Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc) – by Christine de Pizan, ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Henry VI, Part I – by William Shakespeare, 1591 via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Jeanne d’Arc – by T. Douglas Murray, New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

Joan of Arc – by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast, episode 51

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured – by Kathryn Harrison, New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc – 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Joan of Arc: A History – by Helen Castor, New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint – by Stephen Wesley Richey, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

The Passion of Joan of Arc – 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – by Mark Twain, 1896

The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc – by Daniel Crown for The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

Saint Joan – 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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New Podcast Episode: Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants… Read the written version here

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Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Hannibal, Missouri, view towards the lighthouse from Main Street, evening

John Marshall Clemen’s office across from the family home on Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants. Walk only a block or two south up the hill and it’s half ghost town. The economy of the historic downtown, like so many in America, appears to be driven by tourism.

I walked to the old town’s main sights earlier this evening: the great American author Mark Twain’s boyhood home, his father’s law office, and so on, and photographed their exteriors. I’ll go inside these places tomorrow.

I must go now, the mosquitoes have found me and they’re swarming, out for my blood. I’ll camp tonight near the caves, in the campground that a local man I chatted with earlier directed me to.

Samuel Clemens’ family home on the side facing Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

When I arrive in Hannibal (from New Salem via the 72 West), it’s in the soft light of early evening. It’s still pretty warm, the road food I brought with me, celery, peanut butter, apples, are softened, wilted from the heat of the day. The car’s air conditioning is good but I find I need to alternate with fresh air, even when it’s hot. The conditioned air is refreshingly dry on these muggy midwest summer days but after sitting in it for too long, I feel suddenly as if I’m desiccating. Then the windows come down.

I’m in an excited mood. There’s always a feeling of discovery in crossing a river, I think, even in these days when wide, smooth highway bridges can make you forget to notice what you’re passing over one. When you do notice, though, you get the feeling that a river crossing is significant, like an anniversary or a holiday. River crossings used to be difficult, and something deep within us remembers that. Anniversaries, holidays, rivers are all markers that remind us, with a jolt, that though we once came from someplace, sometime, we’re now somewhere else, sometime later. We humans like these markers and boundaries. They place us so that, for a moment at least, we’ve on one shore or another, no longer adrift.

And I recall that young Samuel Clemens, like young Abraham Lincoln, had once been a river craft pilot: Lincoln of flatboats, Clemens of steamboats. Both took their crafts to New Orleans, and both were amazed, delighted, and impressed by what they saw there… and sometimes dismayed. As President during the great American war over slavery, Lincoln had many occasions to recall his first sight of chained slaves on their way to market in New Orleans. While his parents hated slavery and taught him that it was wrong, it was this experience that revealed its horrific reality to him, especially upon recollection and reflection. After Samuel Clemens renamed himself Mark Twain, a riverboat pilot’s term indicating a safe depth for passage, he realized that the slavery he grew up with and took for granted was a great moral wrong. Few works of scholarship, art, or literature reveal this to the moral imagination as impactfully and durably as his magnum opus Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Home of Tom Blankenship on North St, Hannibal, Missouri. Blankenship was the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s character in the novel of the same name; there’s a placard in the window identifying it as the ‘Huck Finn House’.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sculpture, Hannibal, Missouri

I pull off on the side of North St, just north of N. Main St to stretch and look around. To my right, there’s a clapboard building on little grassy slope. I approach: there’s a plaque in the window identifying it as the ‘Huck Finn House.’ A little ahead of me to my left, there’s a little park with a sculpture on a pedestal in its center. I clamber onto the low wall surrounding it for a closer look. Yes, the two figures do portray Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I return to the car, pull it into a nearby parking lot, tuck my laptop into my bag, and head towards Main Street. Before I leave the parking lot, a man and I exchange greetings. He’s organizing a town revitalization event. I can’t accept his kind invitation to attend, however, since I’ll be leaving town before it happens. But we chat awhile about Hannibal, its past and its future, and I follow his pointing finger to the main Twain sites. I visit and map them out in my mind so I can explore them tomorrow during business hours, and chat with some local ladies hanging outside of the Main Street Wine Stoppe.

