Image: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted ‘Joan of Arc on Coronation of Charles VII in the Cathedral of Reims’ in 1854. The painting is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Credit: Public domain
In William Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI Part 1, a major character is Joan of Arc. She’s an astounding female role, full of strength, and even out fencing the King. She challenges Talbot, achieves military victory, and leads much of the play’s plot providing one of the few plays where the English aren’t the star performers. This play is decidedly about the French and tells an interesting tale about the cultural perspective held by Shakespeare’s contemporaries concerning Joan of Arc. Why does Shakespeare call her “Joan La Pucelle” instead of the name Joan of Arc? It was interesting that the dramatis personae (the list of characters) called her Joan La Pucelle, and yet she’s referred to as “Joan of Arc” in the text.
Which lead me to ask: Why did Shakespeare NOT call her Joan of Arc?
First, let’s look at what’s going on:
In the 15th century, there was a big debate in France over whether the treaty between Henry V and Charles VI should stand as valid. Charles VII thought he should get to be king, Henry VI was King of France legally because of the treaty. Charles was challenging the legality of the treaty, so people in France were split in their loyalties. Joan d’Arc felt Charles was rightful and wanted to run the English out. She was just a random peasant girl with strong political opinions and an unheard of amount of personal ambition. She also claimed to be inspired by God. Many of the military conquests she achieved stand as miraculous indeed.
Her mother’s name was Isabelle Romee, and there are conflicting accounts as to the spelling of her father’s name. Researcher Nora Heimann notes in her book “Joan of Arc in French Art and Culture” (Ashgate Publishing, 2005) that her father’s name has been recorded with various spellings, including “Jacob d’Arc,” “Jaqes d’Arc,” “Jacques Tarc” and “Jacques Darc.”
While the last name “Arc” is what she is called today Joan didn’t use that name on campaign, preferring to be called “la Pucelle.” La Pucelle means “The Maid,” which is one reason she’s also known as The Maid of Orleans.
She started hearing voices at the age of 13, recounting at her trial that the first time she heard them was in her family’s garden. “The voice came from the right, from the direction of the church, and was accompanied by a bright light,” she said. The ringing of church bells would sometimes trigger them. She always claimed she was inspired by God, sent to do God’s work by ridding France of the English. It should be noted in her defense that the trial which found her guilty and executed her was a shambles. Charles VII, on his personal order, had her investigation re-examined and she was posthumously acquitted.
In 1428, her village was attacked by Anglo-Burgundian forces and her family fled, returning after the attack was over. After this, she left home for the last time, going to Vaucouleurs and eventually persuading a reluctant local official named Robert de Baudricourt to give her an escort to take her to see Charles VII at his castle at Chinon.
Jehanne la Pucelle was the phrase Joan used at her trial. It’s been suggested that Joan of Arc is what happens when the English try to translate French. In her trial, Joan referred to herself only as “Jehanne la Pucelle” (“Joan the Maid”) and initially testified that she didn’t know her last name. I think she was unsure of how to respond to the question of last name because naming in England followed a different system than in France and she did not want to be seen as a liar. Later in her trial, Joan explained that her father was called Jacques d’Arc and her mother Isabelle Romée, adding that in her hometown daughters often took their mothers’ surnames. In medieval France, where family names were neither fixed nor widely used, “Romée” simply designated a person who had made a pilgrimage to Rome or another religiously significant destination; other sources suggest that Joan’s mother went by Isabelle de Vouthon.
So, as you can see, it’s incredibly difficult to bring a French maid from the country into the early modern theater and give her a proper name, since names in general were up for grabs and the French didn’t follow English rules, anyway. Therefore, Shakespeare went with her English name, or the name the English had begun to call her, so that the audience would understand who he was referencing. Ironically, it’s that very phrase which keeps modern audiences from fully understanding the characters in this play without needing further study.
“Joan La Pucelle” was a mashup of the several phrases used to address the Maid of Orleans and appears to be Shakespeare’s attempt at establishing her “formal name,” using “of Arc” informally as part of the dialogue, or a kind of nickname.
In Act II, Scene 2, Talbot declares:
“But, lords, in all our bloody massacre,
I muse we met not with the Dauphin’s grace,
His new-come champion, virtuous Joan of Arc,
Nor any of his false confederates.”
And later, Joan La Pucelle is given the lines:
You judge it straight a thing impossible
To compass wonders but by help of devils.
No, misconceived! Joan of Arc hath been
A virgin from her tender infancy,
Chaste and immaculate in very thought;
Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused,
Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.
_ Act V, Scene 4, making a final stand at her execution.
Of course, we know from history that Jehanne La Pucelle never referred to herself as Joan of Arc, and indeed that phrase was never applied to her person until well after her death. But we can tell by Shakespeare’s use of this phrase that Joan of Arc was the popular phraseology used to describe Jehanne La Pucelle by the time he was writing Henry VI Part 1 in England in the late 1590s, but it seems popular opinion was also close enough to her memory to connect the Maid of Orleans with the phrase “La Pucelle” as well (unlike modern audiences that likely had to–like me–look up what that meant.)
In case you would like to study Joan of Arc, and the history of Henry VI Part 1, further, here are some articles you might enjoy:
History of Joan of Arc
“Joan herself never heard the name «Jeanne d’Arc». As a general rule, in the fifteenth century, people used only forenames, adding a place name (of a residence or of origin) and only occasionally surnames. […] she called herself «Jeanne la Pucelle» (Joan the Maid). La Pucelle was her chosen surname; she gloried in this epithet, declaring castity the sign of her mission…The expression “Maid of Orléans” first made in appearance in the sixteenth century. The first great biography of Joan, that of Edmond Richer, appeared in 1630 with the title Histoire de Jeanne, la Pucelle d’Orléans”
- Joan of Arc, Her Story, Régine Pernoud and Marie-Véronique Clin,
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