Ride The Wind, Choose The Fire
Chapter One - Getting There
At the time of my travels, getting to Domremy without a car was complicated, but I was determined. I figured if Joan could crisscross France on horseback, I could get myself to Domremy. A train trip from Paris to Nancy then a regional train to Neufchateau and a two-hour wait for a bus. By the time the bus got to Domremy, I was the only passenger. My French grew more fluent as I chatted to the driver and told him I was interested in Jeanne d’Arc. As he stopped the bus for me to get out, he pointed to a small church on his right.
“Start here. I’ll be back in four hours for the return trip.”
I stood in the middle of the dusty road as he drove off. The air was dense and dry; the sun was hot on my skin. There was no breeze. Shading my eyes against the glare, I looked at the small stone church. It had been built in the fourteenth century and remodeled in the sixteenth. Joan of Arc took her first Communion there around 1423.
I walked across the road and into the church. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I felt the peace and calm of this tiny place. The air was cool. I had the place to myself, so I sat on a pew, soaked in the atmosphere and looked at the beautiful stained-glass windows. The brilliant colours showed scenes from the last few years of Joan’s life. The story started at the back on the left and continued clockwise to the front of the church and then up the right-hand side to the back of the church. The final scene on the left showed, in vivid colour, a young woman chained to a stake, burning to death.
Aloud, I asked, “If you knew how it was going to end, would you have begun at all?”
In my mind, an answer formed. Perhaps it was imagination. Perhaps it was wishful thinking.
“You deserve to be better known,” I said. “Many people have heard of you, but few know the amazing details.”
It was then I decided to put together the mountain of information available about her and record it as a series of imaginary interviews.
I left the church and walked into the dazzling sunlight of Domremy in May. Momentarily blinded after the cool darkness, I paused and looked back at the church. In the nineteenth century, the original altar was removed and the nave destroyed to make way for the road on which I stood. The original steeple was left standing and a new nave and altar built behind it. This means that the steeple is now at the front of the church. Back to front from when Joan knew it.
The air was hot and heavy. Nothing stirred as I wandered across the dusty street to a small tavern. To the right was a souvenir shop, so I detoured in and bought a couple of souvenirs of Joan of Arc—a postcard and a small poem.
The poem Fumées et Cendres (Smoke and Ashes) by Andrée Nex gave powerful sound and life to the image in that last stained-glass window. The fear, the horror, the savagery and the loss as Joan’s defenceless body is turned to a charred carcass in Rouen. The last verse reads:
Et pour toujours, Un cri
Un cri d’honneur
Du corps devenu carcasse
De Jehanne, en place de Rouen.
And forever, a cry. A cry of honour. Of body turned to carcass. Of Joan, in Rouen’s marketplace.
Almost gasping for breath at the horror of it, I left the souvenir shop, and returning to the sidewalk, I sat at
one of the tables outside the tavern. A waitress appeared, and I ordered a pichon of white wine.
I had three hours to wait for the next bus out of Domremy. Plenty of time to look around the village, but first I wanted to think about Joan and my sense of a mission to bring her back into the minds—and perhaps the hearts—of as many people as possible.
It’s said we need heroes, and I think that’s true. Here is one of the greatest of heroes and perhaps one of the most amazing human beings of all time. Mark Twain wrote a book about her and considered it the best thing he had ever written. Most of his readers are unaware of the book about Joan but love Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two fictional boys.
Bernard Shaw wrote a play about her. In his preface, he summed up the amazing and the paradoxical. He wrote:
She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar… Though a professed and most pious Catholic … she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs. She was also one of the first apostles of Nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom-gambling chivalry of her times. She was the pioneer of rational dressing for women …
It is hardly surprising, he continues, that she was judicially burnt, ostensibly for a number of crimes… but essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption.
I pulled myself back to the present. I had finally made it to Joan’s birthplace.
This small village is in Lorraine, one of the twenty-six Regions of France. It is the only French Region to have borders with three other countries: Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. As the crossroads of four nations, it was a strategic asset to whichever of them possessed it. But beyond this fact, it had given birth to a nation’s hero, one whose name is recognised in most of the Western world—Joan of Arc.
The small village gave no sign of its reflected greatness as it dozed in the sun. The heat and glare grew stronger, and I moved to the shade of a large umbrella over one of the other tables. I sipped a little more of the wine, still refreshingly cool in its earthenware jug. I felt myself relax. Taking a deep breath, I wrote the words, “Hello Joan. Bonjour Jeanne,” in my notebook.
In the glaring heat of the afternoon, my imagination began to work, and I continued to write. What follows is a record of a series of imaginary interviews over a long period of time, interviews with Joan of Arc—as she might have told her story.
“I’m glad to hear from you,” said a voice in my head. “What are you doing?”
The page of my notebook fluttered slightly as if a breeze stirred it. But there was none. I wrote: “I want to write your story, as told by you. Will you help me?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be ‘as told by me’ if I didn’t.”
I could see immediately why her judges had found her difficult and far from diffident when they were questioning her.
“True,” I said. “Lots of people have written about you, of course. There’s enough recorded material.”
The voice in my head answered, “Then let’s do it.”
Just what I wanted to hear. “Terrific,” I said. “Let’s just clear up something about your voice and language. You don’t sound much like a fifteenth-century maid—and you’re speaking English.”
