Thursday

May 30, 2013

Who the Meek Are Not

by Mary Karr

              Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
              in the rice paddy muck,
nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
              make the wheat fall in waves
they don't get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
              nun says we misread
that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
              To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
              in a meadow, who—
at his master's voice—seizes up to a stunned
              but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
              in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
              and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

"Who the Meek Are Not" by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. © Harper Collins, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France. In the centuries that have passed, she's become a national icon in France. She is to the national identity of France, novelist Julian Barnes notes, what Robin Hood is to England.

Statues of Joan of Arc stand all over parks and churches in France, and nearly every French town has a street named for her, called "Jeanne d'Arc." One 19th-century historian wrote that Joan of Arc "loved France so much that France began to love itself."

Joan of Arc was a 13-year-old peasant girl when she began to hear voices in her garden. The voices, she recounted, were those of saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine, and they eventually told her that she needed to save France. At the time, France was engaged in the Hundred Years War, and the English had the French town of Orleans under siege. In April of 1429, Joan of Arc asked the French government for troops that she could lead to liberate the captured Orleans. She'd met with the crown prince and theologians, and they thought she could be of use in the fight against the English, and so Joan of Arc was given an army to command.

She went into battle wearing a white suit of armor and carrying up high a banner depicting an image of the Trinity. An English arrow hit her in the shoulder, but she was OK. Her army succeeded in liberating Orleans: English troops fled, and Joan's army took over their surrounding forts.

In another battle, Joan of Arc — now known as "the maid of Orleans" — was taken hostage by Burgundian troops and sold to the English. She was imprisoned for over a year, often chained to a wooden block, while interrogators attempted to extract confessions out of her. Then, on February 21, 1431, she was brought to trial under an ecclesiastical court. She stuck to her story that she had heard the voices of saints and it was they who commanded her to serve France. Interrogators demanded that she retract her statements. She was convicted of heresy and brought before a large crowd to be sentenced, condemned, and handed over to secular officials. Then, on this day, when she was 19 years old, she was burned at the stake.

In 1456 (25 years after she died), a posthumous retrial was held at which she was exonerated. In 1920, she was canonized a Catholic saint. Joan of Arc has been portrayed in more than 20 films; the first was made by director Georges Melies in 1899. And she's the subject of more than 20,000 books.

One of these is by Mark Twain (books by this author), who spent 12 years researching her life and wrote a book called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, first serialized in Harper's Magazine and then published as a book in 1896. It's a fictional account and purports to be written by Joan of Arc's page and personal secretary. But the book is mostly devoid of the humor that Mark Twain is famous for. He genuinely admired Joan of Arc, and wrote an earnest book about her.

Mark Twain later said, "I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well."

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