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Nearly six centuries after being burned at the stake, Joan of Arc reaches forward with lessons for Synod School students


Dr. Scott Stanfield: ‘She’s a figure who provokes our imagination and causes a lot of wonderment’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Morgan Petroski via Unsplash

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Born more than 600 years ago and burned at the stake for heresy at age 19, Joan of Arc still had a lot to teach a roomful of Synod School students last month — especially with guidance from Dr. Scott Stanfield, Emeritus Professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University and a longtime Synod School participant.

During the course, Stanfield laid the historical foundation of Joan’s life, which occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, the intermittent struggle between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At nearly 13 years of age, Joan began hearing voices telling her to get an army and go to war to defeat the English and ensure the crowning of Charles VII of France, whom she calls the dauphin. He’s eventually crowned after granting her a private audience, when Joan tells him something she couldn’t possibly have known. Charles is “convinced she has special insight,” Stanfield said.

After Charles was crowned in 1429, Joan “is looking for something to do, and so she tries to conquer Paris, but fails,” Stanfield noted. The next year she was taken prisoner, and on Jan. 3, 1431, Joan was delivered to the Inquisition and her trial began less than a week later.

The man in charge of her trial is Pierre Cauchon, a bishop with a name that in French is a homophone for “pig.”

“He has a real grudge for Joan,” Stanfield said.

Stanfield recalled his own ordeal defending his dissertation before “three guys seeing if they could trip me up. Imagine 30 people, and you are 19 and illiterate,” he said of Joan’s trial. “No one is on your side. The way Joan’s presence of mind stays with her is a remarkable part of the story.”

As a prisoner held in a tower nearly 60 feet tall, Joan at one point slipped through the bars and dropped all the way to the ground. She was injured but survived. “That came up during the trial as an attempted suicide,” he said.

On May 24, 1431, Joan recanted hearing the voices and asked to take the Eucharist. A few days later she took back her recantation, and six days after that she was burned at the stake by the civil authorities in Rouen. “Nothing goes right for the English after this,” Stanfield said. Eventually there is a rehabilitation trial and Joan’s conviction is overturned. She became St. Joan upon her canonization in 1920.

“Joan lived in a time when faith was much more part of civil life,” Stanfield said. “At least a few people found her persuasive.”

Dr. Scott Stanfield

Even today, Stanfield said, “It’s not that unusual to claim to be hearing the voice of God.” According to faith and scriptural tradition, “God does talk to some people sometimes,” people including Moses, Muhammad, Jesus and Isaiah. “This is accepted as true and valid and reliable. This puts us in an awkward situation of saying, ‘At some point God stopped doing that.’”

“What might be a nudge for most of us,” Stanfield said, “is a voice for a few.”

Joan “is excluded by her sex, lack of education, lack of training and her class, and yet she found a way,” Stanfield said. “She had a complicated path to get there.”

At one point during the week, Stanfield led a discussion on Joan’s cross dressing, asserting that “the church finds itself defending the status quo and finds itself an enforcer on social questions that may not have much to do with the real teaching of the faith. Her sense of gender identity is hard to say. The absence of sexuality is an important part of her calling.”

“The voices and the clothes,” Stanfield said, “were indivisible for Joan.” It’s as if she were saying: “This is not coming from me. I’m just the vessel.”

“But it allows you to speak and get agency that would be impossible to attain otherwise,” Stanfield said. “When things were going her way, people would want to touch the hem of her garment and bring her their sick children. Is it OK for women to be seen as having some power [in those days]? No!”

Stanfield said he has a few favorites among the many books, plays and films about Joan, including Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Mary Gordon’s 1999 biography, Mark Twain’s “Joan of Arc,” George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” and Bertolt Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards.”

On the final day of class, Stanfield answered a question that had been stumping him all week: Which contemporary figure is comparable to Joan?

Stanfield thought of the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who’s “very young and articulate and speaks with no particular credentials. She showed up at Swedish Parliament without invitation and said, ‘You need to listen to me.’”

“There’s something about the radiant clarity of [Thunberg’s] moral vision,” Stanfield said. “She seems much more impressive than adults.”

Adding to Joan’s continuing influence is this very practical example, which Stanfield offered near the end of the week-long course: “Without Joan,” he said with a grin, “the French would cook like the English. How sad would that be?”

Synod School is offered each summer at Buena Vista University by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. The dates for the 70th edition are July 21-26, 2024. Dr. Corey Schlosser-Hall, Deputy Executive for Vision & Innovation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, will be the convocation speaker.

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