A strange thing happened to me on the way to writing this blog… Not quite, obviously, it’s a rhetorical device, but in its way it’s accurate. I am, as I have mentioned ad nauseam, writing a novel about Jeanne d’Arc. I am one hundred per cent certain that she was not a peasant girl from Bar who happened to be, in the words of one otherwise sane historian, ‘a natural horsewoman’.
Nor do I believe, as yet another eminent and entirely sane academic appears to do, that while I don’t share her faith, hers was outstanding and thus it allowed her to perform miracles. Sorry, it doesn’t wash. My spiritual path is shamanic. I practiced evidence-based medicine when I was a vet and I practice evidence-based spirituality now. I do shamanic healings. We can’t double blind them and the results are often far from spectacular – but not always: there are the occasional truly spectacular events that may, of course, be put down to chance or bad diagnostics by the medical fraternity (I use the gendered word advisedly) or ‘the placebo effect’ which is to say, the power of faith.
It may be any of these – and if it was readily reproducible, we’d all be doing it on the national health because we’re not so stupid as to turn down a perfectly functional form of medicine just because it doesn’t fit the prevailing world view (actually, we are: Homoeopathy and acupuncture fit this perfectly).
But the point remains: I know the workings of faith, belief, spirit. They have rules. They have ways of behaving. The mind is a very powerful organ and if we hone our intent, keep a clear integrity and understand the ways of will, we can change the course of apparently intractable disease patterns, we can dispel – or cause – bodily symptoms, we can achieve momentary feats of strength that are otherwise impossible (that doesn’t take faith, actually, just an imminent need: the mother who lifts the crashed car off her child is the classic example).
What faith cannot do – ever – is replace decades of training in the handling of a warhorse and a lance, while wearing full armour - if only because the horse is an integral living (fully trained) part of this and it doesn’t have any faith at all, it simply responds to the cues it has been taught.
Perhaps none of these people has ever ridden a horse. Perhaps none of them has ever been seriously over-horsed. In my youth, I had pretensions to become an affiliated dressage rider. My trainer once put me on her Prix St George horse – that’s several stages below Grand Prix. It was one of the single most terrifying events of my life, ranking above the motorbike ride with the mad boyfriend who thought 120 was too slow (yes, you did read that right; it was a very long time ago) and the moment when I was leading a climb on a rock face in the Derbyshire peaks and flip-flopping two bits of kit which were the only ones that fitted in the crack…. And having just taken the lower one out, I saw the upper one slide down the rope. Standing on pebble with one hand hold and no protection at all is immensely scary.
But it’s not as scary as sitting on 500Kg of powerful horse which has been trained to respond to the slightest shift in weight. The general consensus is that sitting on a Grand Prix horse (miles ahead of the one I was on) is like sitting on a keg of gunpowder balanced on a knife edge. I can attest that even on a Prix St Georges horse, this is true.
That was the moment when I discovered how unstable my seat was. And the thing about being on a horse is that when it goes from a standing start to a full extended canter at a nudge, is that when the speed increases, the most likely thing you do is clamp your legs to hold on. Which makes said horse panic, because dressage riders never do that. So you must need more speed now. I am here to write this because my trainer stood in his path and waved her arms and he chose not to run her down.
The dressage horses of today grew out of the war horses - the destriers – of old. Granted ours are slightly bigger – Ann Hyland reckons the old destriers were between 15hh and 16hh and ours are generally 16 – 17hh, but then the people were smaller too – Jeanne d’Arc is said to have been around 5’0” tall which would have been a reasonable height for her time.
So they were bigger than anything I would comfortably ride and I’m 5’1 ¾ . And our dressage horses are not, on the whole, trained to kill.
