Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The Hotel d’Angleterre (21, Quai du Havre, Rouen) where we would spend only one night, thankfully, was yet another nightmare. Small closet-sized rooms were accessed by hauling our heavy luggage up multiple flights of stairs because only one of the two-person elevators functioned properly. Waiting for forty people to move up two by two was enough to try even Noah’s patience. The building itself was a mere sidewalk from a main, well-traveled, loud street. Some rooms had balconies with doors that opened fully; others didn't  Our sliding door, framed by rusting, sticking metal, barely opened and with no cross ventilation, fresh air was scarce in the small, confining room, dense with warm, stagnant foul air. My mother and I agreed to take a chance and leave the small fissure of the door open while at dinner in hopes of replacing some of the thick atmosphere with more refreshing air, feeling sure that, like Paris, there was a scarcity of insects in this city. It turned out to be one of our biggest mistakes of the whole trip.

Back on the bus, we were brought to a local restaurant for our evening meal; another boring offering designed for the assumed American palate. Tomatoes and lettuce were followed by something that was supposed to be beefsteak (I secretly thought it was buffalo or, if it was beef, it was a piece of the cow’s ass, and I barely had a bite of it) and fried potatoes. For dessert, a custard apple pie.

Though the bus returned us to our hotel, a walk was next on the agenda (it was far too early for the kids to retire for the evening and it was far too hot to sit in the small, sweltering box that was our hotel room). It wasn't a very long walk from the hotel to yet another square. Rouen is a pretty city, the old classic architecture of the buildings’ exteriors blend with the modern stores inside. All of them were closed at this late hour.

The cobblestone square boasted many of the outdoor cafes so popular and abundant in Europe. For a Monday night they were fairly well-populated. Dominating the piazza was the Joan of Arc Museum, a really bizarre looking building, not overly pleasing to the eye with obtuse hard angles. I thought immediately that the saintly woman deserved better.

Beside the building lay a small yet lovely little garden, flush with purple and white blossoms. Among them, a small sign proclaiming, in three languages, this to be the very spot of Jehanne d'Arc’s death (her name appears here as it would in the medieval age of her life). Rising to an astounding height above this sign, a cross rose far into the sky, so far it seemed to be pointing or reaching to the heavens.

Jehanne d'Arc
She was born during a fleeting moment in history...during one of the few intermittent periods of peace during the Hundred Years War between France and England. On January 6 of 1412 (for this is the best estimation of the year of her birth), the young girl-baby was born to Jacques d'Arc and his wife Isabelle Romée in a small town once known as Domrémy now known as Lorraine. It was a France ravaged by war and diluted by plague.

No more than a transparent specter of what it once was, France still could not relish in these halcyon days. King Charles VI suffered from bouts of insanity, while his brother, the Duke Charles of Orleans, and his cousin, the Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, argued over the regency of the realm. In the tranquility that could have been a healing France, a France not for the time being at war with England, these two factions, The "Orleanists" and the "Burgundians" filled the peace with yet more war. With a family at war within itself--fostered by accusations and scandals, extramarital affairs and kidnappings--all came to a disastrous climax when the Duke of Orleans was assassinated by the orders of the Duke of Burgundy. But that did nothing to end the warring factions of the French nobility.

At this point, the young Dauphin (heir to the French throne), thought but fourteen years old, the only brother left to accept the throne as all his older brothers had died in battle, took the name of Charles VII. Charles' first act was to enact a peace treaty, one that would eventually led to the assassination of John the Fearless. More internal upheaval ensued, much bringing into question the true paternity of the Dauphin.

By her own account, testimony of those that knew her, and other official records, Jehanne began to have her visions around the age of twelve. These 'visions' took only multiple forms...being verbal as well as visual. It was St. Catherine of Alexandria, the Archangel Michael, St. Margaret of Antioch, and, those less frequently, the Angel Gabriel, with whom Jehanne had the most otherworldly interaction. It was Jehanne's never wavering assertions, that these vision testified by the spirits themselves that the Dauphin was the true king of France. They urged her to go to the Royal domain and drive out both the Burgundians and the English. Jehanne went; only to be turned away unheard.

In the disruption of a country plundering itself, the English took advantage and, in 1428, the English marshaled its forces in the Loire Valley and prepared for attack. The English march across the French country continued, eventually leading to Domremy and the door of Jehanne. The forces of Charles VII finally listened to Jehanne when a prediction of defeat came true.

