Used and abused

We’ve been getting the sneaking suspicion that Joan of Arc may not be as revered by the French as we would have assumed.

All along we thought that the English (sorry, friends) had burned her at the stake in retaliation for her role in putting King Charles VII on the French throne and helping to drive the English from France. Like all good stories, we see that there are some holes in the Joan legend and that perhaps her demise at the stake was quite convenient for Charles. After not lifting a finger in her defense, several years later he made it clear she was innocent – and thus his reign was legitimate. A bit too later for Joan.

Sigh. Why is the truth often much less enjoyable? In actuality, when we go to places where Joan had appeared, one senses a resounding yawn on behalf of the curators. Take today, for example.

We visited the Château de Chinon, which, in the 11th century became the property of the counts of Anjou. Henry II of England favoured the Château de Chinon as a residence: most of the standing structure can be attributed to his reign and he died there in 1189. (The Lion in Winter was set in Chinon, as a point of reference.) Oh, and now the current wisdom is that “lion-heart” was a very derogatory term, meaning vicious and predatory. Another myth shattered…

In March of 1429, Joan of Arc arrived at the château to meet her dauphin. She claimed to hear heavenly voices that said the dauphin of the contested French throne, Charles, should grant her an army to relieve the siege of Orleans. Charles met with her two days after her arrival, eventually granted her supplies and sent her to join the army at Orléans. The Château de Chinon became a prison in the second half of the 16th century, but then fell out of use and was left to decay.

It is now heavily restored, but one can see the rooms where Joan supposedly met with Charles, one story being that she was able to pick him out from the crowd, where he had disguised himself as a test for her. Guess that one is a bit apocryphal too.

Yes, there are a few Joan effigies. It is sweet to know we used her image to sell war stamps, and that she was a favorite symbol for French soldiers during WWI.

But what legend really gets the play here? Would you believe the story of King Arthur? It seems that Henry II worked hard to align himself with a rewritten story of Arthur, to sell his right to the English throne. So this castle celebrates all the heroes of that story, while Joan fades into the background. Care to try to get the sword from the stone? See Merlin’s workshop? Sit at the Round Table? Well then, Chinon is the castle for you.

It also was a great town for lunch. We sat in a wonderful little square and enjoyed the plats du jour.

Then it was on to the château of Saumur, a fortress begun in 962. What we see today was mostly done in the 15th century. This was a center of Protestantism, and the castle played a role as a place of safety during the religious conflicts of the 16th century. It got mucked up by Napoleon, who made it into a prison, but the city of Saumur reclaimed it in 1906 and have been restoring ever since.

We are now in Angers, the town that the forts were trying to protect.

One last side trip we took before leaving our lovely gîte yesterday was to the town of Descartes, named for its most famous son. While we could see the house where René was born, the interior is all new, and – for some reason – doesn’t allow pictures of the pithy philosophical texts on its walls. Tough for me. I photograph, therefore I am….

2 thoughts on “Used and abused

  1. Fine new BBC documentary last week in which Chinon featured greatly. Got the impression that Joan shifted very quickly in the Dauphin’s eyes from big saviour to big irritant. Amazing, though, to be reminded–if I ever knew– that at the start of her campaign she was just 17. 17!! Incroyable, as they say….

    1. I do prefer the image of her as saint and martyr. The king, on the other hand, sounds a bit like a weasel. Hope the documentary comes our way.

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