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, night of July 31st,  2017

I reach the campground. There are no lights on in the registration office; it’s clearly no longer staffed for the night. I enter the campground and choose a spot among many that lack registration cards clipped to the signs. I’ll pay in the morning. I set up my simple camp to the parking lights of the rental car. In my little niece’s cast-off backyard camping tent, I feel like Abraham Lincoln in a guesthouse. I sleep at an angle so I don’t have to double up my legs. Invariably, however, I wake up in this tent with my head pressing one corner and my feet another.

As I write, the sweat is rolling over me in big drops though this tent is lightweight and all the flaps are open, allowing the mesh panels to let in all the air that they’ll allow through. I unzip the tent’s front opening and stick my head out. It’s much cooler outside but I dare not leave the flap open given the ferocity of the mosquito attack earlier. Hope I can sleep.

Mark Twain Cave Campground, Hannibal, Missouri

Journal – Hannibal, Missouri, Tuesday morning, August 1st, 2017

I woke up rather early this morning and emerged from my tent to retrieve my little thermos of coffee and a bagel from the car. It was a beautiful morning. I felt very lazy and sat on the picnic bench for quite awhile watching my fellow campers rise, make breakfast, and walk their dogs. It’s one of the best campgrounds I’ve stayed in, spacious with roomy campsites, very well kept, lush with lots of trees. My coffee and bagel long finished, though, I finally bestirred myself and went for a jog, my stiffness and minor backache reminding me I haven’t gotten nearly enough exercise in the past week.  Then I took a shower, washing some of my clothes along with myself. This is one of my road trip tactics which allows me to travel without carrying along too much clothing. I went and paid for the campsite, since I arrived too late last night to do so, but decided against visiting the caves. They’re privately run and the entrance fees are higher than I want to pay; I’ve already seen some incredible caves on this trip and I’m trying to keep a lid on what I spend. After all, right now, I’m both homeless and jobless for the first time in a very, very long time. Somehow, that state of affairs feels okay.

View of Hannibal, Missouri, from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, Hannibal, Missouri

Right now, I’m at the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, a little white wood structure built to honor the great author in 1935. It’s reached by 244 steps, which makes me happy. I’ve been missing my California hills and this climb is a break from the nearly unrelenting flatness of the Great Plains and the Midwest. My legs welcome the gentle, pleasant burn. I’m drenched with sweat before the exercise even begins; in fact, I never really dried off after my shower. It’s very humid and already very warm at 11 am.

I’m going down to go on the tour of Mark Twain’s childhood home, the fee there is very reasonable. I’m still deciding where I’ll head just after that…

Hannibal, Missouri,  August 1st, 2017

Descending from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, I stop at a sort of brick- and concrete- paved little park with a concrete railing on the southeast end. There’s a plaque on the railing that identifies it as the abutment of the first Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, built in 1935 to mark the centennial of his birth, dedicated in September 1836 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The one that crosses the Mississippi here now and which I gazed at the sunset through last night opened in 2000.

Paved park and remaining railing at the foot of the original 1936 Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, Hannibal, Missouri

I continue my descent to Main St, then buy my tour ticket at the Mark Twain Interpretive Center on Main St between North and Hill. It costs $11.00 and gives access to the Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher houses, the John Marshall Clemens law office and eventually, when it re-opens after restoration, Grant’s Drug Store. John Marshall Clemens, Sam’s father, was in turn (and sometimes, concurrently) a lawyer, farmer, land speculator, shopkeeper, court clerk, attorney general, and justice of the peace, and failed to succeed financially at all of them. He was a stern man with a cold and upright demeanor, very different than his vivacious, emotive wife Jane Lampton. The story that Twain later repeated was that this unlikely pair married upon Jane’s whim to spite another suitor, a move she later regretted. Husband and wife were respectful to one another but never warm or demonstrative. John died in 1847, leaving his family very badly off. It was up to the children to support the family then. Like all of his brothers, Samuel went to work in the newspaper trade at age twelve as a printer’s apprentice. He earned no wages then, only his board, food, and clothing, but this at least eased the burden on the family’s finances. Sam was able to continue his studies independently, part-time, so between that and his work immersed in communication, his skills in the English language apparently didn’t suffer a bit.

Model for a planned 1935 Mark Twain Centennial sculpture at Mark Twain Interpretive Center, Hannibal, Missouri

Samuel Clemens at fifteen, holding a printer’s composing stick with letters SAM. Daguerreotype, Hannibal, Missouri, 1850

In the Interpretive Center, I peruse photographs and informational placards about Samuel Clemens’ and his later alter ego Mark Twain’s life and work. I’m especially taken by a model for a planned 1935 centennial sculpture that never materialized. It features characters from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I’m a bit surprised that since the artist chose to memorialize characters from only four novels, they chose to include many from Joan of Arc. It’s probably the most overlooked of all of his works to this day.

Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc began, he reminisced, while he was still a printer’s apprentice. A loose page from a book about her blew off the sidewalk and into his face. He was intrigued by what he read, and when his bookworm older brother Henry assured him that Joan was a real person, young Sam sought out and read everything about her that he could find. She remained a lifelong fascination for him. Joan, written many, many years later between 1892-1895, was Twain’s own favorite of his own works, or among his favorites, depending on which of his statements you go by. But it was widely dismissed by critics and still baffles readers and scholars well over a century later. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic, and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint, and why did this master of American English so love this child of his pen? Parts of the explanation can be provided by Twain’s romantic notions about the delicacy and purity of feminine nature, and his relationship to his daughter Susy. It was no secret that Susy was his favorite daughter, and this daughter, who largely inspired his conception of Joan, also favored this work of her father’s.

First Edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896, cover

But Joan’s story is not only one of sweet, pure womanliness: it’s also a story of rebellion and staunch individuality. After all, she defied her parents, the local authorities, and the church to take up her greater task of defying and defeating the English in the Hundred Years’ War. After she was captured in battle, she remained steadfast in her unique sense of purpose, defying her judges in the court which finally sentenced her to death for heresy when she was only nineteen years old. This story must have resonated deeply with Clemens’ rebellious nature. Since his days as a teenaged printer’s apprentice under Joseph Ament, then as assistant printer and editor for his older brother Orion’s paper, then as a cub pilot on Mississippi steamboats after he left Hannibal, young Sam chafed under authority. After less than three years at his brother’s paper, which included his first published work, Clemens left Hannibal for St Louis early in the summer of 1853.

Like Twain, I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc. I watched Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of her innumerable times with my grandmother, who also insisted I read Twain’s Joan novel, which despite its flaws, I love to this day. Joan is the subject of one of my earliest portraits, and recently, I’ve brought her into my studies here at the University of Edinburgh. Like Twain, I also identify with her rebellious nature and staunch individualism.

Huck Finn / Tom Blankenship house, south view, and interpretive plaque historic photo, Hannibal, Missouri

I leave the Interpretive Center and take the self-guided tour, first to the ‘Huck Finn’ house where Tom Blankenship lived. Tom was young Sam’s playmate and the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s character. The Blankenship family was plagued by alcoholism and poverty, but Sam envied what seemed to him to be their free and easy lifestyle. The tidy clapboard structure atop its stone half-underground basement that stands here today only resembles the original dirty, ramshackle house of the Blankenship’s time here in shape and size.

Samuel Clemen’s home, right, and A.L. Hawkins Frazer’s, née Laura Hawkins (Becky Thatcher) home, left

Mark Twain visits his old family home in Hannibal, Missouri in 1902

Then I cross the picket-fenced lawn by the brick-paved walkway to the Clemens family home. Unlike the ‘Huck Finn’ house, this is the original building, thoroughly restored. However, I notice, it’s missing the window shutters that it had when Twain returned to Hannibal to visit his old family home in 1902 (see above). Perhaps the shutters were added after he lived here as a child. The rooms are furnished and decorated with period-correct furniture, textiles, clothing, and other objects. Each room also features a life-size sculpture of Twain as he appeared during his later years with his trademark bushy mustache and casual white suit with bow tie. The sculptures portray Twain in attitudes of reminiscing: sitting with his hands folded while gazing into space in one room, standing with one hand behind his back while gazing out of the window in another. Twain’s novels are heavily autobiographical, his characters based on members of his family, his friends, neighbors, employers, and teachers, mostly from Hannibal. This is especially true of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I notice that the historical signs outside of the buildings included in this tour, which date to the 1930’s, present Twain’s characters as if they took part in the real-life history of the place. Here in Hannibal, as in Twain’s novels, life and artifice are presented together with no clear indication of which is fact, which is fiction.

