Gail Orgelfinger, Joan of Arc in the English Imagination, 1429-1829 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).
Reviewed by Michael Evans
Here lies Joan of Arc, the which
Some count saint, and some count witch;
Some count man, and something more;
Some count maid, and some a whore.
Such was Thomas Fuller’s summary of the conflicting English views of Joan of Arc in his 1642 work The Profane State. Fuller refers to some interpretations of Joan that will be familiar to modern readers, but reminds us of other aspects of Joan’s reputation among the English, such as the idea (which was used by Shakespeare in 1 Henry VI) that, far from being a virgin saint, Joan claimed to be pregnant in an attempt to have her execution delayed.
While twentieth-century (re)interpretations of Joan’s story in the Anglophone world, such as Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923) and the Hollywood movie starring Ingrid Bergman (1948) are well-known, there is a long and important back-story, and this relatively neglected period in the shaping of England’s view of Joan is the subject of Orgelfinger’s book, as she traces the evolution of this view from Joan’s death in 1431 to the late Romantic era 400 years later.
Orgelfinger sets out to challenge the perception that English attitudes toward Joan evolved in a steady and predictable way, from hostility to the “witch” and “whore” who opposed their forces in the Hundred Years’ War to sympathy in later centuries; “from heretic, to innocent believer, and, in due course, saint” (p. 7, quoting Ardis Butterfield). This process seemed to reach its culmination in the early 1920s, when, following her canonization in 1920 and in the midst of post-WW1 Francophilia, a statue of “Sancta Joanna de Arc” was set up in Winchester Cathedral in 1923 as “a slight act of reparation” by England toward its French ally (p. 3). Orgelfinger frames her book around this statue, returning to it in her “Afterword”, where she also cites Shaw’s reference to it in Saint Joan. However, she argues that the evolution of Joan’s image in England is far more complex than a linear process of rehabilitation and reparation, with contradictory views of her held (often by the same author) in all periods from the fifteenth century to the early nineteenth.
The book is structured around five thematic (and broadly chronological) chapters. Chapter 1 addresses what Joan of Arc knew about the English, and her attitudes toward them, arguing that Joan showed little animus toward the English as a people, and that their attitudes toward her were far from unremittingly hostile. Chapter 2 examines fifteenth-century and early modern English accounts of Joan, up to the early seventeenth century. Chapter 3 examines early modern attempts to locate Joan within the history of “Amazons”, “viragos” and other active or warlike women. Chapter 4 is devoted to Joan’s portrayal as “Joan la Puzel” in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 (which Orgelfinger argues was influenced by the recent execution of Mary Stuart, who represented, like Joan, a Catholic and female challenge to England), and eighteenth-century representations of her in illustrated editions of the works of Shakespeare. Chapter 5 addresses the “domestication” of Joan in history and literature in the Romantic period in response to the French Revolution and early feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
Orgelfinger’s approach reveals that there was no time when English opinions about Joan were not mixed and contradictory. Even in the immediate aftermath of her execution there were English observers who expressed doubts over the legitimacy of her condemnation and burning, such the Englishman who declared “we have burned a saint,” even though they had expressed fear and hatred of her during her brief military career. At the other end of the period covered in the book, David Hume (Orgelfinger includes Scottish authors in her survey of “English” responses to Joan) expressed contradictory opinions of Joan. As an Enlightenment thinker, he could not credit her with either a demonic of divine mission, crediting her success to religious “enthusiasm”, which he classed alongside “superstition” as one of “two species of false religion.” Yet, “Hume writes without irony, that she persevered ‘till, by the final expulsion of the English, she had brought all her prophecies to their full completion’” (p. 143). English writers often tried to shift responsibility onto the French, claiming, for example, that Joan was a fraud put forward for propagandistic reasons by Charles VII, or that she was betrayed by men within her own ranks when captured at Compiègne by the Burgundians. Conversely, others lamented the absence of clemency toward Joan by her English captors. Orgelfinger also identifies many examples of English commentators who praised Joan for her courage and enterprise.
The breadth of Orgelfinger’s scholarship is impressive, and it is hard to do justice in a brief review to the range of themes she is able to cover in less than 170 pages. One key motif that runs through the work is unease over Joan’s dressing as a man. Orgelfinger subtitles her introduction “those cursed breeches,” a reference to an anonymous article in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1737 in which the author expressed the opinion that the English “would have spared Joan’s Life, but they insisted on her laying aside those cursed Breeches, of which she was so obstinately fond” (p. 3).
The chapter on depictions of Joan of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI is particularly interesting in this respect. The author argues that this play was rarely performed in the eighteenth century, yet Joan was frequently depicted in this period in illustrated editions of the works of Shakespeare, testifying to the interest in her in England at the time. Despite the fact that historical sources describe Joan wearing armor or dressing as a man, she is often feminized in these images, which frequently purported to depict famous actresses of the time in the role, wearing dresses that would hardly be appropriate garb in warfare. Even when depicted in armor, Joan is often feminized, wearing her hair long and in one instance showing “slim and shapely calves and dainty feet” (p. 118). Yet, while rendering her an attractive and feminine adversary, illustrators also played up Shakespeare’s depiction of her as a sorceress who associated with demons; the moment when her demonic companions desert her was a favorite subject. John Thurston in 1826 illustrated the execution of Joan with a stack of smoking armor, accompanying York’s line “Break thou in pieces and consume to ashes, Thou foul accursed minister of hell!” (p. 124, figure 12). Joan’s feminine clothes, and even Joan herself, have disappeared from the scene.
Orgelfinger addresses similar themes in her final chapter, aptly titled “’Tom Paine in Petticoats’: Domesticating Joan of Arc,” which addresses English / British verdicts on Joan during the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. The quotation in the chapter title is drawn from Coleridge’s critique of Robert Southey’s 1796 epic poem Joan of Arc, which written in the light of the French Revolution. Where once Joan had been viewed as a witch and heretic on account of her refusal to wear women’s clothes, she was now trivialized by association with female garments. References to petticoats were often used to denigrate women who aspired to political commentary or activism, as in Horace Walpole’s description of Mary Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats.” (p. 130). As in the depictions of Shakespeare’s Joan la Puzel, these contradict the historical Joan’s wearing male clothes, and exist awkwardly alongside eighteenth-century references to Joan’s “cursed breeches.”
Orgelfinger’s work is a thoroughly researched and welcome addition to the scholarship on the post-medieval reception of Joan of Arc. She offers valuable new insights by focusing on British views of Joan before the performance of Shaw Saint Joan, and by challenging over-simplified narratives of England’s rehabilitation of her former adversary.