FRANCE

Rouen

Voices From Her Age Recreate Joan of Arc’s Story

Entrance to Rouen’s Historial Jeanne d’Arc in rue Saint-Romain, north side of Cathédrale de Notre-Dame

The entrance to Rouen’s Historial Jeanne d’Arc is in narrow rue Saint-Romain, running along the north side of the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

Until 2015, if you wanted to learn about Joan of Arc in Rouen, the city 125 kilometres northwest of Paris where she was burnt at the stake on 30 May 1431, you had to be satisfied with the privately run Musée Jeanne d’Arc, described by the Rough Guide to Normandy & Brittany as a “collection of tawdry waxworks and facsimile manuscripts…in an ancient cellar in the back of a gift shop.” The best thing the museum had going for it was its location: on the Place du Vieux-Marché, where Joan died.

In that year a competitor emerged: Historial Jeanne d’Arc. It, too, had a location with appropriate historic frissons: the archbishop’s palace where Joan was tried and condemned to death for heresy. It also had a lot more money behind it—enough to restore great chunks of the palace, which had largely fallen to ruin during the 19th century; and to rig up impressive audio and visual storytelling aids.

The Historial uses the transcript from the 1456 retrial of Joan—which also took place in the archbishop’s palace—to bring the Maid of Orléans to life, putting the words of some of the 128 people who testified during it into the mouths of actors whose faces are projected onto modern scrims and ancient walls in the rooms the visitor enters.

It begins in the palace’s 12th-century Romanesque crypt with neighbours recalling Joan as a girl, moves on to tell how she began to hear the voices of saints, which led her to leave home at 17 and find the future King Charles VII, then still the dauphin, and offer her help in fighting the English, who were besieging the town of Orléans.

Astonishingly, she convinced the dauphin to put her in charge of his army and then, even more remarkably, she raised the siege and won a string of victories against the English that culminated in Charles being crowned king in the newly liberated town of Rheims.

The Historial moves quickly through Joan’s capture by the English-supporting Duke of Burgundy in 1430, skips over the machinations of the Earl of Warwick to have Joan sentenced to death and the failure of the clay-footed Charles to save her, focusing instead on her trial, where visitors stand surrounded by screens that fill with flames once the verdict is issued.

While it’s a pity the exhibition doesn’t do more to explain the politics that led to Joan’s death, it does have two rooms that look at her rich and varied after-life. She’s been used as a feminist icon, but also by Vichy France to rally the French to fight the English in the Second World War. She’s starred in films and plays, had her face on chocolate boxes and cheese wrappers and, after her 1920 canonization, became the patron saint of France.

The 1456 retrial, ordered by Charles as a face-saver years after he’s retaken Rouen, acquitted Joan. The Musée Jeanne d’Arc has closed.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Historical Jeanne d’Arc visit its website at www.historial-jeannedarc.fr.

For information on Rouen go to the Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès website at www.rouentourisme.com.