Young Samuel Clemens’ bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Hannibal, Missouri

‘Slavery in the Clemens Household’ placard in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home

Jane and John Marshall Clemens’ bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Hannibal, Missouri

View of Becky Thatcher / Laura Hawkins house and John Marshall Clemens law office from the front bedroom, Mark Twain Boyhood Home

Left: a display in Laura Hawkins’ house. Right: interior view of Justice of the Peace Clemens’ office. Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

Building at the southeast corner of Main and Hill which stands on the site of the second location of Joseph Ament’s paper the Missouri Courier. The offices were moved to the second floor of the building which originally stood here shortly after Samuel Clemens left his employ as a printer’s devil, from 1848-1850.

Mark Twain Museum on Main St, Hannibal, Missouri

Next, I briefly tour the ‘Becky Thatcher’ house. It was the home of Annie Laurie Hawkins, who most people called Laura. She was the neighbor and friend who Twain based the character of Becky Thatcher on in Tom Sawyer. Twain described Laura on many occasions as his first childhood love. They remained friends and kept in contact for life; Laura Hawkins, later Annie Laurie Hawkins Frazer outlived Twain by 18 years. The house has not been set up, like the Clemens house, to reflect how it may have appeared when little Laura lived here. It’s more like a gift shop – slash – museum, but according to the website, the planned decor and permanent exhibits are not installed yet.

I continue my tour next door to John Marshall Clemens’ Justice of the Peace office building. The one room open to the public is set up with some old furniture and books behind glass. If the furnishings reflect historical reality, it was a small and simple affair. Placards on the wall recount anecdotes from Clemens’ tenure there as a stern but fair man of common sense.

I continue east down Hill St towards the river, passing Grant’s Drug Store, which is under reconstruction, and turn right on Main St. Two blocks down, on my left, I enter the Mark Twain Museum at 120 N Main St.

The museum’s exhibits open with large blue-and-white gallery walls dedicated to original Norman Rockwell paintings and drawings for special editions of Tom Sawyer (1936) and Huckleberry Finn (1940). Rockwell was thrilled to be chosen to illustrate these new editions of what were already considered great American literary classics. It seems to me, as I’m sure it did then, that Rockwell was the obvious choice. His paintings were as nostalgically American as Twain’s resurrections of idyllic small-town childhood in these novels, and sure enough, he perfectly captured the tenderness and humor in Twain’s tales and characterizations. I remember my grandmother (the same one who urged me to read Twain’s Joan) sputtering with indignation when telling me of a woman who said that Rockwell was not an artist, but an illustrator. The woman not only considered these separate professions with different purposes but implied that the latter was inferior to the former. This was unforgivable to my grandmother, both in its snobbery and its slight to her favorite painter. I understand what the woman was getting at but I tend to agree with my grandmother. Rockwell has become unfashionable, to many, because of the nostalgia and sentimentality which pervade his work, but if we exclude Rockwell as an artist on those grounds, wouldn’t we be forced to exclude much of Twain? What people create who consider themselves artists, and who are considered as such by other people, has changed at least as many times over the centuries as opinions of what art really is and what it’s for. The woman seemed to have accepted a redefinition of art that excludes Rockwell, but I think any definition that succeeds in doing this is far too narrow. My grandmother did the same thing with the term music so that it excluded that wicked, sex-driven rock and roll.

Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Mark Twain Museum, Hannibal, Missouri

Beyond the Rockwell exhibit, I find one of Mark Twain’s white suit jackets in a glass case. With a small tear at the front, it’s draped on a form in front of a photograph of a mature Twain wearing it, or one very like it. According to the museum, it’s the only one known to exist. The white suit has become iconic of Twain since he wore one off-season to deliver a speech in support of copyright laws at a 1906 congressional committee meeting. The eloquent orator with his bushy white hair, flaring white mustache and eyebrows in a glowing white suit before a room of wintry black-clad men made a quite an impression. Twain was delighted with the effect and replicated it at other occasions where dark or formal clothing was expected. He wore a white suit for portrait sessions which resulted in some of the best-known images of him, and was buried in one as well. Though he adopted this devil-may-care look only for a short while before his death, it made an indelible impression on our collective memory of this oh-so-American personality. To this day, nearly all Twain impersonators wear a similar white suit.

