The Real Joan of Arc
The idea that Heaven would send a peasant girl to liberate France from the English seemed absurd. But that’s the whole point.
There is a terrific story from the life of St. Francis of Assisi about one of his first disciples, a fellow called Brother Juniper. One day, Juniper goes into the woods, where a herd of pigs is grazing. He grabs one of the pigs and cuts off its foot so he can feed a sick brother. Trouble is, they’re not his pigs. They belong to a swineherd who lives near the friary. Also, Juniper didn’t kill the thing first.
So, the swineherd finds one of his pigs hobbling around a bleeding stump, and he’s pretty miffed. He storms up to the friary and starts tearing into Brother Juniper, calling him “a fantastical fool and a wicked thief.” Juniper explains to the swineherd that the pig ultimately belongs to God, and since he (Juniper) was acting out of love for his brother, he was perfectly entitled to the pig’s foot. “I tell you,” he says, “this foot did the sick brother so much good that if I had cut off the feet of a hundred pigs instead of one, I believe that God would have been very pleased.”
The swineherd is so moved that he goes back to the woods, kills the three-footed pig (which was probably the right thing to do anyway), and gives the meat to the friars. St. Francis is thrilled. “Would to God, my brethren,” he cries, “that I had a forest of such Junipers!”
This picture of Francis might be difficult to square with the doe-eyed proto-hippie of popular myth. If you polled a bunch of old ladies who keep his statue in their gardens, at list half of them would swear he was a vegetarian. And how many would believe that he blessed the Crusader army during the Siege of Damietta?
By the 1930s, Msgr. Ronald Knox was already poking fun at the poor dears who gush over that greeting-card version of St. Francis. (“What meekness, what cheerfulness, what love of animals! … Not a bit like a Roman Catholic.”) And it’s only gotten worse. Everything we know about Francis of Assisi is a lie.
Yet, these days, that’s true of all the great men of history—particularly if they happen to be women.
Take Joan of Arc, for example.
By now, you’ve heard the Globe is putting on a new play called I, Joan. It’s about the Maid of Orleans, of course, but there’s a quirky twist: Joan is nonbinary! It’s the kind of gimmick that upper-middle-class liberals go nuts over. They can’t enjoy art unless it’s absolutely soaked in sex and politics.
The Guardian calls I, Joan“a refined lesson in the trans experience: the horrors of having to explain your being, the sense of misplacement, but with beauty and wonder too.” The play is “driven by a God characterized as a deep, internal instinct rather than a deific force.” And “this Joan urges us to follow our own authentic truths.”
That’s all very annoying. But what’s even more annoying was the conservative backlash. Joan of Arc can’t be nonbinary, we insist, because she’s actually a TERF.
Writing in Unherd, Mary Harrington (who is usually quite good) discusses the “broader question” that Joan’s life raises—namely,
how, as a woman, you can juggle your own desire to have political agency, and men’s desire to have… you. Even today, a young woman simply existing in a public space seems enough to prompt (at least some) men to look past whatever she’s trying to do and focus on trying to shag what she is. But the problem is an ancient one—and acutely difficult to navigate if you’re female and want to get anything done.
Well, all right. But for whatever it’s worth, that’s not what Joan would have called the “broader question” raised by her life.
I understand what Harrington is getting at. Joan secured her agency by remaining a virgin. She dominated a patriarchal society in a uniquely feminine way.
Yet Joan wasn’t great because she managed not to have sex before dying at the ripe old age of nineteen. That was a bad take popularized by radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin in the late twentieth century. It’s not the reason Catholics have venerated Joan for six hundred years, which is the only reason we’re talking about her in 2022. More importantly, it’s not what Joan most valued about herself.
The Catholic view—which was her view—is that Joan of Arc was the exception that proves the rule.
She was born around 1412, in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War. Even as a child, Joan was intensely pious. She received visions of angels and saints, which inspired her to make a vow of virginity while she was still a girl. Around the age of sixteen, God told her to seek out the Dauphin. The French army was flagging, largely due to the fact that King Charles VI was insane. She would help to rally the French army, heal the country’s political divisions, and drive the English back across the Channel.
In her first two tasks, she was wildly successful. She was credited with breaking the Siege of Orleans in May of 1429, and she conveyed God’s blessing to Charles VII at his coronation two months later. She not only became the spiritual leader of France, but one of the King’s top military advisors. Her courage, virtue, and piety rallied the nation. She was captured two years later and executed for heresy, both because she claimed to receive visions and because she dressed as a man.
The idea that Heaven would send a peasant girl to liberate France from the English seemed absurd. But that’s the whole point: “With God all things are possible.” She was singular. She was a miracle. And she knew it. But to call Joan a proto-feminist because she “transgressed gender norms” is like saying David and Goliath is really about the virtue of child soldiers.
Joan wasn’t sent to inspire women. If anything, she was sent to inspire men—i.e., the entire French army besides herself—by being better at guy stuff than the guys. If she had been sent to inspire women, she would have traveled through the countryside pressing virgin girls into the military. Which, of course, she didn’t.
She was no more a feminist than Francis of Assisi was a vegetarian.
Now, you may not be a Catholic. You may not believe that Joan’s visions were real. You may not believe in God at all. But then we are left with some version of Lewis’s trilemma. If Joan wasn’t a mystic, then she was either a demon (as the English claimed) or a mentally ill religious fanatic.
Either way, folks like Joan are not widely admired in the modern West. Neither are folks like Francis, for that matter. So, why do we still honor them? Why are progressives so eager to claim the memory of these people with whom they agree on literally nothing?
I think it has to do with something I call the Long Lie. The past has become so distorted by layer upon layer of junk history and junk ideology that the truth is completely hidden from sight. And the process is so gradual that, in the end, one can believe nearly the opposite of truth in good faith.
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The thinking goes something like this: X was a Good Guy. I am also a Good Guy. I believe Y. Therefore, X must also have believed Y. We have this sort of vague, ancestral memory that Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc are Good Guys. So, before you know it, his pig hocks have turned into a quinoa salad and she’s the poster-girl for the trans lobby.
Again, this is all very annoying. But what is even more annoying is that conservatives never try to peel back all the layers of junk and get to the truth. We just fall back on the penultimate lie. Hence, today, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action to defend the Dworkinian radical-feminist take on Joan of Arc. It’s wrong, of course. But it’s slightly less wrong than the Globe’s gender-bending take. And that’s good enough for us.
Maybe I’m just salty because I also happen to be a mentally ill religious fanatic. But I do think that trying to feed liberals their own leftovers isn’t a good strategy for winning the Culture War. They’re not going to eat it, and they shouldn’t have ordered it in the first place. Just go out to the woods and get yourself a pig’s foot.