Girl Warrior: Breaking Away With Joan of Arc
If Joan of Arc had graduated from high school in the U.S. in 2009, her favorite pop song would have been "Break Away" (Kelly Clarkson). That's what I thought when I arrived in her hometown, Domrémy-la-Pucelle, and glimpsed her house. This village of one hundred and fifteen in eastern France is hardly bustling; it includes houses, a town hall, post office, bar-restaurant, and a few shops, most selling souvenirs of "La Pucelle"--the Maid, or Virgin. When Joan was born in 1412, Domrémy's population was larger than it is now, but not by much. It's a hamlet, really, sleeping quietly alongside the Meuse River, in a valley of rolling hills. From the time she could dream, I just knew, Joan wanted to--she had to--break away. And boy, did she ever.
I had long anticipated my three-week journey to France, where I planned to follow Joan in her footsteps. Only one thing was not cooperating: my right hip, which felt like it was on fire. I'd be walking a lot in France, and unlike Joan, I did not have a horse at my disposal. I'd sprained my ankle three months previously, but that wasn't the real problem. Lurching around like the Bride of Frankenstein in an orthotic boot, that's what had done me in. It turns out that if you don't wear a shoe of the exact height as your boot you can do some real harm. If I was lucky, I'd be limping around France, following Joan as best I could.
Fortunately, I found an inspirational physical therapist who assured me that I'd be better in no time, and she was almost right. Still, in bed at night and in the morning, especially, my hip badgered and bedeviled me. I'm fifty-nine years old, so I know the deal: nothing lasts forever. This, however, this was wrong, and the world owed me relief. "No," my gentle therapist whispered, "The world doesn't owe you anything. Here, take this list of exercises, this enormous rubber band, and get to work." Every morning, while the oatmeal bubbled, I did the yoga pose she said would help the most, the Warrior--one leg straight, the other raised backwards high in the air, arms straight out forward, lean forward, straight, and reach for the horizon! In my mind, it was the Warrior Woman pose. I leaned over and almost dunked my nose in the oatmeal; back away from the fire, I told myself, self-immolation will get you nowhere.
I arrived in the town of Neufchâteau on a cloudy day. I was in the Grand Est region of France, in the Vosges Department, the closest I could come by train to Joan's hometown. I'd seen on the internet that the 515 Bus was the one to catch to Domrémy, eighteen miles away. No problem, except that the 515 did not exist, and according to the station agent never had. I found out later that most French people have, in fact, no interest in visiting Domrémy; the tourists who do go there, mostly for religious reasons, do so in organized groups with private coaches. I was on my own, like Joan; unlike Joan, I hailed a taxi.
My hostel room at the basilica outside Domrémy--built in the 1880s to commemorate Joan--resembled a monastic cell. It was spartan, very clean, and quiet above all, especially since I was the only lodger. The large windows in my room opened onto the valley of the Meuse, the river that Joan must have explored with the other children of Domrémy. Unlike the other children, though, she was, I just knew, determined to follow any river or road out of Domrémy. From my window, I could also see the infamous "Fairy Wood," where Joan first heard voices urging her to leave Domrémy and save France from the English.
Joan's house still stands in Domrémy, although we don't know how much of it is original. The museum on one side of the house has wonderful displays about the life of the young girl, who left the village at age seventeen. There you learn that since Joan's family home was on a main thoroughfare, at a crossroads, travelers from the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere were often invited inside to rest and tell tales. Young Joan listened to these, no doubt, and learned that the Kingdom of France was in danger of being annexed by England, with the help of the Burgundians, French-speaking enemies of the French crown. Joan must have dreamed of donning armor and riding off on a horse to save her realm. But she also dreamed of travel for travel's sake, I decided, and this led her to interpret the voices she heard as saying, "Joan, you deserve a more interesting life. A life with action and anticipation, tall buildings and dancehalls, mountains to climb and rivers to ford, risk and romance--the latter strictly in the old sense, meaning adventure." "Me? But I am only a girl," Joan replied to the saints. "You are not only a girl, Joan, you are a Girl Warrior," was surely their response.
What a warrior she was! Joan traveled to about twenty-five towns and villages during her journey (I visited eight of these after Domrémy), mostly to lift sieges and do battle. She led the young dauphin Charles to Rheims Cathedral at one point, where he was crowned Charles VII. When it was more politically expedient to abandon her than support her, Charles did just that, and Joan was tried as a heretic and a witch. At the age of nineteen, she was burned at the stake in Rouen, two hundred and ninety miles from her hometown. Joan was "rehabilitated" in 1456, but it wasn't until the nineteenth century that she became a national heroine of France (she was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920.)
Joan's mother was also, apparently, a traveler. Surnamed "La Romée"--"a woman who has done the pilgrimage to Rome," we might assume that she inspired her young daughter, whose life was short but whose actions had long effect.
I'm not a very religious person, so it might seem strange that I believe Joan healed me, but I do. There was my hip, yes, and all the walking I did in France actually did heal it. But there was also my soul--my restless nature needed a trip like this, a journey through towns, but also through a significant, troubled, and ultimately astounding era of history, as I followed a Girl Warrior on her quest to save a kingdom, and returned to Cleveland, Ohio, inspired. I still do the Woman Warrior pose every morning, but I've renamed it. I'm a Girl Warrior, posing in memory of Joan.
©2019 by Marie Lathers