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Desdemona BS: Joan of Arc and family (34) RE: BS: Joan of Arc and family 08 Apr 07

"Enough room to swimg a cat"...brilliant! It always amazes me the sort of "fakelore" that gets disseminated and automatically accepted as gospel, especially about the so-called Middle Ages (as some historian observed long ago, it's doubtful that medieval people saw themselves or their times as a mere filling in a cultural sandwich!).

For a number of years I was in charge of research, development and delivery of educational programs at a museum of (primarily medieval, Renaissance and early modern) arms and armour. The myths surrounding armor and weaponry are seemingly endless: "blood runnels" in broadswords, pointy Gothic sabatons (foot defenses) for "kicking"(!), people being hoisted onto horses with cranes, etc. I remember with particular affection an overheard conversation between a father and son in which the Dad explained how the Crusaders started out using horses, but "after King Arthur lost them all in the Holy Land they had to use oxen"! You couldn't make this stuff up.

One of the most FAQs we got was whether women ever wore armour or took part in battle. The long answer is that there are actually a fair number of women on record as having taken an active part in warfare; in fact, I had a whole programme on "women warriors" from Boudicca to Isabella of Castile. That said, for the most part the only ones whose names come down to us were influential noblewomen; Joan of Arc is the big exception because of her relatively humble origins (her father was prosperous tenant farmer with about 50 acres, so they weren't "peasants" in the way most people think of them). Thanks to her highly unusual life, she's also incredibly well-documented for a person of her social class; trial transcripts, anecdotes from the villagers in Domremy, and the impressions of her military companions add up to a wealth of information.

Because of the trial, a great many of her own words are preserved; when I decided to develop a first-person interpretation of Joan for the museum, I was able to use mostly her own words, which gave the presentation an authentic-sounding "voice." We had the costume made based on the description of what she was wearing at the time of her arrest in 1430; basically the clothing of a well-dressed young nobleman of the time. It's important to realise that the subversiveness of Joan's cross-dressing existed on several levels: not only was she crossing gender lines, but socio-economic ones as well, which was just as threatening in 15th century Europe. One of the points stressed by her captors was that she must promise to never wear men's clothing again; that she retracted her agreement to this among other terms was instrumental in sending her to the stake.

In reading her testimony, and the anecdotes told by her fellow soldiers, one is struck by the sense of swagger and assurance--she's more swashbuckling than meekly pious. It's apparent that, although a necessary part of what she saw as her mission, she nevertheless LIKED being a "knight"---she liked the horses, the armour, the sword, the standard. The sense of power and the authority and respect accorded her (albeit for only a short while) must have been intoxicating for a 17 year old girl who had previously been no more than 10 miles from her home. We can never know for certain exactly what was going on with Joan--there have been as many theories as interpretations, with everything from migraine headaches, epilepsy, schizophrenia and a really bad time with puberty being vetted as possibilities (to say nothing of the theory that she was hearing the voices of Sts Michael, Catherine and Margaret, as she claimed). My answer to the question was that it doesn't really matter; what matters is that SHE believed she had been granted a divine commission, which she duly carried it out and for which she suffered terrible consequences. Whether we believe her assertions or not, we can't help but be impressed by the grit, determination and obvious charisma of a farm girl who made her way to the French court and convinced an uncrowned (and ultimately unworthy) king to put her in charge of an army.


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