"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Part 4

Part 1 on Twain’s Joan of Arc can be found here.  
Part 2, here.  
Part 3, here.  

This post deals with the last third of Book 2.

Summary to Book 2, Chapters 29-41:

In June Joan, bringing the Constable of France, Richemont, to her side, wins the important Battle of Patay, her most overwhelming victory and a resounding defeat for the English under the leadership of Talbot and Fastolfe.  The victory allowed Charles VII to finally have the courage to claim the French crown and was coroneted at Rheims.  Joan’s father and uncle attend the coronation and are representatives for the great honor given to Joan’s home town of Domremy.  Joan then insisted that they aggressively continue onto Paris for the final victory, but the King’s administrative court, especially La Trémoille, argued against it. Joan does persuade the King and Joan and the army march toward Paris.  But La Trémoille ultimately convinced the King to reduce the size of Joan’s army.  With a reduced army, Joan could not take Paris, and, she also being wounded, finally in May of 1430 was captured and taken prisoner by the Burgundian forces who were aligned with the English. 

The last third of Book 2 shows Joan at the height of her glory with the victory of the Battle of Patay and the crowning of Charles VII as King of France at Rheims. But we also see the treachery that leads to her decline and capture. First, here are a timeline (from the Maid of France website)   of the events that lead to her capture:

1429 September 8       Assault on Paris begins. Joan of Arc is wounded when a bolt from a
                                      crossbow hits her in the thigh near dusk. She refused to quit urging
                                      her soldiers to continue the attack. Against her orders she was carried  from the battlefield and the assault ended.

1429 September 9       Joan plans to resume offensive but Charles intervenes and orders the
                                      army to withdraw.

1429 September 21     After marching back to Gien-sur-Loire Charles VII disbands the army.

1429 November 4       With smaller army Joan of Arc captures the town of Saint-Pierre-le-                                                   Moûtier.

1429 November 9       Joan sends letter to the people of Riom.

1429 Late Novem       Joan of Arc begins siege of La Charité-sur-Loire.

1429 December 25     Siege of La Charité-sur-Loire fails and Joan returns to Jargeau for

1429 December 29               Joan and her family elevated to nobility and given the name du Lys.

1430 Jan-March         Joan stays with Charles at his court as an unwilling but honored guest.

1430 March 16           Joan sends letter to the people of Reims.

1430 March 28           Joan sends her final letter to the people of Reims.

1430 March 29           Joan leaves the court at Sully to join French fighting at Lagny.

1430 April                   Joan prays for dead child at Lagny that makes miraculous recovery.

1430 April 17 ?           Joan of Arc liberates the town of Melun.

1430 May 15               Joan of Arc goes to the aid of the town of Compiègne

1430 May 23               Captured by Burgundians when the drawbridge at Compiègne is raised.

Twain's novel really consolidates the events, but shows the vacillation of the King (Charles VII) and the treachery of his court toward Joan that leads to Joan's capture. Where I think Twain fails is in rendering the full dynamics of what is going one behind the scenes. The French King's administration is trying to negotiate peace with the English crown, John of Lancaster the Duke of Bedford, who was in charge of the infant King Henry VI. Bedford uses the Burgundians as go between with the French King's court with the false promise of positive terms for the French in a treaty. So the French King's administration pulls the rug from under Joan by having her army reduced while Bedford quietly strengthens his army and position for the Battle of Paris. This was the treachery that went on behind Joan's back. 

Here is a passage from chapter 31, “The Red Field of Patay,” with Joan at the end of her greatest victory.

The Battle of Patay was won.

Joan of Arc dismounted, and stood surveying that awful field, lost in thought. Presently she said:

"The praise is to God. He has smitten with a heavy hand this day." After a little she lifted her face, and looking afar off, said, with the manner of one who is thinking aloud, "In a thousand years—a thousand years—the English power in France will not rise up from this blow." She stood again a time thinking, then she turned toward her grouped generals, and there was a glory in her face and a noble light in her eye; and she said:

"Oh, friends, friends, do you know?—do you comprehend? France is on the way to be free!"

"And had never been, but for Joan of Arc!" said La Hire, passing before her and bowing low, the other following and doing likewise; he muttering as he went, "I will say it though I be damned for it." Then battalion after battalion of our victorious army swung by, wildly cheering. And they shouted, "Live forever, Maid of Orleans, live forever!" while Joan, smiling, stood at the salute with her sword.

This was not the last time I saw the Maid of Orleans on the red field of Patay. Toward the end of the day I came upon her where the dead and dying lay stretched all about in heaps and winrows; our men had mortally wounded an English prisoner who was too poor to pay a ransom, and from a distance she had seen that cruel thing done; and had galloped to the place and sent for a priest, and now she was holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, and easing him to his death with comforting soft words, just as his sister might have done; and the womanly tears running down her face all the time

A discussion also ensued at the book club (Goodreads, Catholic Thought) on how Twain presents an idealized, saintly Joan.  Irene stated how she enjoyed the more realistic, modern saints biographies that show saints’ imperfections as well.

