Streetwise Professor

June 17, 2017

Out of the History, Into the Heat

Filed under: History — The Professor @ 2:31 pm

Apologies for the paucity of posts over the last couple of weeks. I was traveling, bracketed by a visit Zug and Lugano for speaking and teaching and a trip to Oxford for a commodities conference. In between I bounced around France for 12 days–first real vacation I’ve had in years.

My itinerary was Paris-Rouen and environs (Gisors, Gaillard, Harcourt)-Bayeux-Omaha Beach-Avranches-Mortain-Mont St. Michel-St. Malo-La Rochelle-Bordeaux-Chinon-Chartres-Paris (where I spent a couple of enjoyable days with my uncle, aunt, and my cousin and her family). My main focus was, as usual when I travel, history. With the exception of the foray to La Rochelle and Bordeaux (which wasn’t worth the extra mileage), I was not disappointed.

Perhaps my favorite spot was Chinon, even though I’ve been there before. It is hard to imagine such a small place with so much history. In the space of a few acres took place dramas involving the Plantagenets (and notably Henry II and his three sons–who will never be confused for a Fred MacMurray sitcom!–as portrayed in A Lion in Winter), Phillip II of France and the forces of Bad King John (one of Henry’s sons), and most notably, Joan of Arc. Chinon is quite beautiful, offering very pleasant views of the Loire Valley, and blessed with remnants of the castle dating from the 12th-14th centuries. (Not far away is the Abbey of Fontevraud, most notable for the effigies of Henry II, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I. It is also definitely worth a trip.)

The connection with Joan is most meaningful to me. It was to Chinon that she traveled in order to meet the future King Charles. Charles attempted to disguise himself, to test Joan’s supposed gifts. But the Maid immediately picked him out in the throng of the court, ignoring the servitor dressed in Charles’ clothing. Overcoming the incredulity of the court at the temerity of a young girl claiming to be a messenger of God sent to redeem France, she persuaded Charles to let her lead an expedition to Orleans, where she led seemingly forlorn hope charges that routed the besieging English and freed the city. From Orleans she led Charles to Reims for his coronation. That was the acme of her career. Her subsequent attack on Paris failed, and soon thereafter she was captured by the Burgundians (perhaps as the result of treachery–there is no doubt that Charles subsequently betrayed her), ransomed by the English, then burned at the stake in Rouen.

Joan has the remarkable talent to dissolve the deepest cynicism of people like her battle-hardened contemporaries, Mark Twain–and me. I actually would consider it more miraculous if she achieved what she did without divine intervention, than with it. How can you explain an ignorant peasant girl persuading kings, becoming an inspirational war leader and skilled tactician, and devising the strategy that reshaped western European politics, all in the course of a few short months? Her performance at her trial–she was both brave and clever–is equally inexplicable, given her background. Her moments of doubt when confronted with the pyre were human, and were redeemed by her decision to suffer a horrible death rather than suffer dishonor, and her transcendence as the flames devoured her. Yes, she has been mythologized, and conscripted in religious and political battles over the centuries, but the basic facts of her life are well-documented and those speak for themselves. I cannot think of a parallel in history: she is an exception that proves many very dreary rules.

I have previously been to Chinon, Orleans, Reims, and Compiègne (where she was captured). Rouen was the last major scene in her life that I visited. There is a single tower remaining from the Rouen Castle where she was imprisoned during her trial (but it is not the tower where she was kept). There is a small garden marking the spot in the Rouen marketplace where she was immolated as a heretic. There is a fairly new multimedia presentation about her trial in a building that is part of the cathedral complex–it’s worth a visit.

The physical remains of the scenes of her life are almost non-existent–the room where she met Charles in Chinon is no longer there, for example–but visiting those traces does evoke thoughts about her remarkable life and career.

I’m back in Houston now, just in time for summer to begin in earnest. So the work–and the posting–will resume. Hopefully it will be improved by a relaxing few weeks immersed in history and historical places.

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  1. Thank you so much for. I’ve often wanted to travel in France, but feel myself unworthy to the task of embracing the wealth of her history and culture in one visit. (after Recession of 2008-2011 I’ve this notion that every one of my vacations I have treat like the one and only). Can’t say I’m particularly interested by Orleans’ Maid; she was certainly fascinating person, and inconsistency between her background and actions under duress are very mysterious.

    Comment by ETat — June 17, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

  2. @ETat–You are welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Don’t think you have to embrace all of it in one go. You can pick any part of it and have a wonderful experience: there are parts that I missed in the parts I went to, so I could return to Normandy or Roussillon and see new things. If that one part is the only opportunity life favors you with, it will still be worth it. And if you have other opportunities, another part of the country will be just as rewarding. Even in an entire lifetime I doubt you could really experience it all. So I hope that you go, and savor it, one bite at a time.

    My interest in Joan sort of surprised me too. In an odd way, I think that the more skeptical or cynical you are, the more fascinating you find her. She is a challenge to such a mindset.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, one small-l libertarian to another 😉

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 17, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

  3. Street:

    Vlad has been away FAR too long. The script I wrote for Oliver Stone, interviewing me sans tie as if he & I are school chums, & dutifully broadcast by CBS ‘News,’ was a real treat for me.

    Your blog has so much grist for the mill, that Vlad w/b busy for many a fortnight catching up.

    Thanks so much for your generous intellectual hospitality!

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vladimir Obama — June 18, 2017 @ 6:28 am

  4. Some of the history I was taught at school was Great Man history; Joan was the only woman among them.

    Comment by dearieme — June 18, 2017 @ 6:30 am

  5. @Professor,
    Thank you for the extended reply – despite my embarrassingly muddled comment and multitude of typos.
    In May I’ve taken first European vacation in 10 years; too timid to go to France, Italy or Greece I started with Budapest and Adriatic coast of Slovenia. Employed exactly the principles you said: realizing the enormity of cultural layers, I just concentrated on a few experiences that are attractive to me the most.

    Many thanks for your writing; this place is an island of sanity in mad derangement surrounding us.

    Comment by ETat — June 18, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

  6. @ETat-Very nice of you to say. I’m glad you found the island. 😉 It is sad but true but the level of the sea of derangement is rising inexorably. Hopefully the cliffs here are high enough.

    The places you just visited are tabula rasa to me, but I have always wanted to venture east: other than a trip to Moscow 12 years ago, I haven’t been east of Vienna. I hope you enjoyed your trip and it was as restorative for you as my trip was for me.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 18, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

  7. Thanks Craig – great post, and sounds like a great trip. I’ve also always thought Joan one of the truly fascinating figures of history– I still need to get to Chinon and Reims! On somewhat tangential lines of extraordinary and unexpected historical figures, I recently watched “From Christ to Constantine”, a BBC documentary on the early Christian church that examines the early martyrs and legends of Christianity and their impact on its growth– an amazing story. Regardless of whether you believe in miracles, the growth of the Christian church from a small Jewish sect to a center of power is one of the great unexpected stories of history. Hope all is well with you, Matt

    Comment by Matt Jacobs — June 21, 2017 @ 9:17 am

  8. Oh, La Rochelle is great! Eat the oysters, go to Ile de Rey, walk around the harbour. I loved it.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your trip, it was great finally meeting you!

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 23, 2017 @ 2:33 am

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