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Why does everyone love Joan of Arc?

If there is a French woman known throughout the world, that is Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431), the heroine of the fight against the English.

In his figure it is difficult to separate the facts from the legend. Perhaps that is why, over the centuries, it has become a point of reference to justify a thing and its opposite.

We are faced with an implausible and fictional story. A simple girl claims to have visions: Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine of Alexandria entrust her, in the midst of the Hundred Years War, to save France. At that time, the English controlled half of their territory and the internal situation could not be more dire: military defeats, dissensions …

Perhaps the court took Joan of Arc seriously just because she was experiencing moments of despair and some hope was needed, however slight. The fact is that their presence was going to represent a turning point in the conflict. The king, Charles VII, sends her to Orleans, surrounded by the enemy, along with the relief army. A few days later, the English are forced to withdraw. Should we attribute the “maiden” to success? Historians have failed to agree.

Dibujo de Juana de Arco por Clément de Fauquembergue. Fechado el 10 de mayo de 1429, es la única representación coetánea de Juana de Arco de la que se tiene constancia.
Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue. Dated May 10, 1429, it is the only contemporary representation of Joan of Arc on record. (Public domain)

Hand in hand with that enigmatic young woman, French victories follow. Until the English achieve their capture. She will be tried on charges such as heresy and sentenced to the stake. But, a few decades later, the Catholic Church itself reviews the process and declares it innocent. Henceforth, people of the most diverse ideologies, from the same events, would interpret his figure in opposite terms. There will always be an appropriate Joan of Arc for any political agenda.

Example or witch?

In the 16th century, for example, the Catholic League did not hesitate to appropriate it. This fundamentalist group played a major role during the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants that ravaged France for several decades.

William Shakespeare, in Henry VI, also in that century, contributed the pejorative vision of an Englishman towards the ancient enemy of his country. Joan of Arc had been a witch who resorted to macabre rites in order to obtain the victory of her monarch: “Now help me, enchantment spells and amulets, and you, chosen spirits who advise me and give me signs of future events.”

Juana de Arco es interrogada en su celda por el cardenal de Winchester.
Joan of Arc is interrogated in her cell by the Cardinal of Winchester. (Public domain)

As early as the Enlightenment, Voltaire wrote a poem with a burlesque vision of his compatriot. The play, an epic buff, caused a scandal for its irreverence. A few decades later, the French revolutionaries also show no special respect for the myth. In 1792 they founded their monument in Orleans to make cannons.

Revolutionary or monarchical?

Napoleon, on the other hand, will appreciate the symbolic advantages of the character. Submerged in a titanic fight against the English, he finds in Joan of Arc a more than opportune model. He had just fought against the same adversary. His example, according to Bonaparte, proved a great truth: the French could achieve anything, however difficult it was, as long as they remained united.

From this perspective, the maid of Orleans was the architect of a national liberation struggle against a foreign invader. But, with the fall of the Great Corsican, the newly restored Bourbon monarchy viewed the young woman from a very different perspective. Thanks to Juana’s courage, Carlos VII had consolidated himself on his vacillating throne. Heroin was therefore a pillar of the monarchy. Thus it is understood that Louis XVIII, like his brother Carlos X later, viewed with sympathy a reference that seemed suitable to legitimize the return of his dynasty.

Retrato imaginario de Juana de Arco.
Imaginary portrait of Joan of Arc. (Public domain)

Homeland or social class?

Beginning in the 19th century, the nationalist movement will make the young medieval woman the embodiment of her idea of France. The historian Jules Michelet is one of the best known representatives of this trend, destined to extract lessons from the past with which to strengthen the patriotism of the present: “Let us always remember, French, that the country was born from the heart of a woman, from her tenderness and of her tears, of the blood that she shed for us ”.

Michelet speaks almost religious terms of a redeemer, of the lighthouse to which one had to go in times of difficulty. In 1870, when France went to war with Bismarck’s Prussia, Joan of Arc’s popularity would reach one of its highest levels. His biography provided the model for what a good citizen should be, always ready to sacrifice himself for his country. In the following century, on the occasion of the two world wars, the providential fighter will be used again in propaganda terms.

Juana de Arco en la hoguera en una imagen del manuscrito de 'Las vigilias de Carlos VII', por Marcial de Auvernia (siglo XV).
Joan of Arc at the stake in an image from the manuscript of ‘The vigils of Charles VII’, by Marcial de Auvergne (15th century). (Public domain)

Juana against immigration?

Today, the Orleans maiden has not completely disengaged from its conservative connotations. Nicolas Sarkozy, from Union for a Popular Movement, dedicated himself to exalting his exploits during the period of the French presidency. The extreme right, in turn, has used it to legitimize the fight against immigration.

Its leader, Marine Le Pen, does not miss an opportunity to underline the supposed similarity between the medieval girl and her own figure. Juana, from her point of view, represents a sublime France in which there is no place for people of foreign races and cultural traditions. In this line, the actress Brigitte Bardot, of well-known far-right sympathies, has gone so far as to say that Marine Le Pen is the Joan of Arc of the 21st century.

Grabado en color de Juana de Arco, por Albert Lynch (1903).
Color engraving of Joan of Arc, by Albert Lynch (1903). (Public domain)

The left, however, has resisted giving up a national symbol. To rescue her from partisan use, in 2015 a museum dedicated to her life was opened in Rouen. The event was chaired by the socialist Laurent Fabius, by then Foreign Minister. Her presence meant questioning the topic by which Joan of Arc represents opposite values to those of the Republic. Far from old appropriations, it was stressed at that time that no one had a monopoly on his legacy.

The current president of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, of centrist tendency, advocates a vision of national history that reconciles the different memories of the past, so that citizens do not have to choose between personalities such as Joan of Arc, icon on the right, and Jean Jaurès, hero of the left.

What do you think?

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