Very few people know that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a major work on Joan of Arc. Still fewer know that he considered it not only his most important but also his best work. He spent twelve years in research and many months in France doing archival work and then made several attempts until he felt he finally had the story he wanted to tell. He reached his conclusion about Joan's unique place in history only after studying in detail accounts written by both sides, the French and the English.
Because of Mark Twain's antipathy to institutional religion, one might expect an anti-Catholic bias toward Joan or at least toward the bishops and theologians who condemned her. Instead one finds a remarkably accurate biography of the life and mission of Joan of Arc told by one of this country's greatest storytellers.
“ I like Joan of
Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me
seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”
— Mark Twain
Mark Twain : Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
(Chapters 30 -33)
When the morning broke at last on that for ever memorable 18th of June, there was no enemy discoverable anywhere, as I have said. But that did not trouble me. I knew we should find him, and that we should strike him; strike him the promised blow - the one from which the English power in France would not rise up in a thousand years, as Joan had said in her trance.
The enemy had plunged into the wide plains of La Beauce - a roadless waste covered with bushes, with here and there bodies of forest trees - a region where an army would be hidden from view in a very little while. We found the trail in the soft wet earth and followed it. It indicated an orderly march; no confusion, no panic.
But we had to be cautious. In such a piece of country we could walk into an ambush without any trouble. Therefore Joan sent bodies of cavalry ahead under La Hire, Poton, and other captains, to feel the way. Some of the other officers began to show uneasiness; this sort of hide-and-go-seek business troubled them and made their confidence a little shaky. Joan divined their state of mind and cried out impetuously:
‘Name of god, what would you? We must smite these English, and we will. They shall not escape us. Though they were hung to the clouds we would get them!’
By-and-by we were nearing Patay; it was about a league away. Now at this time our reconnaissance, feeling its way in the bush, frightened a deer, and it went bounding away and was out of sight in a moment. Then hardly a minute later a dull great shout went up in the distance toward Patay. It was the English soldiery. They had been shut up in garrison so long on mouldy food that they could not keep their delight to themselves when this fine fresh meat came springing into their midst. Poor creature, it had wrought damage to a nation which loved it well. For the French knew where the English were, now, whereas the English had no suspicion of where the French were.
La Hire halted where he was, and sent back the tidings. Joan was radiant with joy. The Duke d’Alençon said to her:
‘Very well, we have found them; shall we fight them?’
‘Have you good spurs, Prince?’
‘Why? Will they make us run away?’
‘Nenni, en nom de Dieu! These English are ours - they are lost. They will fly. Who overtakes them will need good spurs. Forward - close up!’
By the time we had come up with La Hire the English had discovered our presence. Talbot’s force was marching in three bodies. First his advance-guard; then his artillery; then his battle corps a good way in the rear. He was now out of the bush and in a fair open country. He at once posted his artillery, his advance-guard, and five hundred picked archers along some hedges where the French would be obliged to pass, and hoped to hold this position till his battle corps could come up. Sir John Fastolfe urged the battle corps into a gallop. Joan saw her opportunity and ordered La Hire to advance - which La Hire promptly did, launching his wild riders like a storm-wind, his customary fashion.
The Duke and the Bastard wanted to follow, but Joan said:
‘Not yet - wait.’
So they waited - impatiently, and fidgeting in their saddles. But she was steady - gazing straight before her, measuring, weighing, calculating - by shades, minutes, fractions of minutes, seconds -with all her great soul present, in eye, and set of head, and noble pose of body - but patient, steady, master of herself - master of herself and of the situation.
And yonder, receding, receding, plumes lifting and falling, lifting and falling, streamed the thundering charge of La Hire’s godless crew, La Hire’s great figure dominating it and his sword aloft like a flag-staff.
‘O Satan and his Hellions, see them go!’ Somebody muttered it in deep admiration.
And now he was closing up, closing up on Fastolfe’s rushing corps.
And now he struck it - struck it hard, and broke its order. It lifted the Duke and the Bastard in their saddles to see it; and they turned, trembling with excitement, to Joan, saying:
But she put up her hand, still gazing, weighing, calculating, and said again:
‘Wait - not yet.’
Fastolfe’s hard-driven battle corps raged on like an avalanche toward the waiting advance-guard. Suddenly these conceived the idea that it was flying in panic before Joan; and so in that instant it broke and swarmed away in a mad panic itself, with Talbot storming and cursing after it.
Now was the golden time. Joan drove her spurs home and waved the advance with her sword. 'Follow me!’ she cried, and bent her head to her horse’s neck and sped away like the wind!
