Celebrating the Feast of Joan of Arc on 30 May
A contemporary of the birth of the French nation in the 15th century, Joan was first and foremost the paradigm reactivated in the collective mindset of the 19th and 20th centuries, after hundreds of years of almost total oblivion. Her return is linked in particular to the place allocated to the Middle Ages at the
beginning of the Third Republic to legitimize the political and religious strife. From 1870, after the Romantic Movement had made her one of its mystical figures that could embody the soul of the people, Joan of Arc's life therefore became a reflection of this political game.
Catholics thus hail Joan as "the firstborn of the Church", the champion of "God's great enterprises under the Franks", the Gesta Dei per Francos [God's work for France], while the nationalists made Joan of Arc the daughter of the populace, disseminating a legend — through. Michelet in 1841 — which makes her a sister of the Marianne of the Revolution.
Joan's destiny was henceforth linked to these two visions of history, immediately replaced following the First World War by a third archetype: "the Saint of the Homeland". The epithet, also coined by Michelet — "Yes, according to Religion, according to the Homeland, Joan of Arc was a saint" — was a combination of the Catholic legacy and a form of national messianism sustained by the New Right. The year 1920 thus saw the French Parliament allocate the heroine's national commemoration to 8 May, while Rome canonized her after proclaiming her Venerable in 1894 and beatifying her in 1909. The inspired little shepherdess stands beside the fearless maiden warrior of the Church like the monuments to the fallen in France.
However the French Nationalist Movement established a link between "Long live Joan of Arc", and "Down with the Jews", and the country's saint no longer featured in circles of the Nationalist Right, other than in official celebrations. For her part, the Church sought to defend her from these attempts to take her over: there can be no doubt that in common clerical opinion the figure of Joan the shepherd girl prevailed!
Joan, exploited by the ideology of the French. State of Vichy and by the most extremist of supporters of collaborationism who styled her as a good French peasant woman, was subsequently invoked by the Resistance and the free France.
Of the three models created between the 19th and 20th centuries, she was the national archetype who lived on in the decades following the War of Indochina, the War of Algeria, and the nascent nationalism of the 1980s.
A paradigm of the French nation, the 15th-century Joan was first of all the daughter of a well-off peasants of the Lorraine region. She went in search of the Dauphin Charles in the spring of 1429, during the civil war that supported him in opposition to the English invaders and their Burgundian allies.
God, said Joan, was sending her to free Orleans, to have the prince crowned and to throw the English out of France. It was unexpected help of which the royal entourage decided to avail themselves, entrusting to her the troops that liberated Orleans on 8 May. The Loire campaign was subsequently marked by a series of victories that made the coronation in Rheims possible on 16 July. However the young woman was captured outside Compiègne at the end of May 1430 and handed over to the English. It was then that a long trial by the Inquisition began which led her to be burnt at the stake on 31 May 1431 for heresy. This first trial was followed by a second, unsuccessful, trial that ended in 1456. It had to prove that the Christian king, who had returned to his seat in Rouen, had not received the help of a heretic.
Joan's life was not only a biographical event. It was open to interpretation giving rise to innumerable versions. Between the 15th and 20th centuries each one of the imagined versions made this life their own in order to develop or change it to their advantage.
"La Pucelle" [the Maid of Orleans]? The young virgin dressed as man does not cease to provoke curiosity because she freed herself of the destiny habitually reserved for women (marriage, children, the exclusion from politics).
Was she a prophetess? The biblical type was used from the 15th century by Joan's contemporaries. They then turned her into a shepherdess for the needs of their own interpretation — being a true prophet by nature, a shepherd to whom God entrusted the mission of speaking in his name — or they compared her to a false prophet to have her burnt at the stake.... But historical documents reveal that the only name which the divine voices gave to Joan of Arc was "daughter of God".
The novelty of the 15th century seems to have been precisely the fact that such a name identified a woman with Christ. Colette Beaune, a historian, has shown in particular that it was this epithet which precipitated her fall just as in the Gospels it was the name "Son of God" that led Jesus to Cross.