May 30


Day and month unknown, year 1412, place of birth Domrémy-la-Pucelle, France; her name was Jehanne Darc - at least, in all the mediaeval manuscripts. From Jehanne to Jeanne is simply how names change with time. D'Arc, on the other hand, is a pedigree, a class-statement, an association with the aristocracy, and the actual Jehanne was pure paysanne.

We tend to forget that England was a colony of France for several centuries, starting with the Norman conquest in 1066, ending only at the end of the Plantagenet era (which should be called the Angevin era, from the House of Anjou, which ruled it from 1154) in 1485. The language of the courts, both royal and legal, was French, as was the language spoken in the first Parliament. Several kings ruled from France - Henry II, the founding Angevin, and his son Richard I, for example, ruled from Poitiers, and scarcely set foot in England in their lives.

By 1337 the English were keen to Brexit from the extensive Angevin empire that controlled much of Europe, but were unable to reach a deal, and so they sent their troops instead of their Cabinet ministers: the so-called Hundred Years War. In fact, most of the dispute was over lands inside France, the English laying claim to Aquitaine, the French insisting it was inside their geographical borders and that England was across the Channel, and should remain there, the Burgundians playing one side off against the other in hopes of gaining whatever advantage the mutual destruction might leave behind as pickings. Plus ça change, as they say in Luxemburg.

Into this quagmire of stupidities stepped Jehanne Darc, and on May 7th 1429 she led the French army that broke the English siege of Orléans, and then followed it up by taking Rheims and Paris too. Which should have made her a national heroine - but alas it made her a national hate-figure instead, because macho men do not generally appreciate being made to look flaccid by thin, anorexic, vision-seeing women, and especially not uneducated women of the peasantry who should be at home providing droit de seigneur to their liege lord. A year and sixteen days after her famous victory, on May 23rd 1430, Jehanne was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundians - and sold to the British, though it took some negotiation before the English did finally agree to shell out some cash.

So, on May 30th 1431, "la Pucelle" - the English, who have never been very good at French, may have thought her nickname meant a small flea, and fleas are best eradicated by fire; in fact La Pucelle means "young foal", though Catholic encyclopaedia now prefer to mistranslate her into a variation of the Virgin Mary by rendering it as "The Maid" - was burned as a witch by the English at Rouen. She was just 19 years young.

Two major works of literature retell her story, both very differently...

George Bernard Shaw's version was written immediately after her canonization on May 16th 1920, and acknowledged that canonization in its title; it premièred on March 26th 1924. Quite simply, it tells her story, birth to death, based on the transcripts from the trial, and such other historical evidence as he could find. 

But nothing is ever "quite simple" with Shaw. The manner of the telling, even the choices made with language in the dialogues, moves the piece by allegory from the mediaeval to the contemporary: the 100 Years War becomes the First World War, the state-orchestrated trial becomes an early instance of the Show Trials of Stalinist Russia, the idiocy of ideology is recognised as universal, and Joan herself is recognisable as a female version of the Christ in Dostoievski's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, in "The Brothers Karamazov", destroyed by those for whom the retention of power under the flag of convenience of an ideology is more important than the ideology itself, whether religious or secular. Twenty years after penning the life of Don Juan under the Nietzschean title "Man and Superman", this is once again Nihilism revisited. It was the play that cemented Shaw's reputation as the great philosopher-dramatist of his day, leading to his own literary canonization with the receipt of the Nobel Prize the following year; and of our day too, given that nothing in the world of politics or religion has changed.

Bertolt Brecht called his music-drama "St Joan of the Stockyards" (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe), and set it in 1920s Chicago, satirising the Great American Fantasy of the Land of Opportunism through the exploitative Pierpont Mauler (writers generally think up names that convey meanings), whose meat-packing plant (writers generally choose locations that convey meanings) is as representative of the bad side of Capitalism as a committed Socialist like BB could hope to get. When he shuts the plant down à la John Galt, in what turns out to be a complicated money-making scam, the poor slaves exploited by him are goaded into action by Joan Dark and her faithful followers... but I don't want to spoil the ending for you.
More significant anyway to point out that Brecht too was using the tale allegorically, to comment on his own contemporary world. The play's first performance was on Berlin Radio on April 11th 1932 - setting the universal tale far away in Chicago very much a political statement about things not terribly pleasant going on back home, but doing it safely, and in disguise (as Sartre would set his play "Les Mouches" in ancient Greece, and Camus his novel "La Peste" in some futuristic Algeria, both of them while under Nazi occupation, in Paris, in 1943 and 1944 respectively). Joan Dark, the heroine, is a member of the "Black Straw Hats", which is presented as a kind of Socialist Salvation Army, and no doubt Herr Hitler and his black-shirted SS and SA thought that salvation was what they were bringing too; though they were not there yet.
Joan was first beatified by Pope Pius X on April 11th 1905; then canonized by Pope Benedict XV on May 16th 1920. Her feast day, however, in both the Roman and Tridentine calendars, is today, May 30th, the day of her murder by the English.

A St. Joan of Arc pendant in sterling silver is available from St. Joan of Arc Products (Catholic Online Shopping) for the give-away price of $35.99 (but shouldn't that be 14.31, in any currency?). A St. Joan Of Arc "Medal Picture Folder" can be found at the same e-store for just $11.95, which is less than you would pay for three votive candles. Just click here.  

By curious irony, May 30th in America is the day on which those who died fighting in the armies of that country are remembered, Memorial Day so-called, though it is pure coincidence that it is also Jehanne's Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it was started as an event to honor Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War, and should not be confused with Veterans Day, which falls on November 11th, as its equivalent does in Britain. 

For those who do not understand the difference, Memorial Day exists to honour those who were murdered by their own government in the cause of some pointless imperialist conquest overseas; Veterans Day exists to honour those who managed to avoid murder, but returned home scarred, wounded and traumatised, and spend the other 364 days sleeping in doorways and begging as they are no longer useful to society.

Amber pages:

Ultimately, if I ever get that far with this blog-book, I shall take the people I have ambered on their birthdates, and move them to a different page, because their birth is important, obviously, as it brought them into the world, and if they were not here they could not have done whatever significant thing it was for which we wish to honour and remember them - so I will move them to the date of that incident.

Some are already there. Benny Goodman for example, Jewish bandleader and concert-quality clarinettist, who was born today in 1909 - but see January 16 for one of many instances of greatness.

And several other significants who died today, only the first one memorable in itself, though exactly what took place, murder, brawl or assassination, remains a mystery waiting to be turned into a play:

Christopher Marlowe, English playwright and secret agent, fatally stabbed, today in 1593

Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish painter, died, of heart failure, today in 1640.

Alexander Pope, English poet, died, of tuberculosis, today in 1744

François-Marie Arouet, French intellectual-garden designer, nom de plume Voltaire died, today in 1778 - from the pain of exile mostly, though he did actually return to Paris in the weeks before his death, for the première of his last play; granted permission because the church hoped to achieve the victory of persuading him to accept Christ. But Voltaire was not the sort to yield to bullying, and he held out against God until the last, though his refusal meant that he was denied the Christian burial that he didn't want anyway; his friends and family arranged a secret internment in the Champagne region where he had lived for many years with his beloved Gabrielle, the Marquise du Châtelet - much more on Voltaire, his uprooting of the Leibnitz Rose, and his war with God, in my book of travel essays "Travels In Familiar Lands".

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