Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte; tr. by Jean Francois Alden by Mark Twain

Once, in a bookstore, I found a copy of the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and read on the back jacket flap the statement that Mark Twain considered this his best book. That's a surprise, and in the reading lists they assign and laud, it's clear college professors and other authorities don't agree with Twain's self-analysis. But I do believe I enjoyed this more than I ever enjoyed Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Reading a master's work at one's own pace, untroubled by thesis deadlines, may help. Also, I like the middle ages.

It's a strange book, as well is should be since it's about a strange person. It may be the most serious and the most transparent in tone of any novel of Twain's I remember. You really do feel that a mournful fifteenth-century relic is speaking out of heartbreak, and only occasionally does the normally ebullient and joshing Mark Twain get a word in ("I still opened up with a small lie, of course, for habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time"). The language is very simple, simpler also than what I remember in Twain's other novels. It's as if the language must serve appropriately as a frame for Joan's own simple background, speech, and goodness. The book is a bit like another gospel, in which Joan's words, like Christ's, really ought to be set off in red type.

What the author wants to understand in these Personal Recollections, written from the point of view of Joan of Arc's page and secretary, Sieur Louis de Conte (whose initials match Samuel Langhorne Clemens') is what every historian and biographer has wanted to understand about her. We know who she was and what she did, and what was done to her. But why was she believed and obeyed, and then why was she destroyed?

It seems that, when this illiterate peasant girl came out of Domremy in the winter of 1429 to demand that she be allowed men-at-arms to go and fight the English occupying France -- she spoke of going "into" France, as if her birthplace had been outside it -- what stunned people was her ability to speak to her betters without fear. I can only assume that class differences were so enormous in those days that even the term is weakly inappropriate. When she faced lords and generals calmly, it was not just that a peasant was talking uppity. It was as if an animal was speaking. It was a miracle. In Twain's telling, she quickly became famous for being famous, like a speaking deer or calf from the pasture, and her career was underway.

For background, in 1429 France north of the Loire had endured English assault and occupation for ninety years, and France south of the Loire was a kind of medieval Vichy, a France in quotation marks. England's three great victories against French chivalry on French soil, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, had each served as near death blows to the country. Before his death the French King Charles VI, who was insane, had actually signed over his throne by treaty to the English monarchy as a result of the defeat at Agincourt. His son the Dauphin, eventually to be Charles VII, not only thus had no throne to assume but worried about his legitimacy anyway. Justly so. Twain does not say, but Wikipedia does, that in fact Charles' own royal parents told him he was his mother's bastard by another father. He was on the point of fleeing the country.

Into this mess from out of nowhere stepped the beautiful young Maid, the speaking deer, claiming her divine Voices commanded her to do two things: to raise the siege of Orleans and so defeat the English in their current predatory project, and to escort the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned and anointed by God King of France, and insane men's treaties be damned.

She did both things. Twain notices what must have been her fundamental role in all this, assuming that France and all its generals were not simply suddenly awash in a white light of revelation for upwards of two years because of her. She was a talisman. Famous for being famous, examined and vetted by the Church in an era when the supernatural and organized religion both bestrided Western national life, her presence at the head of the armies intoxicated men and really drove them to victories as nothing else had done, for ninety years. To serve in this way she did not need to be a natural military genius, freakishly come to earth in the body of a peasant girl, although these Recollections describe her as that, too. She had only to inspire, to command by divine instruction a simple and temporary change in French tactics: assault against occupied cities and forts, rather than the perpetual enduring of siege or, at most, wearily besieging the besiegers. Somehow she seems to have known at least this, what other generals -- MacArthur, for one -- have known. Defensive warfare is defeat.

But at some point during her brief career, maybe at the height of her triumphs -- standing in full armor at the altar of Rheims cathedral, watching her king being crowned -- it must have dawned on powerful men around her that after her work was done, this weird force of nature could never be released and left to her own devices again. Imagine the miracle of the speaking animal in some other lord's camp, on future battlefields, or dazzling other peasants, or serving as some duke's marriage prize. She had to be kept close, even while the French court undermined her victories by timidly backing away from attempting the great prize, the capture of English-occupied Paris, in favor of more treaties with enemies whom Joan had proven she could destroy. While the king dithered past the glory days of summer 1429, she stayed on, skirmishing here and there in the environs northwest of the capital. And who knows, for all her protestations that after Rheims her mission was done and she wanted to go home and tend her sheep, La Pucelle may have long since learned to thoroughly enjoy her extraordinary new life and been very loath to give it up. She must have had other aspects to her personality besides her "Voices."

