Few historical figures capture the popular imagination like Jeanne d’Arc. Translated into sonnets, songs, film and fiction, her legend is a familiar tale. In the 15th century, a 17 year old peasant girl was called on a divine mission from God to drive the English from France. After leading the French troops to defeat the English near Orléans, bringing about the coronation of Charles VII at Reims, Joan was captured, tried for heresy, and then burned at the stake in Rouen. Twenty-five years after her execution, Pope Callixtus III declared her a martyr.
Even Mark Twain, the famous American author, was so taken with her story that, in 1896, he penned “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte,” a novel recounting the events of her life. Of the work, Twain said: “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.”
Joan of Arc has been adopted by France as a symbolic figure and patron saint. But her story had been forgotten until the 19th century, when after France’s defeat to the Germans in the Prussian War, the 3rd Republic glorified this historic figure as nationalist propaganda. In fact, the mythical personnage of Jeanne d’Arc has been appropriated by diverse groups and institutions over time, so the line between fact and fiction has always been blurred.
A brand new museum in Rouen, the location where she was tried, killed, and ultimately exonerated, sheds light on every aspect of Joan of Arc: her real life, the political and religious context of her legend, the historiography, and the idea of story-telling itself.
Opening on March 21, L’Historial Jeanne d’Arc is housed in the Palais de l’Archevêche, where her actual trials took place. A massive construction project has restored the heritage-listed building to its former glory, carefully preserving historic details like the Roman crypt (the oldest part of the building), the soaring gothic archways, and the 15th century kitchens with original fireplaces. On a behind-the-scenes tour of the travaux last fall, France Today was impressed by the painstaking work of the artisanal craftsmen. To install the heating, individual tiles were carefully removed from the floors, and then replaced in the exact order. And the views from the grenier, over the Rouen rooftops, are mesmerizing.
The museum’s scenography is enhanced by cutting-edge technology, lighting, and films examining Joan’s life and myth. For 1 hour and 15 minutes (the expected duration of the visit), the viewer is dramatically immersed in the Joan of Arc story.
Rouen itself is a fabulous day-trip from Paris. Located on the Seine river just 135 kilometres from Paris, the capital of Normandy is known as the “port of Paris.” This is where Claude Monet obsessively painted canvas after canvas of the gothic cathedral, and where Julia Child had her first-ever meal in France. It’s still possible to eat at the restaurant, La Couronne, located directly on the Place du Vieux Marché. Dating from 1345, La Couronne is the oldest auberge in France, and is a revolving door for celebrities and politicians (and lucky locals and visitors!) who have reveled in the sumptuous Monet-inspired menu.
Historial Jeanne d’Arc, Rue Saint-Romain, Rouen, Tel: +33 (0)2 35 52 48 00. Ticket price is 9.50€ for adults.