There is some combat in my Joan of Arc play. I don’t want to rob the fun of some future fight choreographer, and I am certainly not qualified to safely fulfill their creative duties anyway. But, at the same time, I think writers have a responsibility beyond mere suggestion. In my view, this—
So, for The Apostate, I’ve been researching medieval combat. Eventually I’ll study the historical battles she participated in, but I am also curious about the basics, including how medieval soldiers were trained.
Although I knew fairly quickly I wanted to write a training sequence, I didn’t know what form it would take. This is how I stumbled upon the pell, a prime example of how research leads to amazing and unexpected new things.
I already knew the Duke of Alençon was impressed by Joan’s jousting ability— and others cited her prowess with the cannon, particularly during the battle at Troyes— but neither of these seem especially viable for recreation on the stage.
Within my specific play, the sword-training demonstrates Joan’s entry into the male-dominated business of war, as part of the continuum of her clothing, her manner, and her calling— which then connects to the historical assertion that Joan preferred to lead with her banner. This will eventually find completion within the play when Joan testifies at her trial that she never killed anyone.
This is one of several mini-arcs, reverse-engineered from history with theatrical imagination.
“I bore this standard when we went forward against the enemy to avoid killing anyone. I have never killed anyone.”
—Joan of Arc, at her trial in Rouen (1431)
—Joan of Arc, at her trial in Rouen (1431)
So, the pell!
The pell is essentially a post of wood jabbed into the ground and you whack it with your sword. But, training with the pell meant treating it as an actual adversary— using comparable force as you would against an opposing knight. The post represents a human being, so it was generally six-feet tall, but without limbs, though some were decorated to resemble one’s enemy.
Unlike the quintain, a similar tool used for joust training, the pell did not rotate or otherwise move in response to strikes. But it also wasn’t an unmovable object, lest you break things you weren’t meant to.
Sometime around 1410, when Joan was but four or so (I’ve been reading conflicting reports of her age, apparently even she didn't know), French writer Christine de Pisan wrote a manual on chivalry called Les Livre des Faits d’Armes et de Chevallerie— “The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry.”
Considered the first European professional woman of letters, de Pisan wrote love ballads, political treatises, poems, and more. She was known for serving the French court with her talents— including its opposing factions.
I first became aware of de Pisan when I found her 61-stanza poem Le Ditie de Jehanne d'Arc— published only a few days after Joan saw Charles VII coronated in Reims. As far as we know, this is the first and only work of art written about Joan during her life-time. The poem ends with this line:
Explicit a very beautiful poem composed by Christine.
The poem is de Pisan's final work.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find de Pizan again while reading about the pell. I have yet to find evidence de Pizan met Joan, but that doesn't mean it won't happen in my play.
Along with her own pacifist commentaries on the evils of war and the dangers of the technological advancements of her time, de Pisan included translations of various classical texts, including those from fourth century Roman writer Flavius Vegetius Renatus.
Vegetius said such things as, “He who desires peace, should prepare for war” and “It is much better to overcome the enemy by famine” and “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.”
Vegetius’ work detailed the training of legionnaires attacking stakes and using various footwork techniques. See, you didn’t just stand there and beat the post to splinters. You engaged your imagination— you might even say you acted. The post was your most agile foe, and you dodged and defended against its unseen— and unfelt!— counter-attacks.
In this regard, de Pisan’s manual states the warriors’ training included, “the turning of swiftness to cast and fight with both their arms, and the manner how they shall avoid or withdrawal themselves from strokes that in traverse or siding may come.” She also writes, “[attacking the stake was] all about avoiding and turning here and there, and in this manner of fighting and assaulting they learned.”
But the training scene in my play occurs on the road, where no pell is available. And so I have Jean de Metz volunteer to act as Joan’s training pell. He was leader of Joan’s traveling band on their way to meet the Dauphin. Some sources refer to him as “Sir” during this time, but he was still, as yet, a squire— many of the movies often replicate this historical error.
Generally, wooden swords or batons were used to train at the pell. On the road in my play Joan only has her metal sword— in fact, the one given to her by Captain de Baudricourt back in Vaucouleurs.
Perhaps you can guess where this is going.
At least I hope you do when you watch the play, because that’s the tension I’m going for— and it’s also part of the play’s tonal trajectory— as this Joan realizes precisely what her terrestrial military mission will soon entail.
In the excerpt below, Joan (anglicized version of Jehanne) is arguing with a servant named Auguste (a composite character of my invention). As Joan’s brother Pierre and the squire Pollichon watch, Auguste needles Jehanne about her alleged authority, given her youthful age. Like the historical Joan, this one is also uncertain when she was born.
“By the height of a tree” originally read “by the rings of a tree,” but then I thought I better check when we started using the rings of trees as age markers. Well, good thing I did, because one— I learned this is called dendrochronology— and two— apparently it was Leonardo da Vinci some fifty years later. So, as this isn’t a particularly funny rejoinder, it will likely change. Though I note “height of a tree” kinda works? Joan was 5’ 2”.
When de Metz says “béhourd,” he is referring to both a public combat match and the area in which it is held. I’ll also note, I’m pretty sure you can’t actually toss a horse tack to a guy to use as a makeshift shield— all sorts of things for future me to grapple with.
Want to build you own modern pell? I found some pdf instructions you can download for free from the aptly titled Feder & Pell.