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Secret history of France's cities: Rouen

In the first of a series revealing the hidden histories of France’s cities, art historian and medievalist Julia Faiers turns the spotlight on Rouen in Normandy

The capital of Normandy is known to many of us through the iconic image of one building – its medieval cathedral – in the sublime daubs of Impressionist painter Claude Monet.

His world-famous canvasses of Rouen’s Notre-Dame cathedral, many of them sun-kissed and ethereal, offer a beautiful and romantic vision of this imposing edifice.

But what drama and darkness these old stones have witnessed!

The event for which Rouen is most famous, or perhaps infamous, concerns La Pucelle, the Maid of Orléans.

During the Hundred Years War between the English and the French, Joan of Arc was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in Rouen’s Place du Vieux Marché in 1431. She was just 19 years old.

At her heresy trial on 24 May, 1431, one week before her conviction and execution, she spoke the following words: “I will maintain what I have always said at my trial.

And if I were to be condemned and saw the fire lit and the wood prepared and the executioner who was to burn me ready to cast me into the fire, still in the fire would I not say anything other than I have said. And I will maintain what I have said until death.”

Rouen’s relationship with the warrior martyr is curious. Initially denounced as a heretic, a witch and a madwoman, a posthumous second trial in 1456, authorised by Pope Callixtus III, resulted in the Maid being pronounced innocent and declared a martyr.

In 1920, Joan was made a saint, and today France considers her a national heroine.

But her story has been manipulated over the centuries, making it hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

Her myth grew in the 19th and 20th centuries to such an extent that this peasant-girl warrior transformed into a commercial commodity. 

Believe it or not, Joan of Arc-branded kidney beans came on to the American market in 1895 and are still in production today, and Joan of Arc cheese was imported from France to the US in 1918.

The mythical version of the woman spurred on French soldiers during World War I, who wore Joan of Arc medals into battle.

In 1867, a jar found in a Parisian pharmacy claimed to contain remains found under the stake from Joan of Arc’s pyre. 

They included the charred fragments of a human rib.

In 2006, a forensic scientist analysed the relics, declaring them a forgery carefully constructed from bits of Egyptian mummy.

The black, charred material was not burnt human tissue, but an embalming mixture of bitumen, wood resins and gypsum.

How do we separate truth from fantasy? A new museum in Rouen, the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, was founded to do just this.

Set in the old archbishops’ palace, where Joan was condemned to death and then later pardoned, the museum offers a hi-tech, immersive experience focused on the facts.

Another part of the museum, the Mythothèque, shows how art and politics have shaped the myth of Joan.

The fact this museum is housed in the medieval archbishop’s palace where both her trials took place seems a fitting legacy to the young woman whose story was hijacked and mythologised after her death. It sets the record straight.

Although Joan of Arc’s violent end remains the dominant legacy of this city, there are other hidden historical gems to discover in Rouen.

The cathedral has its own dramatic story – it burned down in 1200, was rebuilt in the 13th century, then restored and embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries to give us the facade Monet immortalised on canvas.

Cathedral building is an expensive business, and the bishop who commissioned the construction of the facade’s right-hand tower, the Tour de Beurre, gained a financial leg-up from a tax he levied on townspeople who didn’t want to give up butter for Lent.

Each person could donate six deniers tournois (old currency) which paid for the magnificent structure. 

Want to know more?


Joan of Arc. A History, by Helen Castor (Faber & Faber, 2015)

A Brief History of the Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453 (Robinson, 2003)


Sparrow, the true story of Joan of Arc, by Michael Morpurgo (Harper Collins Childrens’ Books, 2012)

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