Poor Joan of Arc. Her trial and execution were only the beginning in the saga of the fluctuations of Joan’s fame that has run the gamut from anger and awe, skepticism and adoration…
Since the Rehabilitation of Joan of Arc, completed in 1456, a full twenty-five years after her execution, more than five and a half centuries have passed. We cannot attempt to achieve more than a bird’s eye view of the vicissitudes of her reputation during this great period of time. In portrait and ballad and mystery play, the fifteenth century presents us with a folk-heroine; the view of her is sometimes primitive, often artlessly imaginative and fanciful. In Francois Villon’s simple and profoundly moving allusion to her, we have the comment of high art:
Et Jeanne, la bonne Lorraine
Qu’Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen ;
Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?
Joan of Arc the virago, the strumpet, the heretic and witch, perhaps a puppet, perhaps an imposter- this is the Joan of Arc of the French Renaissance, of the earlier English tradition, of Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part One, and, at least in some aspects, of Voltaire and Hume and other less eminent thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The memory of the “false pucelle” is one ingredient in this image of the “egregia bellatrix,” which, in Renaissance courtly literature, displaces the folk-heroine of the fifteenth century.
Joan of Arc was not of great interest to the Renaissance humanists of that century and the next. She was, indeed, “too gothic” for their tastes; too plebian in origin, we many conjecture, for an era of aristocratic culture; too nationalist for an age still in large part, cosmopolitan in its cultural ideals. No great statues were dedicated ot the Maid in this period, no great dramas were written about her. She is assimilated, however, in tapestry and in latin epic, to the tradition of the Biblical and classical heroines; she is Deborah, she is Jael, she is Judith, she is Esther; she is the Sibyl of France; she is Cassandra, she is Velleda, she is Semiramis; she is Camilla, or Hippolyta or Penthesilea, queens of the Amazons; or, she is Bellona, goddess of war.
Joan of Arc’s sacrifice rivals that of Iphigenia. She has the courage of Clelia, perhaps the virtue of Lucretia. She is even compared to Hector or Achilles or Hercules! Her virginity, however, is sometimes questioned, her supernatural inspirations generally ignored, her military and political judgement often denied, directly or by implication.