Sunday, December 28, 2003

Joan of Arc posthumously deconstructed

When the French government invited an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in forensic reconstruction to look at some bones in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Clery, they gained some knowledge but lost a martyr. Doctor Serhiy Horbenko believes he has found plasible evidence to suggest that the martyrdom of Joan of Arc - "one of the defining moments in the French national psyche" - actually involved a different woman.

The surgeon, invited by the French authorities to study the skulls of the French King Louis XI and his wife, has suggested that with the English armies threatening the French throne, the monarchy needed a miracle and their supporters concocted one.

He said: "I believe that a group of nobles thought up the plan, in a time when people were deeply religious and believed in miracles, to influence the French people and armies and to demoralise the English. They wanted a woman sent by God to defend France and to legitimise the Dauphin's claim to the throne."

He said that the person who was chosen to play the role of saviour - always ascribed to Joan - was in fact a noblewoman called Marguerite de Valois, the illegitimate daughter of the previous monarch Charles VI.

Horbenko believes that Marguerite de Valois performed her role much better than anyone expected, so much so that she was perceived as a threat to the French throne. History and legend are full of people who were too 'noble' to kill but too dangerous to ignore (think 'the man in the iron mask'); Horbenko believes that Marguerite was essentially exiled while another woman was killed in her place.

The French are Not Pleased.

Horbenko makes some leaps in his analysis that might be hard to back up, but this is also true of the historical interpretation of Joan of Arc. And it's not like the "holy martyr" thing hasn't been used for political purposes before... there's a popular myth about some jewish guy getting killed about 2000 years ago that has seen considerable use as a political tool, and even that story has seen significant revision when changes were required to support political gain.