Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Joan of Arc and the Victory at Orléans

Joan of Arc (breaks the siege of Orléans, 7 May 1429)

Born about the year 1412, Joan of Arc would be burned at the stake on 30 May 1431. But, rather than memorialize her on the date of her death, I prefer to remember her today, on the most important date of her life.

A triumphant Joan,
from a manuscript dated to 1505
On 7 May 1429, although she had already been injured in battle, Joan of Arc led the French army in its final effort to break the siege of Orléans--a siege that had lasted for nearly seven months. The English retreated the next day. It was her greatest military victory. 

Although she was convicted of and executed for heresy, a retrial after her death nullified her conviction. Joan of Arc was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

Meanwhile, in a fitting connection, the writer Christine de Pizan, whose portrait heads every page of this blog and whom I describe as a "founding mother" for this project, composed a triumphal poem in 1429 to honor of Joan of Arc's victory. 

In her "“Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc" ("The Tale of Joan of Arc"), a narrative poem of sixty-one stanzas, Pizan tells the story of the "blessed Maid," Joan, "born at a propitious hour," Joan "ordained by God," who has led her people "from evil," just as Moses "by a miracle led his people out of Egypt."

In her praise of Joan, Pizan not only compares the "young maid" to the Old Testament hero-warriors Joshua and Gideon, but also to the biblical heroines Esther, Judith, and Deborah. Joan is depicted in her role of military champion, "sent by divine command, guided by God’s angel," whose strength surpasses that of men, even the great heroes Hector and Achilles. 

And Joan’s deeds "are not an illusion," Pizan asserts, but are, rather, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. "Oh, what an honor to the female sex!" Pizan exclaims. After the defeat of the English and the restoration of Charles to his throne, Pizan predicts not only the king’s return to Paris but, with Joan at his side, a return to Christendom’s "harmony" and, ultimately, the conquest of the Holy Land, ridding it of all heretics and unbelievers. 

Just as she has carefully dated the opening of her "tale of Joan of Arc," Pizan closes the poem precisely: "This poem was finished by Christine in the above-mentioned year 1429, on the day that ends July." The triumphal end of the poem and its joyful tone have led most critics to conclude that Pizan must have died rather soon after completing the "tale," certainly before Joan’s unsuccessful attack on Paris in September of 1429, her capture in May 1430, and her death a year later. 

The literature on Joan of Arc is huge--but if you're going to read one book, I recommend Helen Castor's new Joan of Arc: A History. I might also suggest Nancy Goldstone's The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc because it introduces readers to one of the most intriguing and influential women of the period, Yolande of Aragon, duchess of Anjou--who protected the dauphin of France (he was, after all, married to her daughter, Marie of Anjou), promoted his cause, financed his defense of his title, and was a strong supporter of Joan of Arc. (Yolande was also the grandmother of a woman we have met before, Margaret of Anjou, queen of England.)

If you want to read Christine de Pizan's poem in praise of Joan of Arc's victory, there are several translations online, but you might also be interested in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski's The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, which contains her translation of the ditié as well as a broad range of Pizan's work.