The rehabilitation of St Joan

Today the church remembers St Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake on this day in 1431 by the soldiers of la perfide Albion.

Which is a good excuse to post G.K. Chesterton’s essay on St Joan: The Early Bird in History (PDF, tidying up the text-only version found here). I hadn’t realised, until reading this, how late the general admiration for St Joan developed – in contrast to how quickly she was rehabilitated by the church. As Chesterton writes:

The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. […] I can hardly remember another example of the throne paying so prompt a salute to the scaffold. The condemnation of St. Joan was reversed by the Pope in the lifetime of her contemporaries.

In contrast, everybody else took a long time to come round to the church’s point of view:

The history of what great men have said about this great woman is a very dismal tale. The greatest man of all, Shakespeare, has an unfortunate pre-eminence by his insular insults in Henry the Sixth. But the thing went on long after Shakespeare; and was far worse in people who had far less excuse than Shakespeare. […] What Voltaire wrote about St. Joan it will be most decent to pass over in silence. […] [Byron] called St. Joan of Arc a fanatical strumpet.

It was only with Mark Twain and then, above all, George Bernard Shaw’s play (“wrong in many ways in its contention, but conspicuously spirited and sincere”), that “ordinary men of genius awoke to the recognition of one of the most wonderful women of genius in the history of the world”. As Chesterton observes:

As a fact, human reason and imagination, left to themselves, made extraordinarily little of her. Humanism and Humanitarianism and, in a general sense, Humanity, did not really rehabilitate Joan until about five hundred years after the Church had done so.

Worth reading the whole thing (PDF).


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