“I am not afraid. I was born for this.”
–Joan of Arc, May 13, 1428
…I got in an argument with my ex the other day, which led to me making a passionate speech. She was mad about something vitally important, and I got mad back. When I get mad I become incoherent along the lines of a well-educated five year old. “I feel like I’m being burnt at the stake here!” I yelled. “Yes, I feel like I’m being burnt at the stake, like, like… Joan of Arc or something! Yes, you’re burning me at the stake like I’m Joan of Arc!” Good one; way to go, self! Man, passionate speech is always a bad idea.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” my ex said, which made no sense in context. Then she threw a glass at me. Eventually, we got over it. Later on, I sat in bed, sulking after our fight. I rubbed my left arm, which has a tattoo of the Cross of Lorraine, which is a French Fascist symbol (didn’t learn that one until after I got the tattoo), as well as a symbol of Joan of Arc. Did I want to be Joan of Arc? My ex’s stupid words still made no sense.
So. This year marks the 670th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc. That’s a little #grimanddark, but we can’t celebrate her birth, because we don’t know exactly when she was born.
On May 30th, 1431, she was executed in front of a crowd in the village marketplace in Rouen, in northern France. Her last words were “Jesus!” — which are pretty good last words, I guess. However, Joan of Arc had a fairly practical reason for saying “Jesus!” She was shouting the word “Jesus” because she was being goddamn burned alive.
And why should you care about Joan of Arc’s death? You should care about it because Joan of Arc was amazing and awesome.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Joan of Arc, because I read in a book that she was “burnt to the stake.” Because I couldn’t spell correctly, and because I had confused cartoons with reality, I thought this meant that when she was burned to death, all that was left of her was a juicy T-bone steak. This obviously turned out not to be true, but the whole steak/stake thing was sufficiently gory to capture my imagination, and so I started reading lots of books about Joan of Arc and about medieval history.
Anyway, where was I? So. Joan of Arc. So in reality, when she was killed, Joan of Arc did not metamorphose into a steak, T-bone or porterhouse or otherwise. In reality, she was burned until she was nothing. Ashes and nothing.
After Joan of Arc was dead, troubadours claimed that she was followed into battle by gossamer clouds of birds and butterflies, who trailed along in pursuit of her banner. This is, of course, complete bullshit.
But Joan of Arc did do amazing things. She fought in battle after being shot by an arrow. She jumped from a two-story building onto her horse. To escape prison, she jumped 70 feet from the window of a tower — and was completely unhurt. …And also, oh yeah, she crowned a king, rescued a city, and saved the nation of France.
Oh, and she may also have talked to God.
…Signs and wonders. Who was she? She was no one; a nobody from nowhere. But as a teenager, Joan started hearing voices from God. These voices told her to go to the prince’s court; they told her that she would take the prince to the city of Rheims, where she would crown him king. They told her that she would capture the city of Orleans and force the English out of France.
And she did it all. It was ridiculous to think that a teenage girl in the 15th century could do anything like this, but she did it. And she wasn’t just a girl but a broke illiterate peasant girl. A peasant from a town in the middle of nowhere. Still, she crowned a king and led an army, she saved the city of Orleans from the English.
France had been losing a war to England for a generation. It had no king. England ruled the kingdom of France. Joan of Arc fixed all of this. She saved an entire country.
But no one saved her. She told her people that archangels had spoken to her. She saved the city; she made a king. She did both of those things. And then the king asked her to recapture Paris from the English.
This is the weird part. Joan’s reply was this: “Um, God never said that I would do that.” That’s weird. Usually when people are crazy, they become, like, megalomaniacal. But Joan wasn’t crazy. We have hundreds of pages of transcripts from her trial. She was normal and modest and polite. She was normal and modest and polite even though she was an eighteen year-old on trial for her life, and the trial was rigged, and she knew this.
Usually when people say that they talked to God and can now perform miracles, a standard thing happens. They end by saying this, “Oh, and God al-lllso said that you should give me all your money! And have sex with me!” …Y’know. Stuff like that.
Joan never said anything like that. Which is why I still wonder if she actually talked to the archangels. Maybe she did. When the king asked her to capture Paris, she said (and I’m paraphrasing here),”Um, the angels never said anything about that, but I’ll give it a shot.”
It didn’t work out. She never made it to Paris. The English captured her in a small town miles away from Paris. They grabbed her from her horse and threw her to the ground. And then they put her on trial for her life, in the city of Rouen. Her king could have easily paid a ransom and saved her life, but he didn’t. No one knows why.
And then she lost the trial, which was rigged anyway. …We think that things are going to save us, that someone or something is going to intercede, but are we so sure? No one saved Joan of Arc, after all. God didn’t step in to save her, and her king certainly didn’t. They let her burn.
“…Ah, Rouen,” she said. “I fear that some great thing may happen to you on account of my death.” …She was standing on a stage, surrounded by pieces of wood — the wooden stage; the pieces of wood that would be used to burn her. She was facing all the townspeople. What did it all look like to her? Were the townspeople dirty? Did they smell bad? Was there a horse standing off in the distance? Was someone in the front row maybe not paying attention, maybe picking his nose? It must have all looked so vivid to her. What could she have been thinking at that moment? It’s so rare to know that you’re doing something for the last time; the last time that you sleep with a lover or anything like that. These were the last words that she would ever say; these were her last seconds on earth.
“I fear that some great thing may happen to you on account of my death,” she said.
And then the executioner set her on fire.
…After she was burned, the English parted the coals around her body, so that the crowd could see that she was really dead. Then they burnt her body again. And then they burnt her body a third time. They reduced her body to pure ash, so that no one from the crowd could take a relic to remember her by.
A few hours after her execution, the executor was found drunkenly stumbling around Rouen. He was moaning to himself. “We are damned!” he said. “We have burnt a saint!”
The English took Joan of Arc’s ashes and put them in a bucket, and then they dumped the bucket into the river Seine. The river Seine flows from a plateau in the heart of France to the Atlantic Ocean.
So after she was dead, Joan of Arc’s ashes were carried by the river current. They traveled north, past Paris, where she had never been; then further north, past the town where she was born. The river continued north, until it met landfall, oceanfall, and then the river became the sea. Her ashes were carried out into the ocean, which she had never seen.
Her ashes are still a part of the ocean.