Renée Jeanne Falconetti in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ [1928] Directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer

Let’s place ourselves at the beginning of the 15th century, when France was in chaos. Mired in a civil war, she is invaded by the English in a new onslaught in the Hundred Years War. Having already conquered the north of France, their last and most daring step was to besiege the city of Orleans, a protective barrier in the Loire Valley that protected the south of the country.

King Charles VI, haunted by intermittent psychotic crises, made catastrophic decisions or simply stood still - doing or solving absolutely nothing. His surroundings unravelled in power struggles, generating a civil war.

At the beginning of the third decade of the century the picture is as follows: on the English side, Henry V of England dies in 1422, and his son, Henry VI, is a nine-month-old baby.

On the French side, Charles VI, totally incapacitated by his mental illness, signs a treaty in 1420 recognising Henry V as his successor. He also dies in 1422 , with Henry VI the successor to the throne of England and France. But — Charles VII succeeds him, whom his father in the midst of his psychosis had declared a bastard.

In these circumstances, desolation and chaos reigned as the overwhelming, accelerating dominance of England was devouring French lands. Only a strange and supernatural force — one of those things that seem incredible and even childish, but do happen — could save this situation. A sixteen-year-old girl appears on the scene. She claims to have received a divine message, indicating she was urgently needed to save France from England.

This is a young peasant woman who could not read or write. The only religious education she had received was from her parents and the village priest. And — despite looking insane from head to toe — she is allowed to speak to Charles VII. Without knowing him, and even with him hidden among his courtiers, she recognises him and gives him the treatment he deserves — she calls him “Dauphin” or heir to the King of France.

She is dressed as a man. They call her ‘maiden,’ meaning virgin, an important detail in the Middle Ages as the idea that a woman’s virginity was an extraordinary gift of purity — placing her above other mortals — reigned supreme. There was an added significance they lent to virginity, a medieval legend in which a Unicorn can only be tamed by a pure virgin. Virginity, then, was not only purity but a supernatural power to defeat untamed beasts.

That she appeared before Charles VII dressed as a man also imbued her with ‘magic.’ Her clothes symbolised the acquiring of the virile virtues — and magic, in one sense, consists of assimilating the being of another person into oneself, of taking things that belong to him. In her, there was a symbiosis of masculine and feminine power, pure and determined; a dominating and overpowering supernatural charm.

However — a question remained about this extraordinary young woman: was she an envoy of the devil or of God? Faced with such confusion, the young girl proposes three goals: 1) liberate Orleans from the siege of the English, 2) penetrate the territory dominated by the English and reach the town of Reims (traditionally the place where the kings of France were consecrated, with great sentimental value for the country) to proclaim Charles VII there — and, 3) to throw the English into the sea and reunite the entire kingdom of France under its natural king. Charles VII agrees — and puts under her command the best men in his army.

These experienced warriors who accompany her feel what they have never felt, and will never feel again: they seem to be fulfilling a supernatural mission. They feel that they are protected by the strength of the gods! And what do they achieve? They manage to fulfil the first two goals. Joan of Arc proclaims Charles VII in Reims as King of France.

But something unexpected happens. In a peripheral fight, if you like, she falls prisoner and ultimately ends up at the hands of the English, who, by any means possible must annul the proclamation of Charles VII. They intend, through a theological judgment, to show that she is not sent from God, but from the devil — and that therefore everything she has achieved has no validity whatsoever. With great skill, obscuring their part in it, they hand her over to the judgment of some Doctors of Theology from the University of Paris, headed by the famous Bishop Pierre Cauchon. He and his henchmen want to condemn her, to erase her achievements from the record.

But — as much as they try to confuse her with strange and extravagant questions, they fail. She responds simply and sincerely. However, as it has been decided to discard her, after a process of several months she is sentenced to die at the stake. Meanwhile, the Dauphin, Charles VII, does not move a finger for her. He does not try to rescue her. He is silent. Joan of Arc, completely abandoned, is taken to be tortured. Several of the English soldiers who witness the martyrdom cry.

In 1456, Charles VII decides to carry out a rehabilitation process and the great injustice committed against Joan of Arc is verified. In 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonises her and proclaims her Saint Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc is a figure who seems to belong to legend more than history. She is perhaps the purest glory of France — and almost certainly the most moving figure in history. I think the life of Joan of Arc bequeaths us a message of deep patriotism, humanity — and pity for the fate that her destiny brought her to.

When I read about heroes and observe the amount of injustice that has been committed against them, this idea comes to me: nothing that comes from humanity is complete. Wherever there are heroes, sacrificing and kind men, humanity turns its back on them when push comes to shove — for example, Bolívar, so much sacrifice to die that way! In other words, who today wants to be a hero? Who has the courage to give up his life for a noble goal?

Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com