We swept down into the confusion of that flying rout, and for three long hours we cut and hacked and stabbed. At last the bugles sang ‘Halt!’
The Battle of Patay was won.
Joan of Arc dismounted, and stood surveying that awful field, lost in thought. Presently she said:
‘The praise is to God. He has smitten with a heavy hand this day.’ After a little she lifted her face, and looking afar off, said, with the manner of one who is thinking aloud, ‘In a thousand years - a thousand years - the English power in France will not rise up from this blow.’ She stood again a time, thinking, then she turned toward her grouped generals, and there was a glory in her face and a noble light in her eye; and she said:
‘O friends, friends, do you know? - do you comprehend? France is on the way to be free!’
‘And had never been, but for Joan of Arc!’ said La Hire, passing before her and bowing low, the others following and doing likewise; he muttering as he went, ‘I will say it though I be damned for it.’ Then battalion after battalion of our victorious army swung by, wildly cheering. And they shouted ‘Live for ever, Maid of Orleans, live for ever!’ while Joan, smiling, stood at the salute with her sword.
This was not the last time I saw the Maid of Orleans on the red field of Patay. Toward the end of the day I came upon her where the dead and dying lay stretched all about in heaps and winrows; our men had mortally wounded an English prisoner who was too poor to pay a ransom, and from a distance she had seen that cruel thing done; and had galloped to the place and sent for a priest, and now she was holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, and easing him to his death with comforting soft words, just as his sister might have done; and the womanly tears running down her face all the time.
Joan had said true: France was on the way to be free.
The war called the Hundred Years’ War was very sick today. Sick on its English side - for the very first time since its birth, ninety-one years gone by.
Shall we judge battles by the numbers killed and the ruin wrought? Or shall we not rather judge them by the results which flowed from them? Any one will say that a battle is only truly great or small according to its results. Yes, any one will grant that, for it is the truth.
Judged by results, Patay’s place is with the few supremely great and imposing battles that have been fought since the peoples of the world first resorted to arms for the settlement of their quarrels. So judged, it is even possible that Patay has no peer among that few just mentioned, but stands alone, as the supremest of historic conflicts. For when it began France lay gasping out of the remnant of an exhausted life, her case wholly hopeless in the view of all political physicians; when it ended, three hours later, she was convalescent. Convalescent, and nothing requisite but time and ordinary nursing to bring her back to perfect health. The dullest physician of them all could see this, and there was none to deny it.
Many death-sick nations have reached convalescence through a series of battles, a procession of battles, a weary tale of wasting conflicts stretching over years; but only one has reached it in a single day and by a single battle. That nation is France, and that battle Patay.
Remember it and be proud of it; for you are French, and it is the stateliest fact in the long annals of your country. There it stands, with its head in the clouds! And when you grow up you will go on pilgrimage to the field of Patay, and stand uncovered in the presence of - what? A monument with its head in the clouds? Yes. For all nations in all times have built monuments on their battle-fields to keep green the memory of the perishable deed that was wrought there and of the perishable name of him who wrought it; and will France neglect Patay and Joan of Arc? Not for long. And will she build a monument scaled to their rank as compared with the world’s other fields and heroes? Perhaps - if there be room for it under the arch of the sky.
But let us look back a little, and consider certain strange and impressive facts. The Hundred Years’ War began in 1337. It raged on and on, year after year and year after year; and at last England stretched France prone with that fearful blow at Crécy. But she rose and struggled on year after year, and at last again she went down under another devastating blow - Poitiers. She gathered her crippled strength once more, and the war raged on, and on and still on, year after year, decade after decade. Children were born, grew up, married, died - the war raged on; their children in turn grew up, married, died - the war raged on; their children, growing saw France struck down again; this time under the incredible disaster of Agincourt - and still the war raged on, year after year, and in time these children married in their turn.
France was a wreck, a ruin, a desolation. The half of it belonged to England, with none to dispute or deny the truth; the other half belonged to nobody - in three months would be flying the English flag: the French King was making ready to throw away his crown and flee beyond the seas.
Now came the ignorant country maid out of her remote village and confronted this hoary war, this all-consuming conflagration that had swept the land for three generations. Then began the briefest and most amazing campaign that is recorded in history. In seven weeks it was finished. In seven weeks she hopelessly crippled that gigantic war that was ninety-one years old. At Orleans she struck it a staggering blow; on the field of Patay she broke its back.
Think of it. Yes, one can do that; but understand it? Ah, that is another matter; none will ever be able to comprehend that stupefying marvel.
