Monday 13 May 2013

Truth or Fantasy: clinging to the notions of the past by Manda Scott

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.


Mark Burgess said...

Good stuff, Manda, and I'm looking forward to the book! Years ago my landlady - a doctor of chrystallography at Cambridge - wrote a book about who she though La Pucelle was (and self-published it). She was convinced that there'd been a cover-up.

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is excellent! I am greatly looking forward to your book. Hopefully you will come up with some theories as to just who she really was since the peasant background is so highly unlikely!

MedievalMayhem said...

I am VERY ready for a new take on Joan of Arc. A fresh new Jeanne portrayed with a sensible and rational approach. As opposed to just another book that wants to inflate and perpetuate and build on most popular elements of the legend.
I think you are the one to do it, Manda Scott.

Susan Price said...

Fascinating - thank you for posting. I'm convinced! After all, you bring to your understanding of Joan not only your wide historical research, but a great understanding of horses and the training needed to ride them - quite apart from the training needed to be a knight. How many academic historians can combine those two things?

Pauline Chandler said...

Your book sounds fascinating, Manda. Joan is still such a controversial figure, even after all these years and the question of her riding prowess puzzled me when I was researching for my own Joan book, 'Warrior Girl' (OUP YA/HarperCollins). I focussed on two clues: first,that she was a strong sturdy lass, familiar with large animals and secondly, that the French war saddle would have supported her well back and front, almost holding her in that upright position. I'm looking forward to reading the book!

Unknown said...

Thanks, all - I have to say this has been one of the most fascinating writing journeys yet... which is rather a lovely place to be. Pauline, I'm sure most of the academic world would concur - but the thing is, that boys who trained to be knights did change their bone structure - and they had war saddles and were doubtless of 'sturdy' stock. I had someone (another academic) look me in the eye and say, 'well she probably cut wood as a child' - which is just... amazing. Apart from the fact that she had 2 brothers and a father and cutting wood was a man's job - wielding the odd axe and wielding a lance *while mounted on a warhorse* are different skills. So either the entire European nobility for several hundred years was wasting their time in spending decades training their sons to be knights or... it took more than that. I think also that a genuine peasant's daughter wouldn't have spent the winter hunting down brigands along the Loire in the way of a mercenary captain. She was a knight to her marrow. She wanted to be that: it was why she was captured.
But I appreciate that until one has a viable alternative, it's hard to step beyond the pages of what we already know - and I'm ready for much opprobrium from the academic community...

Marko Susimetsä said...

If I recall correctly, there were numerous women pretending to be women in European wars (only recognised as women when their bodies were stripped of valuables on battlefields). D'Arc might have been a woman with similar background who, for some reason, decided to no longer hide her gender.

Unknown said...

Thanks Marko - I've found a number in the English Civil War (why do we call it that when it extended to Ireland, Scotland and Wales? Why is it not the British Civil War?) but not many as far back as the fifteenth century. If you come across any, do let me know.

Katherine Roberts said...

Great post, Manda, and I know just that feeling... sitting on a horse that feels like an unexploded bomb!

I do believe in faith and miracles, but as you say Jeanne of Arc had probably been riding since before she could walk. It wouldn't have necessarily been a trained warhorse though... I know some of the shaggy ponies and obstinate carthorses I used to ride as a child could be more difficult than a well-trained 17hh racehorse.

What impresses me most is the lances, and how people ever managed to fight on horseback with them. The horses must have been amazing.

Unknown said...

Hmmmm - I have utterly failed to describe the nature and training of warhorses, haven't I? I could ride a well-trained 17hh racehorse too (in face, I have) and I couldn't begin to ride a GP dressage horse. - it's not about the height, it's the nature of the training. Racehorses are not trained to respond instantly to minor changes in pressure on one or other (or both) pelvic bones.
Never mind, it was worth a try...

Momma Bear said...

I have ridden dressage, polo ponies and race horses.each takes a different set of skills to accomplish and each has it's own underlying personalities.
I have always thought Jeanne got the shaft from the boys who wrote the histories just because she was a girl and "girls aren't supposed to do that."pooh!
the reason is clear why they, in the past, did this.
it diminishes her skill, bravery, and prowess into "merely" faith and not decades of training and genuine hard working skill.
after all she beat the pants off the English and they wrote the history so "this girl"could not possibly be, the well trained warrior, her men knew her to be, she must be a witch. monty python logic aside, that the academics of today are perpetuating the misogynistic views of the past is reprehensible at best and evil.
I'm glad to see Jeanne finally get her due.

Unknown said...

Thank you!


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fascinating post Manda with a lot of resonances for me. At various times I have had historians and archaeologists say to me 'Actually, you are right, but I can't say so in public because I have to cover my back.'
I'll be very interested to read the novel when it comes out. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

fascinating! looking forward to your book

Unknown said...

Thanks, all - Elizabeth - there's a whole conversation to be had on the nature of authenticity and truth and academia... George Monbiot had a look at that in today's blog, after a fashion, but I wonder if, in the new world of authenticity, we can open up the falsehoods that lurk underneath? I think we have to - but I"m not sure there's time...

Unknown said...

I think your view is quite exciting because it shows that more research is needed! History is not an exact science and so traditional views must be contested in order for progress. I'm writing my masters thesis next year and I must say, you gave me a lot to think about! I think that the contemporary sources will give us a very 'manly view' and that, as always, a critical will be very important. It must have been hard for a society of men to accept that a woman can also be a charismatic and strong leader. That's why they rather describe her as a witch or a saint who received het strength from God. In short, I think your post is very interesting and gives food for thought!

Unknown said...

Inge - thank you - I'll be fascinated to learn more of your Master's thesis when you've written it - what I'm finding is that older (mostly male) historians cling to the established order and younger (often female) historians are more able to shed the restrictions of the past.