Saint Joan: Novel Summary

Before the play, Shaw provides a lengthy preface in which he discusses the historical Joan; various attitudes toward and treatments of her in history and literature; and the presuppositions with which he has written his drama. For his original audience, Shaws prefaces to his plays were as much a part of Shaws work as the plays themselves. “His plays, the prefaces to them, and some of his writing on music and theater were for a whole intellectual generation part of an introduction both to the life of the mind and to a vision of what civilization might possibly be said to mean” (Kermode and Hollander, p. 31). This preface thus not only provides an indispensable key for understanding the play but also stands on its own as an informative and entertaining essay about Joan and the traditions surrounding her.
Shaw briefly recounts the barest biographical facts regarding Joan, and proceeds to anoint her as an exemplar of Protestantism, Nationalism, Realism, Feminism, and Rationalism. Shaw claims that, above all other real or perceived offenses, Joan was burned for her “presumption.” People received Joan as either “miraculous” or “unbearable” because, like Socrates and even Jesus of Nazareth (but unlike Napoleon Bonaparte) before her, she did not understand the penalty paid by those who “show up” their supposed superiors: “[T]he strange superiority of Christ and the fear it inspires elicit a shriek of Crucify Him from all who cannot divine its benevolence.”
In contrast to much of the hagiography Shaw sees surrounding Joan, he judges her trial to have been a fair one, given the medieval worldview. He is not concerned with rehabilitating her character so much as he is concerned with restoring her humanity; he attempts not to demonstrate Joans righteousness-“The mud that was thrown at her [in 1431] had dropped off by this time so completely that there is no need for any modern writer to wash up after it”-as to rehabilitate, to some degree, those who tried, judged, and condemned her. Joans “ideal biographer,” Shaw decrees, “must be free from nineteenth century prejudices and biases; must understand the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Roman Empire much more intimately than our Whig historians have ever understood them; and must be capable of throwing off sex partialities and their romance, and regarding women as the female of the human species, and not as a different kind of animal with specific charms and specific imbecilities.” In short, Shaw proposes that, to truly understand Joan and the events in which she became embroiled and which she precipitated, one must first truly understand her historic, social, and intellectual context.
Joan was not, argues Shaw, a beauty; or a poor “beggarmaid”; or illiterate; or unmindful of the political scene in which she moved. Nor, he insists, was Joan insane, despite the fact that she claimed inspiration and guidance from the voices and visions of saints and angels. In fact, Shaw posits, her voices and visions, so far from being evidence of insanity, are evidence of keen rationality and of superior imagination-a point to which Shaw returns repeatedly throughout the preface and, indeed, the play. Shaw argues that visionaries-those who are “geniuses,” those who see “farther and [probe] deeper than other people”-are judged by the results, or practical effects, of their visions. Joans visions were, for Shaw, simply the expression of her “mother wit.” Joans aims-raising the siege of Orleans and securing the enthronement of Charles VII at Rheims-were sound and sane, even though Joan claimed these aims came to her in messages from Saint Catherine. Shaw thus distinguishes between the content of Joans policy and the forms in which it came, which establish, not insanity, but “her dramatic imagination.” Joan was not “mentally defective” but “mentally excessive.”
Joan, in short, displayed the motivating force of what Shaw terms the “evolutionary appetite.” His definition deserves to be quoted at length: “But that there are forces at work which use individuals for purposes far transcending the purpose of keeping these individuals alive and prosperous and respectable and safe and happy in the middle station in life, which is all any good bourgeois can reasonably require, is established by the fact that men will, in the pursuit of knowledge and of social readjustments for which they will not be a penny the better, and are indeed often many pence the worse, face poverty, infamy, exile, imprisonment, dreadful hardship, and death.” Shaw argues that such individuals are motivated by more than the appetite for food, which is a merely personal need; instead, they are motivated-consciously or not-by the appetite of the human race for advancement, for improvement, for evolution. This need is a super personal need. The “Saint Catherine” whom Joan saw and heard, therefore, is not the Saint Catherine of history, “but the dramatization by Joans imagination of that pressure upon her of the driving force that is behind evolution.” Along these lines, Shaw later states that Joan was a “visualizer,” borrowing a term from Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics (which developed into the science of biometrics) and cousin of Charles Darwin.
Shaw seeks to induce sympathy for Joans peculiar religious iconography by reminding his readers that all religion employs its own imagery. Joan “escaped” a “modern education.” Shaw uses the language of “escape” because he regards the strictly (or supposedly strictly) rationalistic and material approach of modernity as creating a loss to human culture: “[M]odern science,” he laments, “is making short work of the hallucinations [i.e., traditional religious imagery] without regard to the vital importance of the things they symbolize.” Shaw accuses modern society of the same intolerance and dogmatism of which it accuses the past; for example, he points to the scorn with which parents who refused to inoculate their young children would be (and have been) treated. In effect, Shaw is asking his readers to consider the question: Which age is truly more credulous and less “sane”? “For us to set up our condition as a standard of sanity, and declare Joan mad because she never condescended to it, is to prove that we are not only lost but irredeemable.” The Middle Ages may have been credulous, Shaw grants, but medieval people at least had the excuse of superstition. Moderns, he implies, have no such excuse to justify their own gullibility, intolerance, and hypocrisy.
