Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality

Joan of Arc: the Legend and the Reality
© 1959 Frances Gies
306 pages

Few historical characters, and no women, are more famous than Joan of Arc. Her name and story are known throughout the world. In the Middle Ages there were women to led armies, female mystics who prophesied and gave advice, and men and women alike whose beliefs led them to the stake. Joan’s story has a unique quality, a fairy tale with a tragic ending, invested with her own personality -- her common sense, her trenchant speech, her indomitable courage, before the judges of Rouen as in the moat at Orleans. (259)

Joan of Arc has long fascinated me, beginning when I read about her in my seventh-grade world history book. A girl of fourteen, leading the French army to victory and ending a century-long war? She remains of interest to me, and so when in the course of hunting my next Gies read I saw Joan of Arc,  of course I wanted to read it. Frances and her husband Joseph Gies are both medieval historians who collaborated on a series of “Daily Life in the Medieval Ages” books,  but each have their pet interests. As is characteristic of the Gies, Joan of Arc is both readable and thorough.  Details abound, but Gies sets those details within the larger context . She explains the course of the war to that point -- now dominated more by the civil war betweens the houses of Orleans and Burgundy than by English territorial ambitions -- and smartly gives the reader background on aspects of French medieval culture  that are pertinent to the biography.

Gies draws on many primary and secondary sources, which she identifies and analyzes at the book’s outset.  These sources sometimes conflict, especially when judging Joan’s character and integrity. Some of the sources are biased to the point of being farcical, providing a laugh here and there.  Although Gies is sometimes protective of her subject, she makes a strong effort to portray a less romanticized Joan -- a human hero.  The book does not end with Joan’s death or even the Rehabilitation trial that followed it twenty years later, overturning the English sentence that she was a heretical witch who deserved her fate at the stake:  instead, Gies examines the ways Joan has been received as history has progressed. This historiography of Joan does not extend far past the late 19th century, though: no mention is given of Joan's use in the propaganda war between the Vichy government of occupied France and the Resistance.

All told, Joan of Arc is certainly a worthy read for those interested in her life, although I would recommend reading it alongside a history of the Hundred Years War. (I would recommend Desmond Seward’s  treatment of the war, having used it for several term papers.)

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