There are arguments that Jeanne was essentially a figure head, that she was a peasant girl who was plonked on what might loosely be called in modern parlance ‘a dope on a rope’ and paraded round in armour to raise morale. Which is amusing and at least plausible, but it isn’t what history records. We won’t side track now into the vicissitudes of historical accuracy, but every report of her, from the people who wrote home at the time, to her first condemnation trial to the eye witnesses who spoke at her rehabilitation trial thirty years later, all said that she rode well, and that she didn’t just fly her flag, she rode into battle as if she were a knight.
Even the way she got her horse was knightly. The norm at the time was for squires to learn to ride on easy horses, and for them at the same time to learn to wield a lance. If you’re riding a horse that is trained to respond instantly to the slightest shift in body weight, you don’t want to be swinging around fourteen feet of weighted wood; it’s not good for your balance.
So the squires would run up and down with the lances, practicing at the tilt, or at each other, or just… practicing. Which is what Jean d’Alençon found on the day he first met her in Chinon, after she’d introduced herself to the dauphin and told him that ‘her father in heaven’, or ‘messire’ had told her to free Orléans and then to see him to his coronation at Rheims.
D’Alençon was to become one of her captains and staunchest supporters. Newly ransomed from English captivity, he was a knight and a soldier. He saw Jeanne ‘running about in the meadow with a lance’ and offered her a warhorse – which is the last point in the learning curve of the squire before he becomes a knight: can you ride? Can you run with a lance? Then let’s see you put the two together.
He gave her a war horse, a destrier – and trust me, people don’t risk their highly trained horses on just anyone –and she impressed him so highly, that the king ordered a full suit of armour made for her. This girl not only knew how to ride, she knew how to ride as a knight.
And she had her moments of action as a knight. In the siege of Orleans, on Ascension Day in 1429, when everyone else was prevaricating (the entire French hierarchy could prevaricate as an Olympic sport: you have to think that anyone who was any good had been killed at Agincourt and what was left, with a few notable exceptions, were the people who preferred not to fight) – Jeanne and her friend, the knight called La Hire, set out to recapture a gun emplacement on the south bank of the Loire
Their men were wheeling away the English gunpowder and weapons when the English sallied out of a converted Augustinian monastery that they were using as a base. They threatened to cut off the escape back across the river to Orléans. So Jeanne and La Hire couched their lances and rode them down - repeatedly - forcing them back into the safety of their battlements.
This is not just a ‘natural horsewoman’. This is not someone who learned how to ride like a knight in the three weeks between Chinon and Ascension Day. This is not someone motivated purely by faith or, frankly, she’d have stayed at home on Ascension Day as her pastor wanted her to do. This was a girl who had trained to fight as a knight and desperately wanted to do that.
There is more, of course. A whole book’s worth. But what strikes me, what is leaving me rather light headed with despair is that yet another intelligent, thoughtful, well-respected academic has recently said that yes, of course they will help me with the book and read it for anachronisms and generally look it over, but only on the condition that I NOT mention their name in the acknowledgements. If you write, you know how unusual that is. The reverse generally obtains: I’ll help you as long as you DO mention me.
But this time, it’s more than anyone’s job is worth to contradict the prevailing orthodoxy and that orthodoxy says that Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl who was ‘good with horses’ or who had so much faith that she was able to bypass decades of training undergone by her peers. (but not enough to persuade her king to finish the job of throwing the English out of France, sadly).
We live in a world where prevailing orthodoxies are toppling by the day. Our economies are falling apart. Our atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen over 400ppm. The seas are dying, and the mountains and soon it will be the people. We are about to hit the technological singularity if we haven’t hit it already and perhaps we’ll be redundant in the evolution of intelligence.
Clearly these things matter more than whether the academic historians of the world accept that a fifteenth century girl may have been more than she acknowledged: but it seems to me that if we are to step away from the various edges at which we now stand, we need to start by not debasing our intelligence. By not mortgaging our intellects to the fantasies of the past. Most of all, we need to begin to understand the ways of faith and spiritual practice none of which require us to be wedded to the false histories of the past.