Mark Twain’s top hat, baby Langdon’s death mask, and Olivia Clemens’ jewelry box, Mark Twain Museum, Hannibal, Missouri

Objects from Mark Twain Museum including top hat, pipe, miniature of Susy Clemens, and cast of Mark Twain’s hand

The museum is full of interesting objects and accompanying placards with anecdotes from the life of Twain and his family and friends. I look and read to my fill, then decide it’s time continue my journey following Twain. I return to the car and head southeast of Hannibal. Forty-five minutes or so later, I arrive in Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park, Florida, Missouri

Florida, Missouri, afternoon of August 1st, 2017

To be more precise, I visit Samuel Clemens’ two birthplaces. How can this be? Unusually for birthplaces, the building in which he was born has been moved about half a mile from its original foundation and now resides in an enormous structure built around and over it. Preserved from the elements, the faded, drooping, two-room little blue cabin is located within the Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Site, next to Mark Twain Lake, in Mark Twain State Park. Clearly, the state of Missouri loves her illustrious native son.

Cabin in which Samuel Clemens was born, Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park, Florida, Missouri

Interior of the cabin in which Samuel Clemens was born, Mark Twain Memorial Shrine at Mark Twain State Park

As with the Clemens’ home in Hannibal, the rooms are decorated with furniture and other period-correct items. The Clemenses didn’t live in the tiny village of Florida for long. The family had moved there in mid-1835 after briefly stopping in St Louis. They intended to settle there after John Marshall’s multiple failed attempts at farming and storekeeping, but the cholera epidemic raging through the city likely spurred them to move on again. They chose Florida because many members of Jane’s family had settled there. When they arrived, Jane was already pregnant with her sixth child. John Marshall earned his living here yet again by storekeeping, this time together with his brother-in-law, John Quarles, a man Mark Twain admired greatly. On November 30, 1835, Samuel was born, premature and sickly. Though many feared he wouldn’t last long, he would be among the four of the seven Clemens children that survived childhood.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his family at their Hartford, Connecticut home in healthier and wealthier times, Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial museum placard photo in Florida, Missouri

Besides the cabin, I find a wealth of artifacts from the life of Mark Twain with his wife and children. The artifacts together with the exhibits, the photographs and informational placards, tell of a life of harmony and plenty followed by sorrow and financial hardship. By the late 1860’s, Twain was making a decent living as a newspaper editor and in 1870, he married progressive, wealthy Olivia Langdon. Together, they established a lavish home in Hartford, Connecticut. It was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, ornately decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany, filled with hand-carved and elaborate furnishings from all over the world, and occupied by Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens, their three daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean (their infant son Langdon died of diphtheria in 1872), and a bevy of servants. The family moved into the house with little Susy and baby Clara in the fall of 1874. While living here, Twain became a successful author and made an excellent income, he and his family enjoying the life of plenty with which they surrounded themselves. However, Twain’s enthusiasm for innovative scientific gadgets and hunger for more wealth led him to make a series of very costly and very unsuccessful financial investments, in which the family lost nearly all their money. To pay off their substantial debts and support the family, the Clemenses were forced to close down the Hartford home and move to Europe, where living expenses were generally much lower. There, Twain restored the family finances by a grueling series of speaking tours. Sadly, however, Susy contracted meningitis while she and Jean stayed behind with family in Elmira, New York. When learning of Susy’s illness, Olivia and Clara hurried back the United States to join her. However, they didn’t make it back in time. On August 18, 1896, Susy died at the Hartford home she so loved and missed. Thirteen years later, Jean also died, aged only 29, during an epileptic seizure.

Collection of objects from the Clemens’ family home in Hartford, CT, at the Mark Twain Birthplace Memorial Site Museum in Florida, Missouri. Clara, the only daughter to outlive Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens, provided the stories of the family memorabilia here

Pedestal marker at the original site of the cabin where Samuel Clemens was born, on what was South Mill St, Florida, Missouri

Granite pedestal marker at original site of Samuel Clemens’ birth cabin, South Mill St, Florida, MO, 2017 Amy Cools

Twain lost his beloved Olivia, or ‘Livy’ as he called her, in 1904. She was his constant and close companion, his main editor and critic, and the love of his life. For the six years he outlived her, Twain wandered, living sometimes in Europe, sometimes in New York City. Twain and his daughter Clara always had a fraught relationship: both were stubborn, strong-willed, and independent. But Clara had to do much of the emotional heavy work in the family. She looked after Olivia in her final illness while also helping to look after Jean, whose epilepsy rendered her both fragile and violent. She was also the go-between when her dying mother was kept separate, sometimes unsuccessfully, from her emotionally charged husband and his outbursts. Since her father’s death in 1910, Clara served as the caretaker and promoter of Twain’s legacy. Many of the artifacts I see here today are here thanks to Clara’s fundraising efforts, as are those that are preserved in the Hartford home and museum.