In May of 1430 she was captured by the forces of the English-allied Duke of Burgundy, who kept her for the ransom he expected to be paid by a mortified and grateful Charles VII. It didn't come; the French were probably glad to be rid of her. Her English enemies offered the ransom instead, and legally the Duke was obliged to accept it. She was now a year from her death.

Her destruction was as strange, to modern eyes, as was her rise to power. For a year, French churchmen and lawyers in England's pay pursued the same two rough courses with her that, it so happens, a later generation of powerful men would pursue in the legal and physical destruction of another woman and another force of nature, Anne Boleyn. The cases are unrelated except that both times, authority wanted two things, an admission of guilt from the accused, which should have led to rehabilitation and mercy, -- and it wanted the death penalty. (The Tudor system was at least mercifully quick. Anne Boleyn was dead two and a half weeks after her arrest.)

What the French authorities harped on, sixty men looming over her in six consecutive trials during which Joan sat publicly in chains with no legal counsel, was her refusal to swear an oath to reveal everything about her career to the Church. In other words, the church wanted to officially pass judgment on her Voices, and to know exactly all they said to her. She insisted that these Voices, whom she identified as St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, had specifically commanded her to keep a few things secret. She answered her accusers as well as possible but would not promise to disobey these divine orders.

Her consulting with her own private experience of God over the Church's understanding of it therefore made her, essentially, a Protestant. She was not tried as such and would not have understood herself as such, but it was her obedience to her private religious conscience that brought her to the stake. That, and of course the English monarchy's determination that she should die. In the last days of her life, she actually did submit to the churchmen's demands, having been brought out of her dungeon to see the stake and the pile of smoldering wood waiting for her amid excited crowds in the middle of Rouen's town square. She believed that upon signing a paper then (remember she was illiterate) and returning to women's dress, another thing authority harped on, she would be allowed to attend mass again and at least have women jailers. If Twain's Sieur de Conte is correct, back at the prison her English guards simply instantly stole her new women's clothing while she slept, and left a nineteen-year-old girl nothing to wear but her former, useful men's things. When she put them back on, she was considered to have relapsed into heresy. The punishment was death by burning, in Rouen on May 30, 1431.

A quarter of a century later, she was officially rehabilitated and declared a martyr by the French church. Twain's loyal Sieur shrewdly notices that this was after the English had been almost entirely driven out of France, and could only look back and spit that the pusillanimous king, Charles VII (called "the well-served"), had no better rights to his throne than those given him by a condemned witch and Satan worshipper long since properly burned as heretic. One way to wipe away that smear was to declare his benefactress Joan of Arc good again. Her aged mother had survived, to attend the opening of the rehabilitation trial at Notre Dame in Paris. Beatification followed many centuries later, in 1911, and then sainthood in 1920, although of course Mark Twain could not know that; I remember a college professor of mine saying that this last had everything to do with buttressing French morale after World War I.

She is such a strange figure that it's hard to know, to put it bluntly, what is the weirdest thing about Joan of Arc. Her youth? Her sex? Her humble origins? Her acceptance by men as a military commander, even if only a talisman show of one? (And she may have been a good one anyway.) What of the Voices? -- rye fungus poisoning, common in the European diet perhaps as far back as ancient Greece, and a possible source of hallucinations? God, truly? Why did the voices happen to speak French, the English wanted to know, and why were they mute when it came to warnings of what her persecutors in Rouen were up to, her Sieur wanted to know? And how can she have been a patriot before what textbooks call "the rise of the nation state"? And a French patriot to boot, who yet spoke of leaving Domremy to "come into" France? If so, then where was Domremy?

In the end, there is no doubt that a large part of her fascination for Twain and perhaps for many readers is that she is also a very Christlike figure. (She was "the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.") She seems to have been personally flawless and totally innocent, that is, for someone whose destiny was bizarrely military. She transfixed crowds, loved righteous battle, but after victories cradled dying Englishmen in her arms. That all her life is known from sworn testimony at a trial ("the only story of a human life which comes to us under oath," italics original) also conjures up images of patient silence before Pontius Pilate and a recording humanity too, albeit when her time came Joan was not silent. Her very character seems to have been miraculous. Even at the stake, while burning, she warned a man nearby who was holding a cross aloft for her to gaze at that he must move away, or he would be hurt. One wonders if, in another era, she could have easily served as the unwitting foundress of another church herself.

The Recollections are a very different piece of work from what we think of as the oeuvre of Mark Twain. His best book? Perhaps not, but perhaps he meant it was the one he most loved writing. To at least honor his taste in reading it, even for curiosity's sake, seems the right and really very pleasureable thing to do.

Birthplace of Joan of Arc, Domremy, France

1 comment:

  1. Mark Twain's biography about St. Joan of Arc is excellent. Did you know that since it is in the public domain you can find it online at places like:
    Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
    Tell everyone they can read it there free.