Seven weeks - with here and there a little bloodshed. Perhaps the most of it, in any single fight, at Patay, where the English began six thousand strong and left two thousand dead upon the field. It is said and believed that in three battles alone - Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt - near a hundred thousand Frenchmen fell, without counting the thousand other fights of that long war. The dead of that war make a mournful long list - an interminable list. Of men slain in the field the count goes by tens of thousand; of innocent women and children slain by bitter hardship and hunger, it goes by that appalling term, millions.
It was an ogre, that war; an ogre that went about for near a hundred years, crunching men and dripping blood from his jaws. And with her little hand that child of seventeen struck him down; and yonder he lies stretched on the field of Patay, and will not get up any more while this old world lasts.
The great news of Patay was carried over the whole of France in twenty hours, people said. I do not know as to that; but one thing is sure, anyway: the moment a man got it he flew shouting and glorifying God and told his neighbour; and that neighbour flew with it to the next homestead; and so on and so on, without resting, the word travelled; and when a man got it in the night, at what hour soever, he jumped out of his bed and bore the blessed message along. And the joy that went with it was like the light that flows across the land when an eclipse is receding from the face of the sun; and indeed you may say that France had lain in an eclipse this long time; yes buried in a black gloom which these beneficent tidings were sweeping away, now, before the onrush of their white splendour.
The news beat the flying enemy to Yeuville, and the town rose against its English masters and shut the gates against their brethren. It flew to Mont Pipeau, to Saint-Simon, and to this, that, and the other English fortress; and straightway the garrison applied the torch and took to the fields and the woods. A detachment of our army occupied Meung and pillaged it.
When we reached Orleans that town was as much as fifty times insaner with joy than we had ever seen it before - which is saying much. Night had just fallen, and the illuminations were on so wonderful a scale that we seemed to plough through seas of fire; and as to the noise - the hoarse cheering of the multitude, the thundering of cannon, the clash of bells - indeed there was never anything like it. And everywhere rose a new cry that burst upon us like a storm when the column entered the gates, and nevermore ceased: ‘Welcome to Joan of Arc - way for the SAVIOUR OF FRANCE!’ And there was another cry: ‘Crécy is avenged! Poitiers is avenged! Agincourt is avenged! - Patay shall live for ever!’
Mad? Why, you never could imagine it in this world. The prisoners were in the centre of the column. When that came along and the people caught sight of their masterful old enemy Talbot, that had made them dance so long to his grim war-music, you may imagine what the uproar was like if you can, for I cannot describe it. They were so glad to see him that presently they wanted to have him out and hang him; so Joan had him brought up to the front to ride in her protection. They made a striking pair.
Yes, Orleans was in a delirium of felicity. She invited the King, and made sumptuous preparations to receive him, but - he didn’t come. He was simply a serf at that time, and La Tremouille was his master. Master and serf were visiting together at the master’s castle of Sully-sur-Loire.
At Beaugency Joan had engaged to bring about a reconciliation between the Constable Richemont and the King. She took Richemont to Sully-sur-Loire and made her promise good.
The great deeds of Joan of Arc are five:
The Raising of the Siege.
The Victory of Patay.
The Reconciliation at Sully-sur-Loire.
The Coronation of the King.
We shall come to the Bloodless March presently (and the Coronation). It was the victorious long march which Joan made through the enemy’s country from Gien to Rheims, and thence to the gates of Paris, capturing every English town and fortress that barred the road, from the beginning of the journey to the end of it, and this by the mere force of her name, and without shedding a drop of blood - perhaps the most extraordinary campaign in this regard in history - this is the most glorious of her military exploits.
The Reconciliation was one of Joan’s most important achievements. No one else could have accomplished it; and in fact no one else of high consequence had any disposition to try. In brains, in scientific warfare, and in statesmanship the Constable Richemont was the ablest man in France. His loyalty was sincere; his probity was above suspicion - (and it made him sufficiently conspicuous in that trivial and conscienceless Court).
In restoring Richemont to France, Joan made thoroughly secure the successful completion of the great work which she had begun. She had never seen Richemont until he came to her with his little army. Was it not wonderful that at a glance she should know him for the one man who could finish and perfect her work and establish it in perpetuity? How was it that that child was able to do this? It was because she had the ‘seeing eye,’ as one of our knights had once said. Yes, she had that great gift - almost the highest and rarest that has been granted to man. Nothing of an extraordinary sort was still to be done, yet the remaining work could not safely be left to the King’s idiots; for it would require wise statesmanship and long and patient though desultory hammering of the enemy. Now and then, for a quarter of a century yet, there would be a little fighting to do, and a handy man could carry that on with small disturbance to the rest of the country; and little by little, and with progressive certainty, the English would disappear from France.
