SO, WAS the message from God, or from t'other fellow? Joan
of Arc: God's warrior (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) was
superior to most historical documentaries, if only for the
seriousness with which it presented the crucial context of
religion, theology, and faith.
Helen Castor was a splendid writer and presenter, showing how
the medieval mind sought to come to a judgement about the Maid of
Orleans. It was to be expected that God, through his saints and
angels, would vouchsave revelations to chosen individuals: the
problem was that the Father of Lies played the same game. Were
Joan's visions holy or diabolical?
The astonishing victories over the English and Burgundian
alliance would suggest that God was with her; her shameless
flouting of God-given norms on how women must behave and dress
indicated that, on the contrary, she was in the grip of dark
Castor's achievement was to make these concerns not primitive
superstition, but matters that made perfect sense in the
world-picture of the day. Indeed, the trial scrupulously sifted the
evidence, sickeningly at odds with the ghastly sentence to which
she was condemned.
Castor also pointed out the contemporary resonance: we would do
well to take seriously today's claims of divine sanction for
military and political action rather than resort to instinctive
dismissal. If the 15th-century religious context was muddled, then
so was the political picture. A simplistic view of a peaceful
France thrown into turmoil by the perfidious English is untenable -
the rival claims to the French crown were debatable, and, although
he owed her his crown, Charles VII did not seek to save her from
her fate. Recent defeats proved that, even if God had originally
used her as his instrument, she clearly was not one any longer: she
could be abandoned.
Another charismatic war leader thrown - less dramatically - to
the lions was depicted in Churchill: When Britain said no
(BBC2, Monday of last week). Contemporary newsreel, convincing
dramatic reconstructions, and many historians told the story of
Churchill's election defeat weeks after VE Day.
It was a persuasive work of revisionism, showing that adulation
for the Prime Minister was far less universal than popular myth
suggests, and that the electorate had sound reasons for judging
that Clement Atlee's radical vision of a new Britain was far closer
to what they had fought for than Churchill's romantic imperial
The problem with Apocalypse Code: The Bible prediction
(Channel 5, Friday) was not that it took seriously the inanities of
fundamentalist Rapturists, but that it found time for so much
first-rate proper biblical scholarship as well, without choosing
between the two.
The programme would have been a power for good had it only
endorsed its theologians' explanations that the Apocalypse sought
to interpret by the light of faith contemporary events - Nero's
persecution, the Parthian threat - rather than set up a mystical
code to be solved 2000 years later. But disaster-movie depictions
of the so-called end time made for sexier TV.