Sunday, March 15, 2015

"She took nothing else" -- in camp with Joan of Arc

"She took nothing else" but four or five soups mixed together in the bottom of a "receptacle," with wine put in first. She is Joan of Arc, Jehanne la Pucelle, the Maid of Orléans. The year is 1429.

Now here is something extraordinary. Not the soups, but the source of this story and something else it divulges. I have it from Christian Guy's Illustrated History of French Cuisine, translated by Elisabeth Abbott (New York, 1962). The paragraphs on page 28 simply attest:
...soup was then in its heyday. It was customary to serve three or four different soups at one meal. And it was not unusual for a dinner to consist of six, eight, or even a dozen. 
This passion for soup lasted until the reign of Louis XI [ca. 1470], in fact down to the Renaissance. It was still in honour in Joan of Arc's day [ca. 1430. Perhaps it would have been clearer to say, "That means of course" soup was still in honour then]. Gilles de Retz, one of the Maid's closest companions, who preferred the raw entrails of infants whose stomachs he opened, tells us that "Jehanne put some wine in the bottom of a receptacle and poured four or five different soups over it. She never took anything else." 
Did he. Did this fellow de Retz prefer infants' entrails. Never mind Jehanne's five soups, and small questions about dating the French Renaissance. Did her companion really prefer the raw entrails of infants whose stomachs he opened ... well well.

This little fact crops up because some time ago I thought it would be fun to write a book called The Meals of Heaven, one of whose chapters would be "In Camp with Joan of Arc." So I looked her up and found she ate soup. The idea for the book as a whole kind of fell by the wayside, perhaps because writing about it purged it from my memory. Self assignments often go that way.

And then I was so flabbergasted by learning what de Retz ate that I looked him up too. He was a rich and unspeakably evil nobleman, who served bravely alongside Joan of Arc in her battles against the English and for "her" Dauphin, the future French king Charles VII. He was made a Marshal of France in reward. After that, de Retz (or de Rais) retired to his castles in Brittany, spent money, wrote and staged his own cast-of-thousand plays, and kidnapped and butchered children and young people, perhaps as many as 80 or 150 or 200 or 600, depending on what sources you consult. At long last his own family got a royal decree forbidding him to spend money, and at long last the local church authorities opened an investigation into seven or eight years' worth of missing peasant children. In my reading of an old online biography, which I can't retrace now, I came across a dramatic scene. When the net of justice at long last closed around de Retz, and he was escorted from his castle by men not his own, the local people, mothers and fathers, heard the clatter of hooves, looked up from their fields and yards and realized the monster had fallen. They rushed to the roadside, emboldened, to surround the entourage and shout and cry out their children's names. This same biography, written I think by a careful Victorian lady, also noted that not much evidence was ever found; just things like a small pile of ill-smelling ashes in a barn, and a child's bloody shirt in the bottom of a trough.

De Retz and his two worst henchmen admitted guilt, offering some details so depraved that the judges at the time ordered them stricken from the trial record. What seems not to have been stricken is the monster's own admission that yes, he enjoyed cutting his victims open for the sake of their inner organs. All three men were hanged and then burned, in the town of Nantes in October, 1440.

Joan of Arc had already been martyred ten years before. Her king was still king. And all this throws a strange light on her career. For centuries historians have marveled that this illiterate teen girl obeying her "voices" was actually taken seriously by powerful men in the midst of war and national crisis, -- was actually allowed to lead armies. Could it be that one of her greatest helpmeets and "one of the wealthiest men in Europe," this de Retz, at first only got close to her and propped her up because he saw her as a plump little pigeon of a target?

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