Saint Joan: Novel Summary: Scene IV

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Several battles after Joan and Dunois recaptured Orleans, Richard de Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick; and Chaplain Stogumber are in a tent in an English camp. Stogumber is most distressed at seeing English forces defeated abroad. Warwick (he is referred to by his title) cannot quite understand the priest's self-identification as an "Englishman," but he does understand that such burgeoning nationalism is a threat to both Stogumber's ecclesiastical authority and his own authority as a feudal lord. To reassure Stogumber, however, that Joan's campaign will not ultimately succeed, Warwick shares with the chaplain plans to get Joan under English control: "Some of Charles's people will sell her to the Burgundians; the Burgundians will sell her to us."
The chaplain and the nobleman receive a visitor: Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. Warwick tells Cauchon that Stogumber believes Joan to be a witch, and suggests that Cauchon would have to turn Joan over to the Inquisition "and have her burnt for that offence." While the chaplain points to Joan's recovery on the battlefield at Orleans from what seemed to be a mortal wound, as well as to the very fact that her forces have bested those of the English, as evidence of her sorcery, Cauchon has a different opinion of the Maid: "She is not a witch. She is a heretic." He believes the Devil is using Joan to strike, not against the English nation, but against the whole Catholic Church-indeed, against "the souls of the entire human race."
Warwick mistakenly believes that the bishop is already disposed to help him find a way of killing Joan; with much indignation, Cauchon announces that he is no puppet. "You great lords are too prone to treat The Church as a mere political convenience. [T]he soul of this village girl is of equal value with yours or your king's before the throne of God; and my first duty is to save it." He does not deny, however, that he can divide Joan's spiritual fate from her temporal one, and that, if she is declared to be excommunicated from the Church, she could be handed over to the temporal authorities for such punishment as those authorities deem fit. In response, Warwick suggests that "the practical problem would seem to be how to save her soul without saving her body." At first, Cauchon is primarily angry about the way Joan sets herself above the Church; but Warwick argues that Joan is equally as much a threat to "the temporal power," the aristocracy. In short, Joan proposes "a transaction which would wreck the whole social structure of Christendom." Joan is a "Protestant." In the end, all three men agree that-alluding to John 11:50, knowingly or not-"[i]t is expedient that one woman die for the people."

The wind has changed in more senses than the literal. With Scene IV, Shaw's play reaches a turning point as Joan's campaign did with Scene III. Until this point, Shaw has focused on Joan's supporters. Now, her opponents take the stage. Ironically, representatives of the two great, opposing armies of England and France find common ground, though for different reasons, in their desire to see Joan's cause brought to an end. Scene IV thus offers further, ample evidence of Shaw's technique (which he announced in his preface) of having characters speak as though they possessed the one-step-removed, dispassionate understanding of their own time and situation that Shaw possesses. Cauchon's assessment of Joan as a heretic rather than a witch, for example, shows that the bishop understands the true nature of the alleged threat that Joan represents: the threats of proto-Protestantism that undercuts the Church's magisterial authority, and of fledgling Nationalism that undercuts the authority of the medieval feudal system. The historical Cauchon would not, of course, have spoken in such terms; but Shaw enables his theatrical Cauchon to do so in order to dramatize the interplay of these various social forces.
In keeping with the spirit of Shaw's preface, which continually forces the modern era to justify its (in Shaw's eyes unjustifiable) sense of superiority to the Middle Ages, readers may choose to reflect on Cauchon's comment that, in a world where Joan's individualistic "Protestantism" becomes the spirit of the age, life will be filled with more blood, fury, and devastation. How many times have these terms proved apt to describe the post-medieval course of human civilization, especially in the 20th century in the early years of which Shaw was writing Saint Joan, having just witnessed the disillusioning horrors of World War I? To be sure, few, if any, in 21st century American society would choose to live under the structures of feudal aristocracy and medieval ecclesiastical power. Even so, we might pause to ask if our society could benefit from some arrangement in which "the individual soul" is not the ultimate seat of authority. Readers may ask: What institutions, if any, possess the potential of unifying society without crushing individual freedom and responsibility? Can the two goals be mutually achieved, or must they always remain in tension-and, if so, how can the tension be a creative one?
Readers should note, in passing, that the word "Protestant," applied to Joan not only in this scene but also in the preface, was an originally pejorative term (as it is in Warwick's speech) that did not arise until the 16th century. In its essential meaning, however-literally, one who protests-it is applicable not only to Joan but also to Hus and Wycliffe, whom Cauchon mentions. These two men were reformers of the Catholic Church who preceded the Protestant Reformation. Jan Hus was a Czech who attacked clergy corruption and claims of infallibility; John Wycliffe denied the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e., the teaching that the bread and wine of the Mass literally become the body and blood of Jesus when the priest consecrates them) and began the first translation of the Bible into English.

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