Produced and Published by the Students and Faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University.
The Story of Joan of Arc: Overly Summarized?
by C.J. White
The 1998 documentary, Joan of Arc: Soul on Fire, mentions the significant events in the life of Joan, Maid of Orleans, and provides some explanation for how Joan was able to accomplish such great feats. The documentary highlights important points in Joan’s life, but fails to do much else. For a fifty minute program, much more detail and information could have been added to make a connection between the cause and effects that dictated the destiny of the Maid of Orleans.
The documentary begins with Joan’s trial by the inquisition on 9 January 1431. She was being questioned about her month- long military career by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. The bishop claimed that Joan’s achievements were the result of a pact that she made with the devil. Then, the narrator reverses back to 1429 when she “appeared out of nowhere.” On 12 February 1429, Joan predicted the French loss at the battle of the Herring, round Orleans, when she was more than one hundred kilometers away from battle. According to Jeremy Adams, a professor of history at SMU, there was no possible way that any word could have reached Joan by any means in that era. Charles Wood, a professor of history at Dartmouth, states that historians can’t speculate whether the voices in Joan’s head were imagined or if they came from some divine power. More likely, since the beliefs of the day were strongly Catholic, any rumored communication with saints was plausible.
Next, Joan set out on a journey to earn an audience with the Dauphin, the future Charles VII of France. She dressed like a man, traveled to his chateau at Chinon and spoke with him in private. Joan, the teenage girl, convinced the crown prince to put together an army and take Orleans from English control. On 29 April 1429, Joan and her army entered Orleans “under the cover of darkness” and were cheered on by the masses during the day. Joan won many of the skirmishes, and took the main English stronghold of La Tournelle, despite a wound to the leg.
Joan advanced further into English territory to liberate Reims for the Dauphin’s coronation. Charles VII was eventually crowned in July 1429. Joan’s next goal was to liberate Paris. She drove on to Paris, but failed to take it. Joan was captured when the French Loyalist army closed the gates of Compiegne, leaving Joan outside and vulnerable to Burgundian forces. Bonnie Wheeler, a professor of Medieval Studies at SMU, speculates that a French captain betrayed her on the orders of Charles VII.
Joan, now in enemy hands, was whisked away to Rouen where she was starved, tortured, and heavily interrogated by the clergy. Pierre Cauchon, a correspondent for the inquisition, attempted to force a confession by throwing hard questions at her. Finally, on 24 May 1431, she was found guilty of heresy and excommunicated from the church. She later signed a confession to save her life, but she was treated worse than before. She finally decided that torture was worse than death, and she recanted her confession. On 30 May, her hair was shaved off, and she was dragged to the logs to be burned at the stake.
However, Joan’s impact was so critical that Charles VII called for another trial, in which she was cleared of the charges. Another result of her impact was that the English were driven out of France over the span of the next twenty years. However, the Roman Catholic Church refused to consider her importance or sanctity until modern times. She was beatified in 1920 by the Church.
The documentary provided an articulate, succinct portrayal of Joan that almost any audience could relate to; this attribute is the program’s strongest point. It displays many paintings and old manuscripts that give a clear visual sense of the history that is being discussed, instead of simply relating the events to a vague date and time in history. The displays make the program interesting enough for audiences of all ages.
There are some details that were well developed and offered thorough analysis of the topic. An example would be the explanation of why her “voices” were so influential in her actions. The narrators asked the audience to consider if the voices were truly the voice of saint or just an endless bout of schizophrenia. They dismissed the mental illness theory by giving several accounts of incidents when Joan successfully used her clairvoyant powers.
The largest, and perhaps, most important historical episode was painstakingly described: the trial of Joan of Arc by the inquisition, which was the high point of the documentary. Pamela Mercantel, an author on a book about Joan, claims that Joan’s first trial by the inquisition and her constant interrogating by Pierre Cauchon was a travesty of justice. Of course, by modern perspective, it would be unjust and cruel to incorporate the methods utilized by the inquisition in 1431.
Another essential part of the program that added connection to the events of Joan’s life was the analysis of Charles VII and his relationship to Joan. In this attempt, there are some aspects that are well done, and some others that needed improvement. Professor Jeremy Adams describes Charles as “physically and personally unattractive,” a man who only cared about his political agenda and his reign as king. Professor Charles Wood speculates that Joan was forsaken by Charles because he didn’t want to have the support of an alleged heretic. Likewise, he could have ordered the men to leave Joan to be captured that day at Compiegne to prevent her from gaining too much control in his court. However, this is as far as the documentary’s observation goes, and there is much more that needs to be drawn in to fully understand why he refused to help Joan. Were the men in his court and the nobility responsible for influencing his decisions? Is Charles a metaphorical cushion, susceptible to the last impression placed upon him? The audience is only left to guess.
The paintings, manuscripts, and expert testimonies don’t compensate for the amount of Joan’s story left out of the program. For example, the documentary explains Joan’s eight-day liberation of Orleans, but fails to account for the details of why the English lost their ground after years of victories under Henry V’s reign (more specifically Agincourt, and Poitiers. The program gives the audience an excellent sense of what, but not how or why. It fails to make connections to the cause and effect relationships that make the difference between victory and defeat in battle.
A detail the narrators didn’t account for was Joan’s audience with the Dauphin at Chinon. According to the documentary’s account, she asked for the audience, received it, and spoke in private with the prince and persuaded him to accompany his army on the way to Orleans. What actually happened was that Charles had put an imposter on his throne, and Joan pointed out the Dauphin within the crowd of nobles. This omitted detail was one of the large contributing factors that made up Charles’ decision to help Joan complete her mission.
Another broad detail left out was why the English became instantly inefficient in battle. The documentary didn’t once mention the shortcomings of Henry IV as king of England or the arrogance of Sir John Fastolf and his army of longbowmen. Even greater was the English use of the Chevauchee tactic, its devastating effect of the French economy, and its demoralizing hindrance on the French army. For an entire three-quarters century of the war, English soldiers looted, raided, and pillaged small northern country villages, killed and raped villagers, burned crops and destroyed shops. In a simple fifty minute documentary on Joan of Arc, these details may seem extraneous, but the program owes the audience an explanation of why Joan was so successful in battle prior to her battles in Paris. The documentary implies that Joan’s victories were the result of nothing more than the divine powers bestowed upon her instead of that and the combination of mistakes made by the English. The audience should know that Henry VI had to give greater annuities to his most powerful dukes and earls than he had coming in from royal estates, and he couldn’t fund the war in France.
The last of the major parts left out was the highlight of Joan’s life before she spoke to Charles at Chinon. The only two things the documentary mentions are that she began hearing voices when she was thirteen and that she instantly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Such an explanation is not adequate in figuring out why Joan came to be the teenage girl who went on to be the savior of Orleans. What was her mother like? What influences inspired her as a peasant girl, other than the voices? How did she determine that the voices, in fact, came from angels? Did her voices gradually develop or start instantly at one point of time? There are too many questions left unanswered about Joan’s childhood and distant past.
The documentary’s strong points are the organization that the visual aids provided to help capture the attention of the audience. However, I believe, that like many other television shows, the program was made to simply entertain the audience and nothing more, which is why it fell short in historical authority. For credibility, the narrators added the testimonies from experts on the topic; which helped to organize the program and make it flow in a semi-chronological fashion
However , as a program on a historical figure, it provided little historical insight to the cause and effect relationships that are prevalent in every episode in history. For all the audience knows, the event just happened in a vacuum for no particular reason.
Joan of Arc: Soul on Fire. The Search for History.
Video Cassette. The History Channel. 1998.