lay person, a woman, from among ordinary people and like them in her forthright common sense and good humour. She was exceptional only in her honesty, her loyalty to her two kinds—"my king" as she called Charles, and "the King of heaven".
Her mission was entirely in the world and of the world—an extraortlinary task and yet only different in degree from the task of any Christian living in the world, to work for justice and truth. She is like a plebeian version of Saint Louis, King of France. Perhaps heaven is full of moans; but they rarely get canonised on earth.