This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 29, 2007. It headlined UPI’s mainpage that day as well.
In the foreword to his thought-provoking and very readable forthcoming biography of Joan of Arc, Joan: the Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint (due out from HarperSanFrancisco next month), Donald Spoto makes the following claim about the “Maid of Orleans”:
Joan fought and died to preserve the identity and particularity of a sovereign place; she dedicated herself to the unique and irreplaceable soul of a country…Joan was an unwitting architect of the idea that every nation is inviolable—that no people may be overrun, dominated, suppressed or brought to the brink of annihilation by an outside force. She stands for the injunction, later ratified by declarations, treaties, and covenants signed all over the civilized world, that no nation (without direct provocation and an immediate threat to its survival) may invade, much less annihilate, another country in order to turn it into a cog in the machine of mightier people eager for economic exploitation and territorial expansion.
This, according to Spoto, is the “startling and important” message of Joan’s life for those of us living in the 21st century’s climate of international fear and suspicion.
Joan’s story is significant and should be retold in places like Washington and Sadr City, Jerusalem and Teheran.
But there is a side to the tale of the young woman who saved France from English domination–only to be burnt at the stake–that rests uneasily in my contemplation of it. Joan of Arc was a warrior whose patriotism was inherently connected to faith. However Catholic she may have been, Joan was what some contemporary pundits might call a Jihadist, a holy warrior, an insurgent, a terrorist.
Joan of Arc was a young woman who saw visions of saints and angels and believed the heavenly messengers were sent by God to direct her to fight in defense of France and its uncrowned king against the imperialistic ambitions of the English, who for decades had been attempting to assert the right of English monarchs to the French throne.
And it may seem that Joan was fighting a just war–after all, she was defending her homeland against foreign invaders. This generally has been the judgment of history, as has the idea that Joan’s eventual execution as a heretic was a great miscarriage of justice.
But such views might justifiably be considered “one-sided,” “unbalanced” and even “anti-Anglo” by the pro-England lobby. If Joan were a contemporary figure fighting in a modern conflict, Donald Spoto might be on the receiving end of a great deal of acrimony for publishing so attractive and supportive a biography of the Maid.
After all, the war in which Joan’s leadership played a decisive role was the so-called “Hundred Year’s War” between France and England. It was a long conflict in which atrocities were committed on both sides. By the time Joan was involved in the war, the English were trying to enforce the terms of a peace deal, the Treaty of Troyes under which England’s King, Henry V (of Shakespearian fame) married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, the king of France. The Treaty of Troyes stipulated that Charles VI would remain on the throne, but upon his death the crown would pass to Henry and to his descendants by Catherine of Valois.
It was Charles VI’s only surviving son and Joan’s patron, the Dauphin and future Charles VII, who broke the terms of Troyes by asserting his claim to the throne of France. Apologists for England might, with some validity, argue that England had made a good faith offer to end hostilities, but that London simply did not have a partner for peace among the French, especially when France’s army was being led by a young, uneducated, religious fanatic who promised the bliss of paradise for anyone who died in battle on behalf of France and the Dauphin. How can you negotiate with a religious nutcase who disregards international agreements?
But of course, that’s not how we interpret the life of Joan of Arc, these six centuries hence. Joan’s piety, patriotism and courage are revered almost universally today. The safe distance of time has sanctified Joan’s memory, and the same church that executed her has a heretic, later canonized her as a saint.
Both historical reflection and the Roman church have exonerated Joan of Arc, and we would do well to be mindful of Joan’s vindication as we think about those with whom we wage war. We should be careful when we pass judgment upon our enemies, especially when that judgment is religious in nature. Our perspective may be blurred by passion, and the story of Joan of Arc reminds us that we can never be sure that the memory of generations yet unborn will not beatify those who seek do us harm.