Luke Oines

The Apostasy of Joan's Faith

The Apostasy of Joan's Faith: The Romantic Mother and the Enlightenment Whore

One way of demarcating history is the literary morphing of icons.  Symbols and relevant figures are recast to suite the political and archetypal identification of readers.  This process is poignant to the eighteenth-century literary production and readership of Joan of Arc.  Voltaire, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge each developed a version of Joan which catered to the political assumptions of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.  Joan’s iconography, in this analysis, is moved into the figures of the “Enlightenment whore” and the “Romantic mother.”  Voltaire’s La Pucelle cloaks the ideals of rationalism and institutional critique in the guise of pornography.  The censorship of the French Monarchy set the conditions under which Joan’s icon transferred from a symbol of popular-piety to one of cultural and political resistance.  European readership of La Pucelle demonstrates how the “staying power” of literature is promoted by political relevance.  After the Revolution, La Pucelle lost its inflammatory repute.  Without symbolic antithesis, it fell into disregard.

Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc and Coleridge’s The Maid of Orleans demonstrate a figure embodying supernatural motherhood—Joan is inspired by Nature to nurture the oppressed commoner.  The sentimental Joan depicted in these works appealed to the audience of the Romantics; she oscillates between idealism and the aftermath of “The Terror.”  These works were read and commended only for a short time.  Joan’s embodiment of the “war-torn Romantic” was only apropos to an audience which was inescapably stuck between pre-Revolutionary idealism and observable thanatos.                

The brief success of such depictions suggests more than a shift in political relevance.  Joan’s recreation points scholarship to examine why genre, length, illustration and historical omission are appealing to one particular historical audience and not to another.  This analysis is also concerned with how readers may help practice recreating the historical record—either by ignorance or by a varied submission to the author’s vision.  Adopting medieval figures into any “current” politics always carries such bias.  Umberto Eco suggests that the neo-Middle Ages is something “already coming into existence…fed on utopia” (Travels in Hyper Reality).  If each age recreates Joan as the new ideal, then Joan’s iconic failure (when the Romantic and Enlightenment productions lost their market-value) can be used to understand the author’s ideal reader. 

The historicity of Joan’s account, primarily found in her trial transcripts, is undermined by the said eighteenth-century works because the authors have willfully construed a past utopia to support an imagining of the future.  The reader of Joan is assumed to identify this vision, formed either in the bower of Nature, or in the critique of the status quo: Joan’s corruption by the Church and state.  The literary recreation of history forms a relationship between the script and the reader.  Irony and idealism surround these icons of Joan, making her into a suggestive utopia and transporting her into the archetypal-identity of the reader.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.

Top