Shaw praises Joan as “very capable” and “a born boss,” but reminds us that she was, after all, an adolescent girl. Her undeniable military and political successes, he argues, can only be attributed to “simplicity.” Her goals, for all their far-reaching consequences, were “simple” ones-that is, they could be decisively and unambiguously accomplished through force of arms. Her naive nature aided her in this regard, Shaw says, but hurt her when she ran up against impersonal forces that drive and shape society-in Joans case, such forces as “the great ecclesiastical and social institutions of the Middle Ages.” As he will state later in the preface, “From the moment when [Joan] failed to stimulate Charles to follow up his coronation with a swoop on Paris she was lost.” She could not effect a further success to bolster her cause-and, as a “theocrat” (for so Shaw labels Joan), she learned the lesson that success after success after success is essential for the continuation of theocracy.
Shaw moves on to survey the ways in which previous literature and art has treated Joan. He calls the Joan of Shakespeares Henry VI, Part I (circa 1594) an aborted attempt to present Joan-in the play called “Joan la Pucelle”-sympathetic and romantic, as though the playwright were told English audiences would never stand for such a treatment of one who conquered English forces. “Shakespeare offers a popular English view of Joan as an insidious liar and a witch who conjures up demons, rather than the virgin saint of French lore” (Britannica Online; Shaw mentions the famous philosopher Voltaire, who “took an high irreverent glee in reducing [Joan] to a lewd hoyden, the daughter of a priest, no less” (Kermode and Hollander, p. 33). Shaw then dismisses Friedrich Schillers Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801) as “a witchs caldron of raging romance,” with no connection to the historic Joan whatsoever. Indeed, Schiller has Joan “die on the battlefield, finding her burning unbearable.” Schiller has, in Shaws estimation, made a mockery of Joans story. Shaw notes that the publication of Joans trial transcripts in 1841 made a new approach to the story possible; however, both Mark Twain-in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1885), under the pseudonym Sieur Louis de Conte-and Andrew Lang, famous for his “color” books of fairy-stories in his The Story of Joan of Arc (1906)-chose more romance over the facts. Shaw views Langs biography of Joan as a reaction against that written by Anatole France, “the most prominent French man of letters of his time” (Columbia Electronic Encylopedia), whose two-volume The Life of Joan of Arc (1908) received criticism from historians for its accuracy (or lack thereof). In all of these cases, Shaw states that Joan has been used (or abused) by artists for their own agendas. Twain and Lang, for example, write from a Protestant predisposition, and (says Shaw) accordingly present Joans judges as villains and hypocrites. Neither man understood-as Shaw clearly is suggesting that he does-“medieval history as. the record of a high European civilization based on a catholic [in this context, universal; non-nationalistic; across-the-borders] faith.” Clearly, Shaw is again making his case that his play is a different and new approach to Joan of Arc.
On the matter of Joans trial, Shaw claims that, by the standards of its own day, it was much fairer and more deliberate than many trials of the modern era. He invokes the trials of Edith Cavell and Roger Casement as examples. “When World War I broke out, [Cavell] was head of the nursing staff of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels. In 1915 she was arrested by the German occupation authorities and pleaded guilty to a charge of harboring and aiding Allied prisoners and assisting some 130 to cross the Dutch frontier” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). She was shot. Casement was a fervent Irish nationalist who had secured promises of German help for an Irish insurrection. Casement “was tried, convicted, and hanged for treason. To further blacken his name, some British agents had circulated his diaries, which showed him to be a homosexual” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Shaw grants that our punishments may be more “humane”-hanging or shooting, as opposed to burning-but that “as far as toleration is concerned [Joans] trial and execution in Rouen in 1431 might have been an event of today.” Shaw appears to be suggesting that Cavell and Casement, like Joan, were killed, not for their stated crimes, but for transgressing the boundaries of what their societies found acceptable. Shaws point is that modern societies, no less than their medieval counterparts, have their unquestionable orthodoxies that must-and doubtless will-be enforced at all costs. To make his point, Shaw criticizes modern society, especially in the scientific realm, for claiming an infallibility that not even the Pope claims for himself.
