On March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc wrote to the head of English occupying forces in the city of Orleans and told him that God was giving him exactly one chance to surrender the city to her, a fourteen year-old girl dressed in armor, the equivalent of drag king attire at the time, as women were not trained to be soldiers. “Faites raison au Roi du ciel, rendez à la Pucelle qui est envoyée ici par Dieu, le Roi du ciel, les clés de toutes les bonnes villes que vous avez prises et violées en France. Elle est ici venue de par Dieu pour réclamer le sang royal.” — Do right by the King of Heaven. Give back to the Maiden who is sent by God, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and raped in France. She is come here by God to defend royal blood.. The English general in command laughed at the letter, though she said he would surrender Orleans peacefully to her that day or after bloodshed the next day.
The next day, to his astonishment, he surrendered Orleans to Joan.
The real Joan of Arc was a distorted fun-house mirror for the politics of the fifteenth century. She hasn’t changed a bit in that regard today.
For the people of the Late Middle Ages, Joan was either a great saint or a horrible witch, a nasty woman. Though within a generation of her execution Joan was exonerated of all charges and her inquisitor charged with heresy for ever bothering her, at the time of her death, they burned her at the stake for daring to dress like a man. The heresy charges couldn’t stick; Joan’s theology was conventional if eccentric in the extreme. The only policing that could kill her under rule of law was the fashion police. She wore armor, and the sentence for that was death.
Today, I submit to you that she remains a political figure who operates something like an ink blot. What is in the heart of the beholder reflects the interpretation, even the reenactment, of Joan’s unusual story.
For the people of New Orleans, Joan of Arc is a symbol of French heritage and the traditions of an inclusive and costume-loving city. Her arrival right after epiphany marks the beginning of carnival season.
In New Orleans, rather than old Orleans, Joan remains a powerful symbol. As the commander of the battle of Orleans and its hero, as well as the patron saint of France, it is easy to understand her potent symbolism for a town named for the place of her victory. She is an old French symbol for what one man I met called the capitol of a nation that never came into being, a new France on the Gulf of Mexico. This past weekend was the annual Joan of Arc parade, a parade to mark the official beginning of carnival season in New Orleans (yes, it’s a whole season down here, not a day, not even a week). People disguised in medieval costumes parade through the French Quarter, where they share a vin d’honneur toast with the head of the French consul, a priest from the Saint Louis cathedral blesses the crowd’s paper machie swords, and a general party in the carnival style. This is odd, really, as Joan of Arc was not what Bakhtin called “carnevalesque.” She was anti-libidinous, a virgin who remained so in order to retain the purity of her angel voices. Then again, she got killed for being in drag, and there are a lot of people in this town who might sympathize. She was an uppity woman of the first order, and people here like women who know their own minds and aren’t afraid of much. So while she might not have invented Mardi Gras and would never have taken her top off if someone threw her some beads, she fits right in here.
Here, Joan is a symbol of French heritage of the city but not of a fierce French nationalism. While the occasion of a blessing at the cathedral, she is nevertheless ecumenical. The people who put on this annual parade are a social club, not a religious sisterhood. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc claim their mission includes people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds and attempts to encourage artistry and revelry. They are interested in fun, not fundamentalism, as is in fact all of New Orleans. This is, after all, a city with pirate heritage, not just French heritage, and if a gal shows up in the Vieux Carre with a kind of butch haircut dressed as a guy, one hardly notices. As all of New Orleans revelries, the Joan of Arc parade is inclusive and frolicking. Joan symbolizes the old French ways of the city in the hands of the gender-complicated, a place of liberation from oppression not so much from the English as the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip.
For the National Front, the rough equivalent of Trump and the Alt-Right in France, Joan of Arc (depicted here as a gold statue behind party leader Marine le Pen) has been appropriated as a symbol of white nationalism, as Joan fought invading foreigners. Rather than chase away the English, Marine le Pen wants to chase away Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.
There is another group this year that has embedded Joan into their mission, though they do so with far less revelry and fun, although they are known in France as “le FN.” The menacing alt-right has been growing in France, just as it has been here. The National Front is the party of Marine Le Pen, whose mission it is with other white people to deport all the immigrants, all of them, particularly those of North African and Middle Eastern descent.In the 1980s, the party was an ugly joke, run by Jean-Marie LePen, Marine’s father, who said disgusting things to scare people like immigrants were bringing AIDS to France and that it could be spread by mosquito bites. Marine LePen is less crude and less confrontational than her father, but the party is capitalizing on France’s recent terrorist attacks to suggest that only white people should be considered French and that all others, regardless of place of birth, ought to be deported.
For the National Front, Joan is the scourge of the foreign incursion, a saint of France, a pure French girl who could be the vessel of a pure French white bloodline. She is a call to return to traditions long since considered too narrow in France by most people. The party is overtly racist, and they see Joan as a purifier of the race, giving that royal blood Joan mentioned in her letter by extension to all those whose families have been in France for centuries. She is often evoked at their rallies, and she is a call for exclusion by any means necessary. Their Joan says surrender the city, you foreigners, today, or pay for your residency with your own blood tomorrow.
So what are we to do with Joan, a prisoner of our divergent political ideologies? Is she a saint of white nationalism, or is she the patron saint now of a town that values individual expression and racial and gender diversity? Is she a witch or a saint? A better question for us to ask is who we are. Are we a community of a liberated city celebrating its victory over hegemony, or are we a bunch of fascists who so distrust other people’s customs that we would shove them out of our midst? If we are white, is this the source of our purity, or is our purity a purity of heart, of goodwill toward all? Are our swords a costume accessory or a way of life? I submit our parade route has hit a fork in the road. Either we dance toward a welcoming cathedral that would offer blessings, toward a balcony for a celebratory drink, or we are headed into a battle where either way, win or lose, the things that are really pure in us get burned alive. Who will we be during this carnival season? Who will you be, my reader, in this hour of occupation by those most of us have not chosen? How will you stay pure, my maidens? I say don’t put down your swords. We are going into battle. In all things, do right by the King of Heaven. We are sent by God here for this very hour. Know what is right and do it, whatever it may cost you.