Joan of Awkward, Part One - Missing Voices

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Several years ago, I went through a bit of a Joan of Arc fetish. I watched the Leelee Sobieski mini-series again, several documentaries, and read a half-dozen historical explorations of our “Maid of Lorraine.” Several novels stood out – Mark Twain’s semi-historical fiction of her, of course, and An Army of Angels by Pamela Marcantel, an amazing imagining of her short life with just the right balance of grounded history and literary license. 

In short, I got a little Joan crazy for a time. 

Unfortunately for my academic credibility and witty dinner banter, I’m not a big ‘retain the details’ guy unless I’m either consciously studying it or teaching it to others. I read history for pleasure, along with whatever else grabs my attention at the time, but I don’t have the kind of memory that retains most of it in sharp focus easily or often. 

Joan of LeeLeeThat’s not actually the stumbling block you might think teaching high school in the 21st century. Nothing locks the minutiae of your subject into permanent recall like explaining it repeatedly throughout the years, and almost anything that doesn’t stick is easily researched when necessary. We’re still trying to get them to bring a pencil and check the class website periodically; there’s little danger they’ll without warning probe such historical depths that I end up academically cowed. 

I can’t say that it does much for relationships, though, this hazy grasp of specifics – birthdays, middle names, her not liking raisins, forgetting her mom died last year… people get touchy about so many little details. Hey, we all have different gifts. 

But I digress.

The basic story of Joan goes something like this:

Joan was born in early 15th century France, near the end of the Hundred Years’ War. As she became a young woman, the nation was enduring another dispute over who would inherit the French throne. The outcome would determine not only who’d get the nice chair and fancy castle, but who would control France for the foreseeable future – the French via the Dauphin, Charles VII, or the English through a sizeable faction of ‘Burgundians’ (Frenchmen who cooperated with the English) and their up-and-coming monarch, Henry VI. 

Joan NobleCharles’s daddy, Charles VI (nice system, right?) was insane – even for royalty – and may not have been his daddy at all. The dear Queen was thought to be having an affair with the Duke of Orleans, aka the King’s brother, and he may have been Charles VII’s biological father. That would explain in part why the Queen was so cooperative with England when it came time to designate an official heir to the throne; she signed off on Henry VI holding that honor. 

Henry was a tiny little English king-to-be, you see. He was legit, with king-blood flowing through his wee little veins. This was a big deal to royal types back in the day – hence all the inbreeding and weird genetic issues which resulted. Perhaps the Queen wanted peace with England for more traditional reasons as well, but the common people of France were not impressed, and assigned her unflattering nicknames when speaking privately amongst themselves. 

See how fun it is to study history? Your family’s not as messed up as you think. “Dysfunctional” is merely a fancy term for “typical royalty, but without money or power.”

Joan dealt with none of this as a child, of course. She was a peasant, which sounds to modern ears like it must include both servitude and poverty. Neither seems to have been the case, however. Daddy Jacques d’Arc and crew were certainly near the bottom of the social hierarchy, and times were tough all over, but they don’t appear to have been in need by the standards of the day. 

Somewhere around age 13, Joan begin having visions and hearing voices from Saint Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine – telling her from God that she must be a good girl and stay faithful, and that she had a destiny and purpose far beyond her upbringing. 

Divine communication. It’s a large part of what makes her so fascinating. 

MP GodIt’s also the kind of thing which makes historians crazy, you understand. It’s just so awkward to deal with the supernatural in an academic context, especially given the typical disconnect between those book-learnin’ types and people of faith. We’d rather not talk about it at all.

It’s downplayed even with major figures like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Notice how many history books drop the ‘Reverend’ whenever possible. Granted, after the first mention of someone in a history text, they’re usually referred to only by their last name, no matter WHO they are – but the designation is usually missing in that first mention as well. And in sidebars. Photo captions. Even that separate section in the back with the long excerpt of "I Have A Dream."

Usually if someone's a 'Dr.', a 'Prof.', or even a 'Sir' we work it in there at least once. But 'Rev.' we like to slip past.  

When his primary calling IS included, it’s used as framing for the story we actually wish to tell - a colorful bit of context to get past as quickly as possible. Its significance is more often than not presumed to be as preparation or practice for his “real” historical function, helping King build organizational skills and hone his powerful oratory – and what a lucky break THAT turned out to be because that kinda thing ended up SO useful later in service of the Civil Rights movement! 

Rev. MLKFaith becomes a happy fluke of background rather than a key component - as if King just happened to sit next to someone randomly on the bus who ended up playing some key role we never saw coming, or left his coat too close to the oven and accidentally invented penicillin. As if taking up the call of ministry – of spreading the Word of God to the downtrodden and fighting for justice – made a nice placeholder before changing careers and fighting for civil rights.

As if they weren’t both manifestations of the same inner fire.

It’s easier the further back we go. Dismissing the Puritans or the revival preachers of the Second Great Awakening happens almost naturally; they seem so radical by today’s mores. Any pantheistic cultures are tacitly patronized without question, as are those more driven by nature, visions, or quests than westerners find comfortable.

In more recent years it’s been quite in vogue to mock groups like the Latter Day Saints in ways which would be borderline hate crimes with any other demographic. (Can you imagine large, loud groups at Applebee’s cackling over song fragments from the hit Broadway musical, ‘The Book of Mohammed’ or ‘Sing-Along-With-Brother-Malcolm’?)

I get that issues of faith are problematic- especially if we're teaching them in public school. But Joan, by all historical accounts, followed up the predictions of her ‘voices’ with successful action. That makes dealing with her especially tricky.

Just ask the English. 

RELATED POST: Joan of Awkward, Part Two - Hide It Under A Footnote? No! I'm Gonna Let It Shine

Comments

And been intrigued with the complexities of her story...the intrigue, the betrayals. The little farm girl who took on TWO nations.

Your essays here remind me how you can bring history to life with your honesty...your classroom must be a vibrant place to learn and grow.

I also love the early modern European history - it is so messy and incestuous and, well, dare I say, Machiavellian. (And you KNOW I loved the part about forgetting her mom died last year.)

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