Shaw does not dispute that “a great wrong [was] done to Joan and to the conscience of the world by her burning.” He does, however, object that this wrong proves the medieval world “uncivilized” as compared to the modern world. He recounts childhood memories of public burnings in Dublin, and composer Richard Wagners recollection of crowds clamoring to see a man broken on the wheel, as evidence that modern bloodlust is all too real. Further, Shaw does not blithely pardon or excuse the Church for its part in Joans death. He argues, “The Churches must learn humility as well as teach it.” Only such humility leaves room for persons of genius, for visualizers, for giants of the imagination-such as Shaw believes Joan to have been-to move humanity forward. As Shaw says, “[W]hen the Churches set themselves against change as such, they are setting themselves against the law of God.”
Not only the Churches, Shaw argues, but all societal institutions must be on guard against stifling change and growth, of opposing what he has earlier called the “evolutionary appetite.” Granted, that “society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime,” we must still “be very careful what we persecute.” Shaw, therefore, argues for a broad tolerance, with limits of acceptability defined liberally rather than conservatively, widely rather than narrowly. As cautionary examples, he mentions such incidents as the imprisonment of pacifist Quakers during wartime and the 1920 attack of the British Government upon Irish “advocates of a constitutional change which it [i.e., the British Government] had presently to effect itself.” Shaw reminds his readers that Joans society afforded her a fair trial even during the stress and strain of civil war (between those French who supported the Dauphin and those who did not). Therefore, Shaw concludes, “there was not the smallest ground for the self-complacent conviction of the nineteenth century that it was more tolerant than the fifteenth.”
One example to which Shaw returns at several points is to the practice of inoculation. “Various forms of inoculation were used from ancient times in China, India, and Persia, but it remained for the English physician Edward Jenner in the late 18th century to demonstrate its feasibility to the Western world” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Judging from Shaws comments in the preface, all controversy regarding the practice and the mandating of it had not yet died down.
In an arresting and provocative passage near the end of the preface, Shaw makes the point again that modern society is no less credulous than medieval society. He categorizes such spiritualist beliefs as mediums, clairvoyance and slate writing (i.e., “spirit writing”) together with such scientific items as “astronomers who tell us that the sun is nearly a hundred million miles away and that Betelgeuse is ten times as big as the whole universe” as well as atomic researchers. He does so not because he believes the scientists are wrong and the spiritualists correct, but rather to emphasize that “modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true.” Modern science demands every bit as much “faith” as medieval religion or the spiritualism of Shaws day.
Turning finally to his own drama, Shaw reminds the readers that he has, because of the practical limits of the theatre, compressed the time frame in which events occurred and has combined some historical participants into composite characters. In short, he has taken dramatic license. He defends also the fact that his characters show, on the stage, an awareness of their society that their historical counterparts would not have had, or at the least would not have articulated. He argues that such a theatrical device is needed to show the audience what impersonal societal forces were at work in Joans day and, indeed, are still at work in their own. He criticizes the plays of Shakespeare for creating the impression that “the world is finally governed by. vulgarly ambitious individuals who make rows.” Shaw could thus be said to be rejecting what some later, twentieth and twenty-first century historians have referred to as the “Great Man” theory of history, in favor of a reading of history that privileges the work of larger societal forces.
Further, Shaw insists, “There are no villains in the piece. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their best intentions, that really concern us.” Shaw relegates villains to melodrama; he is concerned with tragedy. He allows that tragedy, as a genre, inevitably falsifies its characters; but such falsification occurs for the greater good of making them intelligible to the audience, and therefore helping the audiences to better understand life. “[T]he things I represent these [characters] as saying,” Shaw states, “are the things they actually would have said if they had know what they were really doing.”
In closing, Shaw rejects calls from critics for shortening his play (which he says runs the accepted classical length of three hours for a tragedy), including calls to excise the epilogue. He defends the play as he has written it: “I write in the classical manner for those who pay for admission to a theatre because they like classical comedy or tragedy for its own sake, and like it so much when it is good of its kind and well done that they tear themselves away from it with reluctance.”
In his classic book The Quest for the Historical Jesus, the nineteenth-century theologian, historian, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer concluded that everyone finds the Jesus whom they intend to find. Judging from Shaws preface, we might well say the same of Joan. “She comes to us as one unknown,” we might say, revealing our own selves to us. Shaw hammers away at this point with his characteristic wit and vigor throughout the preface. At one point, for instance, he states that most-indeed, perhaps all-previous artistic interpreters and historians of Joans life “illustrate the too little considered truth that the fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.” Readers would be justified in applying Shaws own words to himself. To what extent does Shaw think in the fashion of his day, and to what extent has he actually achieved the larger viewpoint that he seeks? Shaw is quick to criticize other artists representations of Joan. Does he posit that he is offering a superior view, or simply a different one? Whatever readers decide, they can at least credit him for announcing his presuppositions at the outset. Saint Joan may or may not offer a historically accurate representation of its events, but at least we know that its author has tried to be accurate; and, in addition, it offers all readers an example in the possibilities and limits of doing history, of attempting to understand another era, as we would say, “from the inside out.”
