“Does God hate the English?” Pierre Cauchon the chief inquisitor to Joan of Arc.
Ever since I was a child, Jeanne d’Arc has held a strong attraction for me. I was fascinated by the story of a teenage warrior girl saving her country. She is the patron saint of my hometown, New Orleans, USA and of Orléans, France. Statues of her were scattered throughout the Catholic churches and schools I attended from grammar school to high school. Eager to have a strong saintly role model as encouragement for their students, the nuns and clergy often repeated Jeanne’s story.
Years later, traveling in France and seeing the ubiquitous statues of her and numerous references to her role in French history awakened in me an interest to discover what I could of this singular young woman. Who was she, really? Did she have a normal young woman’s desires of family and children? What about “les voix” (the voices)? Some have suggested Jeanne was psychotic. Whatever can be said of Jeanne’s mental state or of any possible psychological diagnosis, two things are absolutely clear to me and to nearly everyone who researches her life. One: Jeanne was absolutely convinced that she communicated with Catholic saints and that she was sent by her God to save France from English domination. Two: This uneducated peasant teenager deftly avoided the often complicated linguistic entrapment of the erudite, English-surrogate Parisian bishops.
What was it that motivated Jeanne to leave the relative safety of her home village, Domremy in Lorraine, disdain her legally betrothed fiancé, and travel over 500 km across enemy territory to deliver the message to a nearly bankrupt prince that she alone, an illiterate, sixteen-year-old peasant girl, was sent by God to deliver France from the seemingly invincible English? At the time of her arrival on the scene in 1429, the French heir, the Dauphin Charles, was preparing to abandon France for exile in Scotland. France had no army to speak of and had lost nearly every battle of consequence since Henry V had annihilated the French troops at Agincourt in 1415. The cities of Rouen, Paris, Montreau, Melun, and Meaux all fell before 1422. The last remaining major French city, Orléans, the gateway to the remainder of France, was making its last stand when Jeanne arrived at the royal palace at Chinon on March 10, 1429 with a message for Charles. She told Charles that he was the rightful feudal heir to the kingdom of France and that she, Jeanne, was to be their God-given savior. Four months later, after relieving the siege of Orléans and participating in the decisive battle of Patay on June 18, Jeanne led Charles to Reims to be crowned King of France on July 17, 1429. After Patay, the English retreated to their citadel, Rouen. Jeanne agitated for war but Charles, bolstered by the victories, pushed for diplomacy, eventually breaking the English-Burgundian alliance. Meanwhile, Charles gave Jeanne a small contingent of men and arms that she used to attack Paris and Compiègne, unsuccessfully. On May 31, 1430 the English-allied Burgundians captured her during an attack on Compiègne. Her military life lasted less than fifteen months. During this short time, she led and participated in a number of important victories that changed the course of history. Throughout the year of her captivity by the Burgundians and the English, the French king she crowned, Charles VII, remained inexplicably quiet. During the Middle Ages, ransom was the common and presumed course of events for captives of her rank. However, not one offer or even a single inquiry for ransom or any attempted rescue was made by Charles VII or by any French representative. During her trial, she accurately predicted that the English would be driven from French soil within twenty years.
In Jeanne’s time, feudal law and superstition reigned supreme. Everyone believed that victory in battle meant that God favored the victor. For over eighty years the English effectively had their military way, and consequently, were generally considered to be chosen by God to rule France. Then suddenly this teenage girl turned the tide. The English truly believed she was in alliance with Satan. Given the history and beliefs of the time, no other explanation was possible to them. Furthermore, convicting Jeanne of heresy would clear the cloud of her victories from England’s feudal claim to the French crown. Had she answered the question posed by her interrogators, “Does God hate the English?” directly, she would have been immediately convicted and burned as a heretic. As was so often the case, Jeanne deftly sidestepped the trap. She replied that she could not presume to know what was in God’s mind. The Catholic Church claimed supreme authority in all religious matters. Failure to submit to Church authority was heretical. Jeanne’s claim to have a personal connection with God through His saints usurped the Church’s supreme authority. In the end, lacking any solid heretical evidence, on May 30, 1431, the French clergy convicted her and the English burned her alive, essentially for wearing men’s clothing.
Fast forwarding to modern times, Jeanne was the most prayed-to person by the French during World War I. She was credited with again saving France from domination by a foreign power. The first battle of the Marne stopped the advancing German armies and turned the tide of WWI. After retreating for four weeks, the vastly outnumbered and outgunned French Army and English Expeditionary Force turned and stopped the heretofore-unstoppable German juggernaut advancing on Paris. The miracles attributed to Jeanne during the battle of the Marne and other battles of WWI led to her canonization by the Catholic Church in 1920.
I am a photographer. I use my camera to examine the real world to investigate what is of interest to me. I attempt to learn and say something about my chosen subject by making what I call informational glints of the real world about my subject. My images, while captured digitally, are not digitally manipulated or enhanced beyond what could reasonably be done in a traditional darkroom. Approaching photographically a person who has been dead for nearly six-hundred years presents interesting photographic challenges, especially since there were no drawings and no paintings made of Jeanne during her life. In the centuries since her death, many painters, sculptors, writers, poets, film directors and musicians have created interpretive works about Jeanne. A photo essay about her was, as far as I know, untried.
I began by reading every biography, play, and novel that I could find, including the transcripts from both of her trials. I was determined to discover the “real” Jeanne. Who was this uneducated teenage peasant girl who is credited with saving France from what seemed a certain violent annexation by England in 1429 and from Germany in 1914?
In search of the real Jeanne, I went to France in 2005 for three months, reading, traveling and making photographs. I returned twice in 2006, twice in 2007 and once in 2008, staying various lengths of time. I found Jeanne, but she was not what I thought or hoped. A person of such great superhuman accomplishments is impossible to separate from myth. Jeanne d’Arc is myth. I don’t know who said this, but it seems to sum up Jeanne in one maxim: “Light reveals shadow, Truth reveals myth”. She is, at once, a Catholic saint, an apostate, a fearless soldier, a frightened teenager, a deranged misguided woman, a talisman, a protestant, and an icon for the nationalistic far right.
Statues of Jeanne are found throughout France. Are not these statues physical conceptualization of her myth? The commissioners of these statues and the sculptors who created them collaborated to make a physical representation of who they believed Jeanne was. As I began to look at and study these statues, I realized that each one is, in its own way, a different facet of the “real” Jeanne. Each one has something unique to say about The Maid, La Pucelle, as she is known in France. I began to look more closely and search for the essence of each statue. I have attempted to make photographs that tell and question portions of her myth.