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May 30 St. Joan of Arc's Feastday

In 1428 France was in danger of collapse. The English were victorious on all fronts in their slow, methodical conquest of the land. The city of Orleans provided a crucial battleground which led to the decisive phase of the Hundred Years' War. The siege began well for the English. They captured the outer forts and maintained a heavy barrage on the town. The despondent French sank lower and lower into despair. Joan, only 17, claimed divine guidance and convinced the dauphin to give her command of a relief force for Orleans. She sparked French resistance and gave new hope to the defeated army. To the French she was a saint. Then suddenly the balance shifted.  Joan led the French troops and  broke through the extensive blockades with reinforcements and supplies for the hungry city

She was eventually captured by the English, tried for heresy by an ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake when she was nineteen years old. Eyewitnesses described the scene of the execution on May 30, 1431. Tied to a tall pillar, she asked two of the clergy to hold a crucifix before her. A peasant also constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she died, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics. They cast her remains into the Seine.

Joan has been a political symbol in France since the time of Napoléon. Liberals emphasized her humble origins. Early conservatives stressed her support of the monarchy. Later conservatives recalled her nationalism. During World War II, both the Vichy Regime and the French Resistance used her image: Vichy propaganda remembered her campaign against the English with posters that showed British warplanes bombing Rouen and the ominous caption: "They Always Return to the Scene of Their Crimes. "The resistance emphasized her fight against foreign occupation and her origins in the province of Lorraine, which had fallen under Nazi control. Three French Navy ships have been named after her, including a helicopter carrier currently in active service. The controversial French far-right political party Front National holds rallies at her statues, reproduces her likeness in party publications, and uses a tricolor flame partly symbolic of her martyrdom as its emblem. The French civic holiday in her honor is the second Sunday of May.

One of the legends that has circulated about her, though unsubstantiated, is that she was miraculously spared from feeling the actual pain of the fire during her execution, and died a physically, as well as spiritually peaceful death. However, the best known film and stage dramatizations of her life clearly show her experiencing at least some pain at the time of the execution, with the notable exception of Shaw's play Saint Joan, but that is only because the burning takes place offstage in the play - it is shown in the 1957 Otto Preminger film version with Jean Seberg.

Other memorable film portrayals of Joan include Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Leelee Sobieski in the TV miniseries Joan of Arc (1999); Milla Jovovich in The Messanger (1999); Florence Carrez in Robert Bresson's brilliant The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962),and Ingrid Bergman in Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc (1948) and again Roberto Rossellini's Joan of Arc (1954). She was also immortalized musically by Tchaikovsky in The Maid of Orleans .

The French who obviously have a great sense of humor often celebrate her feastday with pain perdu (lost bead), the original French toast. The recipe for this popular dish can be traced  back to at least the twelfth century. The early recipes for pain perdu did not use milk.  The bread or brioche was soaked  in egg yolks and fried in butter. Later recipes added flavorings, such as rose water, brandy, and orange, to the yolks. Milk did not appear in the recipes until the nineteenth century.

To make this dish more commemorative, the toast should be served with cotignac, a French quince marmalade paste that is an Orleans specialty. This extraordinary preserve was once flavored with musk and presented as a gift to visiting royalty. When Joan came to lift the siege of Orleans, cotignac was the first gift presented to her. Quinces or winter pears were one of the most popular fruits of the middle ages. The fruit is extremely sour and was primarily used in jams and marmalades.  The best quinces come from Portugal and the Portuguese for quince is marmalo.  Marmalade is based on the word marmalo since the first marmalade was made with quinces.

Pain Perdu (French Toast)


2 eggs 3 TB sugar 1 cup milk dash of nutmeg 3  TB butter 2 medium slices of French bread powdered sugar for dusting toast


  1. Beat together egg and sugar; add milk and nutmeg.

  2. Dip slices of bread in the egg mixture then fry in hot butter until browned on each side

  3. Dust toast with powdered sugar



10 quinces 4 oranges, pealed, and pips removed 1 to 2 cups sugar water


  1. Wash the quinces to remove the 'bloom', then chop and place in a pot. Add the lemon juice and apple pips. Add enough water to barely float the fruit - at most, barely cover the quinces.

  2. Peel, core and slice quinces.

  3. Put 4  peeled, sliced and cored quinces  into a pan with water not quite covering them. Bring them to the boil and cook for 30 minutes.

  4. Strain through a colander, then the resulting juice through 2 thicknesses of muslin to extract as much juice as possible.

  5. In the quince juice cook another 6  peeled, sliced and cored quinces, prepared oranges, skinned and  Simmer for 1 hour, and put the mixture through a sieve, so as to obtain a thick puree; weigh the puree, add an equal quantity of sugar, return to the pan and cook until the mixture begins to come away from the sides.

  6. Allow to cool and store in jars and refrigerate.

© 2011 Gordon Nary


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