Selected Items from the Preface Annotated:
The “Church Triumphant” refers to a two-fold division of the Church common in Christian theology: the “Church Militant,” or those believers still struggling on earth; and the “Church Triumphant,” or those who have died and now live with God in heaven.
The “eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages” is a reference to the traditional “Nine Worthies” of medieval literature and tradition, namely: the pagans Hector, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great; the Jews Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus; and the Christians King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillion. Shaw reckons Joan to be “the queerest fish” among the Worthies, even though Joan does not always occupy a position among the “original” nine. She is sometimes dubbed the Tenth Worthy.
Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) unexpectedly converted to Roman Catholicism and abdicated her throne. Catlina de Erauso was an early 17th-century Basque woman who took part in military campaigns against the native peoples of South America.
The term “Whig” first denoted those in the late 1670s who opposed the succession of the Roman Catholic duke of York (King James II). “The name, originally a term of abuse first used for Scottish Presbyterians in the 17th century, seems to have been a shortened form of whiggamor [cattle driver]. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Whigs were joined by many Tories, assured a Protestant succession and the constitutional supremacy of Parliament over the king. [A] Whig party gradually emerged [in the 18th century. which] became identified with dissent, industrial interests, and social and parliamentary reform. [In the mid-19th century] the Whigs became a part of the rising Liberal party, in which they constituted the conservative element” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). By dismissing “Whig historians” in the preface, Shaw is perhaps indicating that the partys roots in Protestantism have obscured such historians understanding of Joans medieval, Roman Catholic world.
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement, whose cry of “Back to the Middle Ages” Shaw to some degree seems to endorse (or at least with which he seems to sympathize to some extent), refers to that association of “painters and poets formed in 1848 in protest against the low standards of British art” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia), who looked to the state and style of Italian painting before Raphael (1483-1520) for guidance and inspiration.
The Armagnacs were a French faction during the Hundred Years War allied with Charles (the Dauphin); their enemies, the Burgundians, had Charles father, Louis the Duke of Orleans, assassinated in 1407.
Rosa Bonheur, French painter (1822-99), specialized in painting animals. “George Sand” was the pen name of Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, (1804-76). “She demanded for women the freedom in living that was a matter of course to the men of her day” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia).
“Quicherat” is the French historian who, “inspired by the example of Michelet, who had just written an admirable work on Joan of Arc, published the text of the two trials of Joan, adding much contemporary evidence on her heroism in his Proces de condamnation et de rehabilitation de Jeanne dArc (5 vols. 1841-1849), as well as half a volume of Apercus nouveaux sur lhistoire de Jeanne dArc, in which it seems that the last word has been said on important points” (1911 Encyclopedia Britannica).
“[T]he pretender who subsequently personated [Joan] at Orleans.” Many people claimed to be Joan after the Maid was burned at the stake. The most famous is Jeanne de Armoises, who in 1436 supposedly convinced Joans own brothers that she was their sister. She gained access to King Charles before confessing her falsehood.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a leading British advocate for womens rights (1858-1928), particularly the right to vote, thus leading to the term “Suffragette.” Her groups motto was “Deeds, not Words,” reflecting her acceptance of violence as a means for creating change. The “Peculiar People” was a term “applied to numerous Protestant dissenting sects such as the Plumstead peculiars. This group, founded in London in 1838 by John Banyard, refused medical treatment as an article of faith” (Columbia Electronic Encylopedia).
The dogma of papal infallibility claims, not that the Pope is always without error, but that, when the pontiff is speaking ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”), with an intent to bind the whole Church by his decision, his statement is guaranteed, by virtue of Jesus promise to Peter, to be infallible, or without error. Only two such papal statements have been issued: Pius IXs definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854, and Pius XIIs definition of the Assumption of Mary in 1950. Since only one of these statements had been issued by the time Shaw wrote his preface, he is quite justified in calling the dogma of papal infallibility “by far the most modest pretension of the kind in existence”-far more modest, Shaw seems to say, than the claims of modern science, medicine, and technology.
Tout comprendre, cest tout pardoner: To understand is to forgive.
“Ibsen” refers to Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Norwegian dramatist and poet. “As a man far in advance of his times, Ibsen was condemned for unveiling truths which society preferred to keep hidden. Ibsen rebelled against societys conventions through which the perpetuation of empty traditions restricts all intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth” (Columbia Electronic Encylcopedia). Judging from the preface, readers can infer that Shaw felt some sympathy with Ibsen. Like his Norwegian counterpart, Shaw believed in drama and literature as forces for change, and in their creators as “visualizers” not unlike Joan herself.