I thought I heard her laugh. “After what I’ve been through, your voice would change, too. Dead at nineteen. That was a rude shock.”
“And the English language?”
“Well, in my situation, I can afford to be flexible. This reminds me how those learned judges and the English could not believe that St Catherine, St Margaret and St Michael spoke to me in French! They assumed all saints spoke only English!”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m glad we cleared that up. So what or where will we start about those nineteen years?”
“My most vivid memory is the fire. You try putting your feet in a fire and gazing to heaven. Neither good for the Soul nor the soles. Those artists and filmmakers must be crazy or stupid or both, depicting me with a blissful expression gazing up to heaven while I’m being roasted alive. I still shudder at the thought. Let’s talk about something else.”
A shudder ran through me, too. Death by fire is fairly high on the list of everybody’s major fears. I had read enough to know that her death had been particularly gruesome with even the executioner beside himself with grief and remorse.
She spoke clearly and with little trace of an accent. But perhaps I was dreaming. I was hearing voices in my head. No, make that one voice. I was hearing the voice of a girl who heard voices.
“Do you mind if I call you Joan?” I asked. “It’s what we call you in English.”
“I prefer Jeanne, but if it’s easier for you, call me Joan.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You are called Jeanne d’Arc in history, but that wasn’t your name was it? Later writers, following the custom of their own time periods, have given you that surname because it was your father’s surname. You were never Joan of Arc. When your trial judges asked you to state your names and surnames (yes, plural), you answered:
In my town they called me Jeannette, and since I came to France, I have been called Joan. As for my surname, I know of none.”
“That’s true,” she replied. “In the area I lived, children were more often given their mother’s surname than their father’s. Or a combination of the two parents or something different again. Sometimes the surname was relevant to the place a person was born in, or even the work they did. Once my mission began, I called myself simply Jeanne the Maid. The French word for maid or maiden in the sense of being a virgin is pucelle. I was usually referred to as La Pucelle, the Maid. Later, when the King ennobled my family, we were all given the surname du Lys. My brothers chose to use it. I did not. I continued to call myself The Maid.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Joan, one of the things you’re best known for is that you heard voices telling you to do amazing things for France. Can you tell me about those voices?”
There was a long silence, and I wondered if I had lost her. I remembered she had not wanted to discuss her voices when her judges questioned her at her trial. Had I ended our talks before they had begun?
Chapter Two - Giving Voice To Joan
At last, I heard her voice: “What would you like to know?”
Delighted that she had chosen to respond, I asked, “When did you first hear the voices?”
“The first time—it was in 1425; I was about twelve. It was quite near our house in my father’s garden. I'll show you the spot later. No one else was around. It was almost midday and hot. A bit like today, actually. I heard, ‘Jeanne. Jeanne.’ At first I was afraid. The voice was coming from the right-hand side toward the church over there. There was also a brightness on that side.”
The date struck me. It was the year that the Burgundians had raided the village and burnt the church. It would have been a tremendous shock to all the village, not least of all a young girl on the verge of puberty. I wondered if this had made her vulnerable to hoping for divine assistance, but I did not want to distract her at this point.
“What did the voice say?” I asked.
“Nothing much in the beginning. But I began to hear it quite regularly. It told me to be a good child and to go to church regularly. It also told me that God would look after me.”
“Whose voice was that?”
“I believed from the things he said that it was the Archangel Michael. After a while he told me that St Catherine and St Margaret would also advise me, and I should listen to what they said.”
“The voices were with you constantly for almost five years before you were able to do what they said to help France and the King.”
“Yes, and they remained with me for the rest of my life.”
Not that that was long, I thought.
Aloud, I said, “There are many who believe your
voices were a common mental problem. What would you say to that?”
“They were very clear and always helpful. So all I can say is they were very real to me. They began to tell me that I should go into France. They told me of the state of the war there and said that I must help the King of France.”
“Weren’t you born in France? Wasn’t Domremy part of France?”
“Yes and no. Things were different then. I’ll draw you a map later. But to get back to my voices. They told me I must raise the siege of Orléans, but I was not to tell my father what I was doing. I replied that since I was only a girl, I couldn't even ride a horse, let alone lead an army.”
“Did you tell anyone about the voices?”
“No, not for quite a while.”
“Right. Let’s go back a bit. Tell us about your childhood.”
“Fairly ordinary for the time. My mother and father lived here in Domremy. As you know, nowadays it’s not far from the German border. Of course, there was no such thing as Germany back then. For that matter, there wasn't…”
I interrupted her. “I want to get back to the geography and politics of it all a little later, but for now, can you tell me about your family?”
Although I could not see her, she seemed to take my interruption in her stride and answered, “Our house is over there still, on the other side of the church. The church used to face the other way in those days.
“My father was Jacques d'Arc. He came from Ceffonds, a village in Champagne. He was an important person in Domremy, being lower in rank only to the mayor and the sheriff. He represented the village on a couple of occasions in legal matters.”
“How did you get on with your father?” I asked.
“He kept me under his thumb, especially after the
dream he had about me. I’ll tell you about that when we get to it.”
“All right,” I said. “Tell me about your mother.”
“My mother was Isabelle Romée or Isabelle de Vouthon. Romée is a surname usually given to people who've made a pilgrimage to Rome or some other important pilgrimage.”