Friday, May 30, 2008

Joan of Arc (Leonard Cohen)

From today's Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in Rouen, France. She was an ordinary French peasant girl, living during the Hundred Years War between France and England. When she was still a teenager, she heard the voice of God telling her to join the battle and help defeat the English army. She performed a series of apparent miracles and persuaded the French army to let her command a group of soldiers. At the battle of Orleans, she led the French army, bearing a flag with Jesus' name written across it, and the English were defeated. She continued fighting battles until May 23, 1430, when she was captured by enemy soldiers. They turned her over to the church to be tried as a heretic, idolater, and sorcerer.

Her trial lasted for months. Every day she was brought into the interrogation room, where she was the only woman among judges, priests, soldiers, and guards. The judges hoped to trick her into saying something that would incriminate her as a witch, so they asked endless questions about all aspects of her life, in no particular order. They were especially interested in her childhood, and because the transcripts of the trial were recorded, we now know more about her early life than any other common person of her time.

She testified that she had learned from her mother how to pray and how to clean the house, and that she was an excellent sewer and spinner. She talked about the games she played as a child, the songs she sang and the way she and other children danced around a particular tree in their town. She pointed out that she preferred singing to dancing. She said that she'd always loved the sound of bells ringing in her town, and she was greatly upset whenever the bell wasn't rung on schedule. She said that many of the people in her village believed in fairies, and that her godmother claimed to have seen a fairy once, but she doubted it. She said that she first started hearing divine voices when she was 13, while working in her father's garden.

After months of questioning, she was told that if she didn't sign a confession, she would be put to death. She finally signed it, but a few days later she renounced the confession, and on this day in 1431, she was burned at the stake. She was 19 years old.

She was mostly forgotten for about 400 years, and then she was revived as a patriotic figure during the French revolution. In 1920, she was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XV. She is the only person ever burned at the stake for heresy who later became a saint.

POEM: Rouen: Place de la Pucelle by Maria White Lowell

Here blooms the legend fed with time and chance,
Fresh as the morning, though in centuries old;
The whitest lily in the shield of France,
With heart of virgin gold.

Along this square she moved, sweet Joan of Arc,
With face more pallid than a day-lit star,
Half seen, half doubted, while before her dark
Stretched the array of war.

Swift furled the battle-smoke of lying breath
From off her path, as if a wind had blown,
And showed no faithless king, but righteous death
On the low, wooden throne.

He would reward her; she who meekly wore
Alike her gilded mail and peasant gown,
Meekily recieved once earthly honor more, -
The formless, fiery crown.

A white dove trembled up the heated air,
And in the opening zenith found its goal;
Soft as a downward feather fell a prayer
For each repentant soul.

QUOTE: "The most tangible of all visible mysteries - fire." ~ Leigh Hunt

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