With International Women’s Day having just passed, it seems appropriate to pay homage to one of the most famous heroines in history, Joan of Arc. The Maid of Orléans, as she became known after her courageous involvement in the Hundred Years’ War, will forever be one of the most revered female figures to walk European soil.
Born into a peasant family in Domrémy in northeast France, this nineteen-year-old girl won one of the most decisive battles of the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War. It is said that she received divine visions instructing her to lead the French army against the English. In 1429, she lifted the Siege of Orléans after only nine days, putting an end to a period of stalemate and low French morale since destruction at the hands of the English at Agincourt in 1415. This victory was quickly followed by several others which paved the way for an eventual victory for the French with the coronation of Charles VII at Reims. Captured soon after at Compiegne by the Burgundian faction, who were fighting on the side of the English, Joan was put on trial for having spoken to the devil. Not being able to prove this, the English found her guilty instead of cross-dressing as a man and burnt her alive at the stake.
In 1456, Pope Callixtus III re-examined the trial and found her innocent, in so declaring her a martyr and a symbol of religious purity. Due to the courage she showed fighting for national unity, she remained a widely respected figure in France throughout the medieval ages. In 1920 she was canonised as a Roman Catholic saint and is to this day one of nine secondary patron saints of France.
Although she died very young, Joan of Arc’s legacy has lived on. Historians today believe that Joan invented the concept of nationalism. Although the word ‘nation’ derives from Latin, up to this point people belonged to their kingdom; they were Norman or Alsatian for example. In other words, there was no such idea as being ‘French’. Joan gave birth to this idea of ‘Frenchness’ by portraying the English as an ‘Other’. She won popular support by propagating the message: “they are in our land and we must get them out.”
This nationalist rhetoric however seems more relevant today than it has ever been, as we are witnessing the rise of right-wing parties all over Europe. The upcoming French election has brought Joan of Arc’s name once more into the spotlight, as she is appropriated by one of the leading parties, the xenophobic National Front, as a symbol of nationalism. Their message: “return France to the French people again.”
While it may seem that Marine Le Pen’s populist party have taken Joan’s fighting talk out of context, it is not just modern political parties who have used her as a symbol. After the French revolution of 1789 and during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, she was declared a national symbol. Joan continued to be appropriated by the numerous Republics that governed France throughout the nineteenth century as a symbol of resistance to the foreign influence that threatened French borders. The Vichy government even employed her image to encourage resistance to German occupation during World War II.
It is not unusual that a female figure has been used so commonly to incite nationalist sentiment and encourage unity in the face of exterior threats. Nationalism is a gendered concept. Female figures have been used throughout time to symbolise it; Delacroix’s La Liberté Guidant la Peuple depicts a woman leading male revolutionaries towards a future of freedom and equality; and Mother India and Mother Russia were the mythical images behind which their respective mass movements rallied.
For many, Joan of Arc is an emblem of feminism, of women’s struggle and courage in a world dominated by men. While the aura surrounding Joan of Arc should be one of strength, patriotism and fighting spirit, for many today her image has been tarnished by its close association with the far-right National Front. Taken out of its medieval context, her symbol has come to be associated with the anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric that has swept over Europe in the last few years.
However she is perceived in France, it will be possible to ignore Joan of Arc’s symbolism over the next two months as parties go head to head in what is sure to be the most exciting presidential election in a long, long time.