Joan of Arc. From compromising circumstance in the life of Charles VII, to be forgotten as soon as possible to subsequent resurrection and refashioning into useful symbol…
The French Revolution was a decisive event in the development of the reputation of Joan of Arc, as it was in the development of everything else in France. In its immediate effect, it was a further blow to her reputation, already badly battered by the assaults of the Enlightenment on the eve of the Revolution. Whatever “pasts,” real or fictitious, or half one, half the other, were being resurrected by the various partisans, the Gothic age was not one of them; no revolutionary party looked back to it.
The thinkers of the preceding century, who had traduced the Maid, now reigned in their glory; and when Voltaire’s mortal remains were borne in a triumphal car to a resting place in the Pantheon, it was not to be expected that his overwhelmingly unfavorable verdict of the “Pucelle” would be widely discounted. Later Republicans might see in her “the revolutionary gunneress and captain of the National Guard,” in Anatole France’s phrase; but this conception was not the dominant verdict of the great Revolution itself, though it was not an idea completely unfamiliar at the time. In the main, the Revolution viewed Joan with hostility, seeing in her the prop of Church and King, the beatifically smiling heroine of the Rehabilitation. Her relics and her monuments were swept away; though her devoted city of Orleans insisted on naming after her one of the cannon cast from her bronze image.
The way was therefore open for reviving conservatism to appropriate Joan unchallenged, and to make of her one of its icons. It is not surprising then, that under Napoleon I, when many of the discarded ideas and institutions of the old regime began to reappear in a new and rather unstable synthesis with the creations of the Revolution, Joan of Arc came back into fashion. Napoleon aimed at national unity against the English, and she was surely irs appropriate symbol. The First Consul sought to detach her from her ties with the ancien regime and to convert her into a support of the new and more splendid throne which he planned.
Napoleon could find a use for the “Gothic” Joan of Arc and for her religious associations. His official reconciliation with her was proclaimed by him in the “Moniteur,” the official gazette. The decree restored the annual Orleans fete on May 8, the anniversary of the raising of the English army’s siege of the city in 1429, owing largely or entirely to Joan’s intervention. Soon after the restoration of the fete, a new monument to Joan was erected with the approval of Napoleon. This new monument, a ridiculous work and a travesty upon its subject, faithfully reflected the artificiality of the attempted Joan of Arc revival, as well as the atmosphere of military emergency which had largely inspired it.