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Clio's Temple

An inconvenient heroine

On this day in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, thus belatedly undoing the nefarious role of Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, in her condemnation. "Justice delayed is justice denied," one anonymous commentator has noted. It was certainly delayed in her case; she was burned in 1431. In fact, the church had already semi-officially recognized her position of particular honor in France, when it approved the placement of her statue (along with St. Louis) over the entrance to the Sacré Coeur. In fact, France had been the object of some disapproving glances from the Vatican ever since the Revolution. It doesn't stretch credulity too far to note that Joan's canonization may have been an effort to anchor the position of the church in the hearts of Frenchmen. Certainly the ordeal of France from 1914 to 1918 was arguably the most trying time since the Hundred Years' War.

Still, Joan may be an inconvenient heroine for the French. She emerged from provincial obscurity just at the moment when France was nearly prostrate from war and internecine strife, with the rightful king (in her eyes) declared a bastard by his own father. Fourteen years before she famously picked Charles VII out of a mob of courtiers, France's nobility had led its armies to disaster at Agincourt. It should have inspired humility in the hearts of its great families that a peasant girl could revive the spirits of a nation. Any such sentiments were short-lived.

The fact that France had prevailed in the Great War and was unquestionably victorious may have inspired the church's belated homage to the Maid of Orléans.  Austria-Hungary, the church's favored child in the recently-ended war, had broken apart. Italy was still in bad odor with the church because of its forcible seizure of Rome in 1870. Perhaps the church believed that the "eldest daughter of the Church" could still be won back to its traditional allegiances by honoring France's favorite daughter as a saint.

I can recall seeing Joan's gilded statue in the heart of Paris adorned with wreaths and bouquets on the anniversary of her death in 1974. The floral offerings had special messages, most of which beseeched Joan's assistance for France in its troubles. That was something even Frenchmen of skeptical disposition could appreciate. Perhaps it's only in times of great trial that most of us can appreciate the contributions of the humble, even of the non-heroic. If they in their times could do it, why can't we?

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