How Legend Constructs French National Identity: Jeanne d’Arc
By Stephanie Louise Coker
PhD Dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2007
Abstract: Since the fifteenth century, French authors have (re)told the story of Jeanne d’Arc. There is a sense of timelessness that accompanies her reception by the French public. In this transhistorical study, I look at Jeanne’s legend in light of four centuries and reveal how French authors (re)appropriate the Maid for their own political purposes. Along with the timeliness of Jeanne’s appearance, I investigate the gendered nature of her depictions. In short, I examine how Jeanne’s legend constructs, reconstructs, and deconstructs French national identity.
In 1429, Christine de Pisan composes Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc, a poem that celebrates her contemporary in fifteenth-century France. Pisan’s poem appears near the end of the Hundred Years War when France is occupied by the English. During this period, the people doubted Charles VII’s legitimacy and the French monarchy was in danger. As the different factions within France begin to join forces, the new nation of France is born.
In seventeenth-century France, the monarchy gains prestige as Louis XIV will soon take the throne. In 1642, François Hédelin d’Aubignac penned the drama La Pucelle d’Orléans, in which he depicts the Maid as an eloquent rhetorician who commands the courtroom. In this period of Absolutism, d’Aubignac’s Jeanne parallels the king.
During the Age of Reason, Voltaire writes his mock epic La Pucelle d’Orléans (1762) in which he questions Jeanne’s purity. This scandalous work offers a political commentary, advising the gullible French public to question the established institutions—namely, the monarchy and the Church. Voltaire’s epic anticipates one of the greatest national turning points for France: the revolution.
In the twentieth century, France endures German occupation in World War II. Jean Anouilh’s drama L’Alouette (1953) offers a postwar commentary on the state of France as they must rebuild French national identity after the Liberation. In a period when Absurdist theatre emerged, Anouilh’s play reflects the absurdity of war. The author writes a masculine hero and champions the individual: true to himself and responsible for his own actions.