Every year on 8 May, a young woman dressed in armour and carrying a white banner rides in procession through the streets of Orléans in north-central France. Dignitaries of Church and State join in commemorating an event and a life. The event is the French relief of the city, after months of siege by the English, in 1429; the life is that of Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old girl from Lorraine told by heavenly voices to go 'into France' and to rescue Orléans. Having achieved her mission, Joan fell into the hands of the English and was burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft in the marketplace at Rouen on 30 May 1431, though she was subsequently rehabilitated. The relief of Orléans has been commemorated since the late 15th century. Joan's declared sanctity, by contrast, is not even a century old. She was little known even in France until the First World War. Then her canonisation in 1920 - which had much to do with relegitimising the French Republic - made her a national icon. In 1923, Shaw's Saint Joan had its first production; and in 1928, Carl Dreyer's film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc had its first showing. By the end of the 20th century, Joan was known throughout the world for inspiring the campaign that ultimately brought the expulsion of the English from France; for having been burned by the English; for having heard voices; for dressing as a man and going into battle; for being one of le menu peuple who fearlessly confronted the authorities; for being a saint.
LRB 19 October 2000 | PDF Download