I leave the Birthplace museum and drive the half mile down the little county road that leads to the remnants of tiny Florida. Just off the road in a grassy field at what was once South Mill St, there’s a carved granite pedestal which marks it as the original site of Samuel Clemens’ birth. The pedestal used to support a bust of Twain, but the bust was also moved to the Birthplace museum to protect it from the elements. It’s a quiet, peaceful place here, with a few scattered homes and a church in view. It is now, as it was then, an improbable place to produce the restless, cosmopolitan iconoclast and self-created character Mark Twain.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration:

The Mark Twain House and Museum website

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse,’ Hannibal Parks and Recreation website

Paludan, Phillip Shaw. ‘Lincoln and Negro Slavery: I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain‘. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 27, Issue 2, Summer 2006, pp. 1-23

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain. Ed J.R. LeMaster, James D. Wilson. London: Routledge, 2013

Twain, Mark. The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Adapted for American English, an educational resource of The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Twain, Mark. Autobiography, Volume 1 and Volume 2, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine. EBook produced by Don Lainson for Project Gutenberg Australia, 2002; original publication New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1924

Twain, Mark. Life On The Mississippi. EBook produced by David Widger for Project Gutenberg, 2006; original publication Boston: James Osgood & Co, 1883

Twain, M., & Paine, A. (1923). Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain ; v.34-35). New York: G. Wells.

Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952

Wecter, Dixon. ‘Lincoln, Mark Twain, and the Human Race.’ The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Jan 1, 1942, Vol.2, p.157

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

Mark Twain and ‘clothes make the man’ quote, at Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, Florida, Missouri

As I work frantically on organizing my thoughts and assembling my notes for my three final semester papers (all due in a little over a week, gulp!), I can chuckle amid the stress when I think of Mark Twain’s quote ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.’ In fact, he had a rib-tickling, snarky, or sarcastic witticism for just about any occasion.

But there’s so much more to Twain than his one-liners and his incredible body of work. This summer, on my way to Scotland to continue my university education, I crossed (and crisscrossed) the United States between Oakland and Chicago. My journey included following in the footsteps of the young Samuel Clemens, as he was named upon his birth on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. I have lots of notes and photos but alas, I haven’t been able to write up those parts of my journey in time to commemorate his birthday today. But I’ve found a way to work him into my studies in intellectual history here at the University of Edinburgh (I delivered a presentation on his work on Joan of Arc for one of my classes) and have gotten some additional reading done. I’ll turn the notes for that oral presentation into a written piece for Ordinary Philosophy as well as write up my travel pieces as soon as I can after turning in my papers, please stay tuned!

In this meantime, here’s the link to a bio of Twain by Thomas V. Quirk for Encyclopædia Britannica (my favorite online general encyclopedia) and to the webpage for Ken Burn’s excellent Twain documentary. And a shirtless (or shall I say, birthday suit?) photo of Twain captioned with a quote which I came across on one of my stops following his early life. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way.

During this journey, I’ll explore Yellowstone and the history of National Parks in America (it’s been a great NP year for me!); I’ll travel throughout the Great Plains following the history of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, the Lakota and their and other Native Americans’ encounters with white invaders in the 1800’s and beyond; I’ll visit Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago following Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, uniquely American forms of art and architecture, and other topics. I’ll also make many more stops and detours along the way.

Patrons of this series: Ervin Epstein MD, Liz and Russ Eagle, Tracy Runyon, Genessa Kealoha, the Cools-Ramsden family, and Shannon Harrod Reyes ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh
Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike
Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2
The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2
My Great Year for National Parks, Monuments, and Forests
Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse
Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Debate
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Photobook: Marker and Train Station Where Abraham Lincoln’s Body Returned to Springfield, Illinois, May 3rd, 1865
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5
New Salem, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain
Chicago’s Union Stockyards Gate

And associated articles

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!
The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them
Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!
The Friendship of Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

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Sources and inspiration: 

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Crown, Daniel. ‘The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc‘. The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

De Pizan, Christine. Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc), ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Joan of Arc‘, episode 51 of The History Chicks podcast

Harrison, Kathryn. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc, 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Murray, T. Douglas. Jeanne d’Arc. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

The Passion of Joan of Arc. 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Richey, Stephen Wesley. Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

Saint Joan, 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part I, 1591. Via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896.

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