The itinerary of Joan of Arc's two-year military career is well-documented enough, and the transcripts of her heresy trial in 1431 are sufficiently intricate and contradictory to tell devout Catholics and radical feminists alike what they most want to hear. Six centuries later, the verifiable details of the girl from Domrémy's life have come to matter less than the assortment of often-incompatible icons they have been used to construct.

Warrior Maiden

Even her name is disputed; or at least, the last thing she would have called herself is Joan of Arc. At her trial, she gave her given name of Jeanne as Jhenne, the spelling then common in her home region of Lorraine. When the grateful Dauphin granted her brothers a coat of arms, they chose two lilies - standing for purity - and a raised sword in her honour, and took the noble name du Lys, the name by which the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne referred to her. Joan herself liked to be known as the Maid, or La Pucelle.

The surname d'Arc appears to be a later corruption of Darc (the name she gave to the tribunal on her second appearance), perhaps attributed to her after she began to be associated with the Amazons of antiquity, renowned for the bows they carried and prominent in Renaissance epics such as Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene. Conversely, had her family name suggested so obvious a play on words for a warrior maiden, it would most likely have been reflected in 'her' coat of arms, according to the heraldic custom of the time.

Joan's conflation with an abstract personification of virtue has persisted to this day, but others have been more inspired by her personal heroism or by her decision to cut her hair and wear male clothing - taken as a symbol of her courage, perhaps. The essentials of her story offered Friedrich Schiller enough material to turn her into a nineteenth-century Romantic's poster girl in his 1801 play The Maid of Orleans.

The rural connection and the mysticism are all there in The Maid, but Schiller saw fit to give her an English lover called Lionel on the other side of the lines and a full-scale battlefield death scene. Giuseppe Verdi's opera Giovanna d'Arco, premiered in 1845, closely follows the Schiller.

Daughter of the Nation

Modern French nationalism, in its conservative variant at least, found new uses for Joan, although the French revolutionaries had little time for her, finding her Catholicism too reminiscent of the ancien régime they were striving to destroy, and the entirely fictional Marianne was created as their replacement icon.

The Third Republic, however, was born in 1871 after France had lost Joan's home province in the Franco-Prussian War, and her legend was recycled as an emblem of defiance to Berlin. Joan became a constant figure in French propaganda during World War I which, for France, revolved around the defence of her northern territories and the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine.

Joan's most famous monument, her gilded statue in the Place des Pyramides in Paris, dates from the early years of the Third Republic. The sculpture was made in 1874 by Daniel Frémiet, who chose as his model a fifteen-year-old girl, Valerie Laneau, from her home town.

During the Dreyfus Affair, which divided the liberals and conservatives of the Republic in the 1890s, both sides found themselves able to take up Joan of Arc as a figurehead. Dreyfus' defenders, of whom the most prominent was Émile Zola, drew parallels with the anti-Semitism from which Dreyfus had suffered and the way in which the fifteenth-century Church Militant had denounced Joan's activities as witchcraft.

Yet the right-wing nationalists of Action Francaise, which grew out of the extremist wing of the anti-Dreyfusards, were also able to use Joan to reflect their own royalism, even though its leader Charles Maurras had little attachment to Catholicism beyond its value as an instrument with which to mobilise the French right.

In 1904, street-fighting broke out after youths from the Camelots du Roi, a royalist organisation, objected to lectures given by a staunch republican professor, Amédée Thalamas, putting forward the liberals' version of Joan.

After Joan was canonised by the Vatican in 1920, nationalist groups made it their custom to hold rallies on her feast day by her statue in the Place des Pyramides. In 1988, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National changed the date to May Day so that it would compete with socialist demonstrations.

Le Pen is a particular admirer of Joan of Arc, and has filled his house with various devotional statues of the saint. Curiously, or perhaps not, the right-wing Joans seem almost without exception to have long, golden hair, despite the charge laid against her by the Rouen tribunal that she wore 'her hair cropped round, in man's style.'

Search For A Star

Le Pen and Maurras, however, are far from the only ones to impose their own preoccupations on a woman whose legend seems to turn her, at times, into an empty vessel, no more or less real than the epic Balkan battles fought and re-fought in poetry and national memory. The British suffragette Christabel Pankhurst depicted herself as Joan on her movement's badges, and Vita Sackville-West's essay on Joan dropped very strong hints that she, like Sackville-West, had been a lesbian.

George Bernard Shaw, whose play Saint Joan is one of his most famous works, emphasises the confidence of a simple peasant girl against the political establishment of the time, directing the actress to speak her lines with a somewhat incongruous West Country accent. When Otto Preminger filmed the play in 1957, he thankfully dropped the accent, but conducted a nationwide search for an unknown girl to represent Joan.

His eventual choice, Jean Seberg, became one of the cinema's most recognisable Joans, with vulnerable doe eyes and a Mia Farrow crop eleven years too early. The role of Joan has, only naturally, attracted some of the best-known actresses of their time, including the Third Republic's darling Sarah Bernhardt, who won acclaim for portraying a string of national heroines from Joan to the Jacobin Théroigne de Merincourt. It was a juxtaposition of which Théroigne would surely not have approved.

The very first film to do with Joan of Arc appears to have been made as early as 1895, and Cecil B. DeMille made her life his subject in one of his early silent efforts, which starred Geraldine Farrar in the title role. One may or may not wish that he had revisited the girl at the peak of his career. Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is accounted one of silent film's finest hours, and featured another then-amateur actress, Renée Falconetti. Unlike Seberg, Falconetti never made another film.

Second to Dreyer's masterpiece in the artistic merit stakes is most probably Robert Bresson's 1962 reconstruction of Joan's trial in Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, in which Joan was played by Florence Delay.

Ingrid Bergman played Joan twice: in 1948 for Victor Fleming, and in 1954 for Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini's film, Giovanna d'Arco al rogo, was a dramatisation of an oratorio based on medieval mystery plays. The international relations expert Jean Bethke Elshtain credits the 1948 movie, which she saw as a girl of eight, with first awakening her interest in women and war, although she transmuted her initial identification with Joan into her trademark argument that women should reject militarism.

Two Joans competed in 1999: Leelee Sobieski, supposedly descended from the royal Polish house of Sobieski, took on the role for a TV movie eclipsed in ambition and budget by Luc Besson's labour of love starring Milla Jovovich. Besson never quite seems to light upon one coherent Joan, and Jovovich literally chops and changes to match. How Joan managed to have strawberry blonde highlights in the fourteenth century, or for that matter turn up at the stake as a dead ringer for Lisa Stansfield, is presumably another divine mystery.

Besson variously presented Joan as a borderline schizophrenic, the avenger of her {fictional) sister raped and murdered by the English invader, and a religious zealot whose fervour seems, now, even more chilling than Besson could have intended. Almost unintentionally, her individualism and strength of character appear to shine through nonetheless when she tells her squire in Rheims cathedral of the saints' voices that she hears: 'And you can hear them, if you really want to', perhaps the most truly heroic message that can be extracted from her many afterlives.