“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

 But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.


Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.

“She shouldn’t oughta try to be that way…”

“She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel: a lithe young slender figure, instinct with ‘the unbought grace of youth,’ dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.”

So wrote Mark Twain about Joan of Arc, the sole figure who could make him mute his famous disdain for medievalism. “[S]he is easily and by far,” he swooned, “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” (Twain considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books; his heroine’s penchant for mottos—”Work! Stick to it!”—prompted Shaw to brand her “an American school teacher in armor.”)

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Joan of Arc was in America at the dawn of the 20th century—but like most spirited forms of medievalism, Joanolatry first rose overseas. In 1870, when the French lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians, humiliated nationalists—when Europeans rouse medieval heroes from their graves, nationalism is usually the reason—made a symbol of the Maid of Orleans. American writers as early as John Daly Burk in 1798 cast Joan as an emblem of patriotism and pre-modern innocence, but by the late 19th century, European-influenced children’s books and chivalric romances about female heroes fired up men and women alike, as T.J. Jackson Lears points out:

The life of the chivalric warrior, male or female, ranged far outside the realm of reading circles and parlor chitchat. “Oh, to be a wild Kossack!” Emily Greene Balch wrote in her commonplace book after reading Taras Bulba. “Fight hard and drink hard and ride hard . . . Our clothes grow strait. Oh, for a horse between the knees, my blood boils, I want to fight, strain, wrestle, strike . . . To be brave and have it all known, to surpass and be proud, oh the splendor of it.”

Lears further argues that the American Cult of Joan was about more than escapism. For late 19th-century Americans, saints also “embodied instinctive communion with nature, simple faith unhampered by learning, and sexual purity. Personifying shibboleths of romantic liberal Protestantism, they entered the pantheon of the genteel tradition.”

World War I only gouged Joan further into American culture: She was immortalized on the Hudson in 1915, beloved by readers of Lucy Foster Madison’s 1918 novel (with its gorgeous Frank Schoonover illustrations), and brought to the screen by Cecil B. DeMille. Decades later, Joan was still sufficiently famous that OMD could write not one but two songs about her, while the Smiths could mention her and know that the image would stick.

According to the Book Haven, yesterday was the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc. Fortuitously, I learned this morning via D.C. neighbor and blogger George that the Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park, dedicated by President Harding on the saint’s birthday in 1922

…but (as this 2007 photo shows) disarmed for decades…

got her sword back just last month! (And got a full body scrub too.)

Congrats to locals, who reportedly lobbied the Park Service for two years to make this happen, and happy 600th to Miss of Arc, who was, as one of history’s greatest thinkers put it, “a most bodacious soldier and general.

“Catch the mist, catch the myth…”

Mark Twain was beguiled by medieval minds. Most Americans remember his satiric use of medieval spolia in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain returned to the Middle Ages with telling regularity. He celebrated the jubilee of Queen Victoria by writing in the voice of a noble at a 1415 Agincourt victory parade, and he considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books. Like many late 19th-century Americans, even non-Catholics, Twain was obsessed with the French saint, finding “no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character” and calling her “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Later, Twain taught his children medieval English history by linking pictures to pathways in his yard, and he even journeyed to Bayreuth, where his only mild appreciation of Wagner’s Tannhauser and Parsifal made him feel “like a heretic in heaven,” even as he declared the pilgrimage “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

As Twain knocked around Europe, he sometimes grumbled when the Middle Ages intruded on his vision of a more rational world. In Switzerland, after hearing a tale about a skeleton who testified in a medieval trial, he spat that it spoke of “a time so remote, so far back toward the beginning of original idiocy, that the difference between a bench of judges and a basket of vegetables was as yet so slight that we may say with all confidence that it didn’t really exist.” Still, even Sam Clemens, hostile to notions of nobility, could get swept up in the romanticism of Europe’s medieval past, provided it stayed on the far side of the Atlantic.

I pondered Twain’s medievalism last week while passing through Baton Rouge, a city he knew from his riverboat days. In Chapter 40 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain revisits the city, alive with magnolia blossoms: “For we were in the absolute South now—no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” Like Twain, I found “a tropical sun overhead and a tropical swelter in the air,” and one of his more memorable rants still hanging in the August haze:

And at this point, also, begins the pilot’s paradise: a wide river hence to New Orleans, abundance of water from shore to shore, and no bars, snags, sawyers, or wrecks in his road.

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[. . .]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

* * *

That’s Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, designed in a “castellated Gothic” style by New York-born James Harrison Dakin in 1847 and open for business (albeit 400 percent over-budget) by 1850. The designer of several neo-Gothic churches and college buildings, Dakin hated the idea of another derivative neoclassical statehouse and opted for a Capitol with “a decided distinctive, classic, and commanding character.”

Since the Civil War, the Old State Capitol, occupied and almost accidentally burned down by Union troops, has been stuck in a cycle of abandonment, decay, destruction, renovation, and rebirth. Although Twain recalled a “whitewashed castle,” Louisianans who picked up Life on the Mississippi between 1883 and 1902 knew a bolder folly, painted red and festooned with iron turrets that even I find excessive.

The people of Louisiana appear to have adored the Old State Capitol, but one political giant shared Twain’s hatred of the place: Huey Long. As governor, Long left the building’s fire insurance unrenewed, believing—perhaps hoping—that “it was about to fall down, and there was nothing left to patch,” according to Carol K. Haase. “He said there wasn’t another building in the whole country that was such a disgrace and that he wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars for the whole thing.”