And that happened. Under the influence of Richemont the King became at a later time a man - a man, a king, a brave and capable and determined soldier. Within six years after Patay he was leading storming parties himself; fighting in fortress ditches up to his waist in water, and climbing scaling-ladders under a furious fire with a pluck that would have satisfied even Joan of Arc. In time he and Richemont cleared away all the English; even from regions where the people had been under their mastership for three hundred years. In such regions wise and careful work was necessary, for the English rule had been fair and kindly; and men who have been ruled in that way are not always anxious for a change.
Which of Joan’s five chief deeds shall we call the chiefest? It is my thought that each in its turn was that, this is saying that, taken as a whole, they equalised each other, and neither was then greater than its mate.
Do you perceive? Each was a stage in an ascent. To leave out one of them would defeat the journey; to achieve one of them at the wrong time and in the wrong place would have the same effect.
Consider the Coronation. As a masterpiece of diplomacy, where can you find its superior in history? Did the King suspect its vast importance? No. Did his ministers? No. Did the astute Bedford, representative of the English crown? No. An advantage of incalculable importance was here under the eyes of the King and of Bedford; the King could get it by a bold stroke, Bedford could get it without an effort; but being ignorant of its value, neither of them put forth his hand. Of all the wise people in high office in France, only one knew the priceless worth of this neglected prize - the untaught child of seventeen, Joan of Arc - and she had known it from the beginning, had spoken of it from the beginning as an essential detail of her mission.
How did she know it? It is simple: she was a peasant. That tells the whole story. She was of the people and knew the people; those others moved in a loftier sphere and knew nothing much about them. We make little account of that vague, formless, inert mass, that mighty underlying force which we call ‘the people’ - an epithet which carries contempt with it. It is a strange attitude; for at bottom we know that the throne which the people support, stands, and that when that support is removed, nothing in this world can save it.
Now, then, consider this fact, and observe its importance. Whatever the parish priest believes, his flock believe; they love him, they revere him; he is their unfailing friend, their dauntless protector, their comforter in sorrow, their helper in their day of need; he has their whole confidence; what he tells them to do, that they will do, with a blind and affectionate obedience, let it cost what it may. Add these facts thoughtfully together, and what is the sum? This: The parish priest governs the nation. What is the king, then, if the parish priest withdraw his support and deny his authority? Merely a shadow and no king; let him resign.
Do you get that idea? Then let us proceed. A priest is consecrated to his office by the awful hand of God, laid upon him by His appointed representative on earth. That consecration is final; nothing can undo it, nothing can remove it. Neither the Pope nor any other power can strip the priest of his office; God gave it, and it is for ever sacred and secure. The dull parish knows all this. To priest and parish, whosoever is anointed of God bears an office whose authority can no longer be disputed or assailed. To the parish priest, and to his subjects the nation, an uncrowned king is a similitude of a person who has been named for holy orders but has not been consecrated; he has no office, he has not been ordained, another may be appointed in his place. In a word, an uncrowned king is a doubtful king; but if God appoint him and His servant the bishop anoint him, the doubt is annihilated, the priest and the parish are his loyal subjects straightway, and while he lives they will recognise no king but him.
To Joan of Arc the peasant girl, Charles VII was no King until he was crowned; to her he was only the Dauphin; that is to say, the heir. If I have ever made her call him King, it was a mistake; she called him the Dauphin, and nothing else until after the Coronation. It shows you as in a mirror - for Joan was a mirror in which the lowly hosts of France were clearly reflected - that to all that vast underlying force called ‘the people’ he was no King but only Dauphin before his crowning, and was indisputably and irrevocably King after it.
Now you understand what a colossal move on the political chessboard the Coronation was. Bedford realised this by-and-by, and tried to patch up his mistake by crowning his King; but what good could that do? None in the world.
Speaking of chess, Joan’s great acts may be likened to that game. Each move was made in its proper order, and it was great and effective because it was made in its proper order and not out of it. Each, at the time made, seemed the greatest move; but the final result made them all recognisable as equally essential and equally important. This is the game, as played:
Joan moves Orleans and Patay - check.
Then moves the Reconciliation - but does not proclaim check, it being a move for position, and to take effect later.
Next she moves the Coronation - check.
Next, the Bloodless March - check.
Final move (after her death) the reconciled Constable Richemont to the French King’s elbow - checkmate.