France's Leading Lady

Relics from her 1431 execution are a forgery. Will we ever know the real Joan of Arc?

Joan of Arc retains her status as a religious and patriotic heroine, especially in France. (Corbis)

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But whether or not her voices were mere hallucinations, writes biographer Donald Spoto, author of Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint (2007), she lived at a time "when faith was a fact of life." Mental illness (though not its cause) was recognized in 15th-century Europe, and not all claims to divinity were accepted as such. Charles VII's father, for example, had believed that he was made of glass, and his subjects recognized that he was delusional. But Joan of Arc, with her charisma and confidence, convinced much of France that her voices were actually messages from God.

Despite modern efforts to debunk her, Joan of Arc retains her status as a religious and patriotic heroine, especially in France. Since the 19th century, when nationalism became a major theme in Europe, books, plays and operas about Joan have abounded. Her popularity continued into the 20th century and beyond: she has been the subject of more than two dozen films, as well as popular songs, video games and TV shows.

Joan's name and face have been used to promote everything from faith and feminism to goat cheese and canned beans. ("Joan of Arc was an amazing woman—she lived and died for her beliefs," states the Web site for Joan of Arc brand beans. "We think Joan would have been proud of the beans that bear her name.") During the two World Wars, Joan appeared in American, British and French propaganda. The Vichy government used her martyrdom to condemn the English—who, the Nazi collaborators pointed out, burned the French heroine. Never mind that Hitler had invaded France.

More recently, French politicians of every party invoked Joan's name during the closely watched presidential campaign leading up to the elections of April 22 and May 6, 2007. Perennial far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, calling Joan "the eternal symbol of French patriotism," appropriated her as an emblem for his nationalistic party, the Front National. Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, socialist Ségolène Royal, the only woman among the top presidential candidates, called Joan her political role model. An underdog in the polls, Royal compared herself to the heroine of France, fighting against daunting odds for the sake of her people.

It is a testament to Joan's universal appeal that both the left and the right can still earn applause by praising Joan of Arc. In an April 25 speech at Rouen, the site of Joan's execution, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy decried appropriation of Joan's name. "Joan rises above all the parties, and no one can hijack her," the candidate said. "Joan is France!"

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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