By 1932, a new capitol, an art-deco skyscraper, loomed over Baton Rouge. Twain would have been pleased. Infuriated by the stubborn Southern medievalism exemplified by plantation owners’ obsession with the works of Sir Walter Scott—more on that in a future post!—he wanted to see Americans spell out their culture in a homegrown, progressive idiom, shorn of courtiers and kings. After sighting the emperor’s daughter-in-law in Bavaria in 1891, Twain found her beautiful, kind, and humane, which troubled him all the more. “There are many kinds of princesses,” he sighed, “but this kind is the most harmful of all, for wherever they go they reconcile people to monarchy and set back the clock of progress.”

Browsing Life on the Mississippi and The Complete Essays in recent days, I’ve been impressed by the breadth of Twain’s knowledge and insistent rationality—but I’m also struck by also by how badly he misjudged the grip of medievalism on the American mind. Even as Twain mocked, in that same chapter of Life on the Mississippi, an advertisement for a Tennessee finishing school that played up its “resemblance to the old castles of song and story, with its towers, turreted walls, and ivy-mantled porches,” the United States was on the verge of a 40-year “collegiate Gothic” building binge that makes Twain seem far from prescient about his era and the culture of the century since. Were Twain to hear my four-year-old niece swooning over the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, he’d be despondent. “It’s like a real castle, where princesses live,” she gushed to an amazed friend. “I wish I could go back tomorrow. I wish I lived there.”

Like many Americans, Twain wandered the medieval world of his own imagination; it’s both humanizing and absurd that he thought he could write new lives for saints and kings without stirring the waves of medievalism that ceaselessly lap at American shores. His ambivalence also shows that you don’t need to like the Middle Ages to be a medievalist, as long as you fancy yourself that rare, rational aesthete who can thrill to monarchical pageantry without endorsing monarchies themselves. “One can enjoy a rainbow,” Twain claimed, suppressing a romantic twinge, “without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.”

“Before you were born, dude, when life was great…”

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring crawfish, bearded with moss…

“But Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “it’s been ages since you reaffirmed your obsession with literary and quasi-medieval statuary!” Indeed, the greatest truths are often the most lamentable. So look who reared his head (and a fragment of torso) today along the bayou in St. Martinville, Louisiana: None other than “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow, author of Evangeline, the epic poem that made Cajun history hip.

In St. Martinville, Longfellow keeps watchs over the “Evangeline Oak,” which offers ample shade just down the road from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site and a few paces from the lovely Acadian Memorial and Museum.

A block away, in the cemetery of the “mother church” of the Cajuns, is Evangeline herself, looking more sanguine than I’d be after decades of roaming North America in the name of deathless love. As bestsellers go, the poem that bears Evangeline’s name was the Twilight of yesteryear, but these days she gets fewer visitors.

St. Martinville boasts a population of 6,989, but half of those residents appear to be statues. In front of the church stands A.M. Jan, the 19th-century pastor, on a pedestal that tells his story in Latin.

Also honored in the town square is this dapper Attakapa Indian. He’s been here since 1961.

The interior of the church—”it is just the same as when it was built,” a plaque insists, “having been repaired but not changed”—is naturally full of old statues, too many to name.

But let’s not overlook two “Quid Plura?” favorites:

Noah’s wife…

…and our old pal from New Orleans, St. Roch.

Mais où est le patron?

Aha! Here’s St. Martin of Tours, inventing the word “chapel” in front of the old presbytère.

Alas, my camera fizzled before I could get a picture of St. Martinville’s one truly unmissable statue, which depicts Charlemagne engaged in mortal combat with a giant crawfish. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it, but trust me, dear reader: It was awesome.

“I think she understood, but she never spoke…”

What sort of uncle darts into French Quarter traffic with a five-year-old to take snapshots of medieval-themed statuary? A very bad uncle.

“I think you’re a good uncle,” he insisted later over ice cream cones, reminding me that we should all be quicker to heed the beatific wisdom of children.

But what say you, Miss of Arc?

On the matter of children playing in traffic, the Maid of Orleans has chosen saintly silence.

“…as the flames rose to her Roman nose…”

Puppets on fire: what could be better? Over at Per Omnia Saecula, the inimitable Jennifer Lynn Jordan brings us another episode of Today in Medieval History, a most triumphant video to remind us that May 23 is the anniversary of Joan of Arc’s capture by the Burgundians in 1430.

A most bodacious soldier and general, Miss Of Arc totally rousted the English from France. Then she turned this dude, the dauphin, into a king. And all this by the time she was seventeen!

After you’ve watched Jenn put a puppet on trial and then burn it to death, here are a few more Joan of Arc videos to aid in your weekend reflections.

Joan of Arc played an important role in the most important historiographic statement of our time.

The Smiths mention Joan of Arc in the song “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”

Leonard Cohen got in on the action with his own song about Joan of Arc.

If you have 80 minutes, you can watch the 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

If you have only ten minutes, check out two songs recorded by OMD, the dauphins of synth: “Joan of Arc” and “Maid of Orleans.”

(If you judge me for knowing that last bit, you’re no better than the people who set the real Joan of Arc on fire.)