Irene states:
“Manny, doesn't everyone of us, born with Original Sin, have imperfections? Seventeen would be far from truly young at a time when girls would have been likely married and starting their families in their mid-teens and the average life span was not much more than 40 given the number of deaths due to disease, war, childbirth, poor nutrition and farming injuries at that time. I would not expect that Joan's recorded life would not include any imperfections. The way we now approach history and biography is a very contemporary style. In Joan's era, the lives of heros and saints were recounted in a way that maximized the virtue they were admired for and any short-coming was omitted.”

Manny replies:
Other than venial sins, which I'm sure Joan committed, I can't think of any mortal sins she might have done. She was kind, loved her parents, I assume she went to Mass more than once a week, she wasn't the stealing type. Jealousy? Pride? Greed?
I don't think she would have had those. Other than a sexual indiscretion, and I don't think it applied to Joan either, I don't know what mortal sin she could have committed. Perhaps we might have caught her in a moment of hating the English? Is that mortal or venial?

Irene, I have never read a modern biography of a saint. Which ones have you read and what kind of sins did they commit? 

Manny, I have read biographical pieces on a number of canonized individuals from Teresa of Calcutta to John XXIII. Flaws are not necessarily mortal sins. Various holy people are revealed to have been impatient, headstrong to the point of not being able to hear what others had to tell them, had moments of intolerance, anger, unwise reactions to situations, and so on. In the older style of recounting heroic lives, if an individual is admired for courage, moments of doubt, fear, cowardly cruelty are left out of the story. If an individual is compassionate, thoughts of critical judgmentalism, resentment, selfishness are left out of the account. Joan is flawlessly wise, compassionate to friend and foe alike, only displaying righteous anger similar to Jesus with the sadducees, perfectly humble, etc. I am not saying that such a depiction of heroic figures is wrong or bad. I just find it very difficult to enter into such an account. 

Irene, I think you’ve hit on a difference on all biography—not just saints lives—between that of the modern world, starting with the age of enlightenment, and prior.  Biography in the ancient and medieval world did not think that capturing the historical figure in a full realistic sense was beneficial.  They did not see the point of such detail.  The intent of biography was to make a thematic point, not bringing that person “to life” for the reader.  The biographical figure stood more as a symbol, say virtue or honor or devotion, than as a three dimensional figure.  This wasn’t just in biography or literature, but the graphic arts as well.  For instance you might have a painting of the crucifixion with St. Francis of Assisi at the foot of the cross.  Well obviously that wasn’t realistic since Christ and St. Francis were separated by 1200 years.  Somewhere during the Age of Enlightenment an impulse for realism took over art, and the drive was to show as the biographical figure with all their warts, whether they have any significance or not. 

On the positive side, those warts are means for many of us to identify with the saint.  On the negative side, those warts can lead to undermining of faith.  Yes, the venial sins of saints you mention would not do so, but something like the controversy in Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ where Christ is portrayed with many human failings would do so.  Now that’s an extreme example, but you can see how such a portrayal can undermine faith.

Now back to Twain’s Joan.  As has been pointed out, there is lots of documentation on Joan’s life, but it appears to all be in the pre-modern sense.  Twain was constrained to follow it or he would have had to invent human failings for Joan, and that would have come across as trite since we know that those failings were not documented.  But more important, I believe Twain intentionally strove to idealize Joan because it suited his artistic purposes.  The deeper you get into the novel, the more Twain is bitter with the treachery Joan suffered.  Twain’s misanthropic theme comes to the forefront, and having Joan as the pure, saintly youth serves as a contrast to the treacherous figures that betray her.  Twain really is in love with Joan of Arc because she transcended human malice and corruption.

I know there is a place for “realistic saints” but personally for me I prefer a portrayal of saints as transcendent.  Instead of identifying with them I want them to be something for me to strive for, no matter how impossible. 

1 comment:

  1. Do Saints sin? And what is mortal or venial sins anyway? Remember, the terms mortal and venial were invented/created by the Church. At the time of the Saints, (especially the early ones) sin was sin.

    Peter denied knowing Christ. Mortal or venial?
    Thomas doubted the Resurrection. Mortal or venial?
    Matthew was a corrupt taxman. Mortal or venial?
    St Augustine I believe led a sinful life. Mortal or venial?

    I'm sure we can think of others. The reality is that Saints are sinners like all of us. What makes them Saints is that they never stopped trying to be better for Our Lord.

    God bless.