Dressed as a man to protect her from rape, she became an advisor and a leader of men. Jehanne and her troops boasted no less than eight decisive victories, triumphs which led the forces of Charles VII to Rheims and his coronation.

Was it her own validation or was it the inability of men to accept a woman's superiority that led to Jehanne's demise? She began to use her influence to enact religious conversions. She was sent to a battleground upon which she had seen her own capture.

Her seizure by Burgundian forces led to her imprisonment at the hands of the exchange for 10,000 livres.

Once in the English prisons, Jehanne refused to surrender her men's garb--still in fear of sexual assault--and she was charged, among other things with illegal cross-dressing. And though she asked to be transferred to a church prison were she would be guarded by women and therefore would not need the protection from rape that her 'soldier's' reeds provided, her request was denied. The most heinous of charges, that of witchcraft, was pronounced upon her...that her banner had been 'endowed with magical powers' (it pictured "Our Savior" holding the world with two angels at the sides).

What Jehanne endured was not a trial, but an inquisition. Her saints were pronounced as demons. Her soldier's garb taken from her, she was raped by both guards and a nobleman, and, when given back her manly garb--the only clothes given her--she was pronounced a relapsed heretic and sentenced to death. She received no support or assistance from Charles VII, the man she helped put on the throne.

On the day of her execution, 30 May 1431, nineteen-year-old Jehanne quietly listened as her 'crimes' were read aloud, along with her punishment. Her tears came as she gave her own address, one in which she forgave those who persecuted and condemned her, one bringing tears to the eyes of those very men as well as the soldiers she was surrounded by. Jehanne was tied to a pillar set well above the crowd and asked for cross. An English soldier made her a crude one out of twigs. As she was set to burn, a crucifix was brought from the nearby church and a priest held it up in front of her as her body was engulfed in flames.

As he returned from the execution, John Tressard, Secretary to the King of England proclaimed them all ruined, for a good and holy person was burned. Geoffrey Therage, Jehanne's execution, confessed that he feared he was damned for he had killed a saint.

In 1449, when the English were run out of Rouen, a retrial of Jehanne's case was held. She was posthumously acquitted. Her beatification (declaration by the pope that a dead person is in a state of bliss, constituting a step toward canonization) came in 1909. Jehanne d'Arc of Domremy was canonized a saint in 1920.

Even the sun doesn't set here in the summer until around 10:30 p.m., making it seem much earlier than it is, the body, under the grueling schedule of the tour, knows exactly what time it is and my mother and I were anxious to retire and get some rest.

Returning to the hotel we found that leaving the sliding glass door to our room open had done very little to circulate cool air through the room and it still felt tight and hot. We continued to leave it open as we showered, put on our pj’s and got our clothes and bags organized for another early morning departure.

The shower, like the one in Paris, had only a half door, but unlike the other, this one was on a hinge and swung out at the least little bump, which I did quite often, flooding the floor. By the time I had mopped it all up, my body shone with another film of perspiration.

As we puttered about, we talked about leaving the door open through the night but the blaring of the frequently passing sirens and motorcycles on the street just feet below our window curtailed that idea. Finally ready for sleep, we turned out the lights, leaving the television on. My mom went in the bathroom while I lay prostrate on the bed, feeling the aches and pains of my exhausted body and listening to…buzzing?

My mother came out of the bathroom.

“I think there’s a bug in here,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah?” she asked, and flipped the lights back on.

There wasn't a bug in the room…there were thirty, no, more like forty, almost all clinging to the ceiling above our heads like bats in a cave.

I don’t remember if we screamed or cursed or both. We grabbed the large wet towels from the bathroom floor, the ones used to sop up the shower spew, and began flaying them at the insects like madwomen. Because of the height of the ceiling (easily twenty feet above the floor) we had to stand on the furniture to reach the swarm of bugs trying to seek asylum in the corner where wall met ceiling, and even then we had to jump up and down to reach them.

There we were, in our pajamas, jumping up and down, our unrestrained breasts bouncing with us, my mother’s threatening to knock her right out, my curlers flaying about like Medusa’s snakes as we hunted the disgusting offenders down with a vengeance, our arms cramping as we swung our long, damp weapons like Amazons intent on plunder.

For a moment we froze, our eyes locked, we both teetered on the brink, astounded by the disasters plaguing our trip. It could have easily degenerated into a sob fest…we started laughing. We laughed until we cried. I think we were still laughing as we picked the insect carcasses out of our beds, where they had no choice but to fall, and finally went to sleep.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was not raped. I died a virgin, and they knew it.

Tianca = Jehanne d'Arc