Monday, May 30, 2011

"She said, 'I'm tired of the war/I want the kind of work I had before/A wedding dress, or something white/To wear upon my swollen appetite."

The Song: "Joan of Arc," Jennifer Warnes. Words & music by Leonard Cohen. Track 4 of Famous Blue Raincoat, 1987.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1987.
Listen/watch here.

Today is both Memorial Day and the feast of St. Joan of Arc, which feels appropriate. Joan was 16 when she left home -- at the direction, she said, of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine -- to fight for Charles VII against the Burgundians and the English invaders. At the age of 17, she led Charles' troops to victory and watched as he was crowned King of France.

Some records say that she wanted to go home then, but she saw that the English remained in France and needed to be expelled, and that Charles' policy of appeasing the Burgundians would lead to disaster. Indeed, the Burgundians kept fighting, despite Charles' ruinous truce with them, and Joan was captured in Compi├Ęgne in May 1430. John of Luxembourg, an ally of the Duke of Burgundy, sold Joan to the English for a fortune, and the English used a corrupt Bishop to try Joan for witchcraft.

Joan was charged with heresy and with "difformitate habitus," degenerate or monstrous dress -- the military apparel that disguised her gender and protected her from rape. She was heard to say that she wanted to wear a dress, but wearing a dress in prison left her even more vulnerable to threats of rape. Her friends brought her soldier's clothing again, and she insisted on wearing it -- the trousers tied to her blouse and jerkin, offering her some protection -- even though she knew it would prove the charges against her.

She was burned at the stake as a heretic on May 30, 1431, looking at a cross and calling the name of Jesus. The campaign to clear her name began within a generation, but her sainthood was not finally proclaimed until 1909. She is, of course, the patron saint of France, but also of soldiers (particularly female soldiers), prisoners, captives, and rape victims.

Her story reminds us that death is not the worst thing that can happen to soldiers in wartime, and that devotion to a righteous cause can often approach the divine.

Today, on Memorial Day, I particularly remember my father's college roommate, LTJG Danny Moran, killed in action off the USS Coral Sea on January 15, 1967. I don't remember Lieutenant Moran, but his widow, Kelly, was a much-loved presence of my childhood, and she would probably be surprised to know how often I still think of her.

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