Joan of Arc’s story is absolutely captivating. As woman called to save her kingdom through warfare she went against so many social norms and conventions for her gender. She was many things people look up to: fearless, strong, brave, and utterly determined to save France. It’s with good reason her story has captivated so many people including a pope who had her canonized and the author Mark Twain. Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the biography I chose to read and she does a good job at providing a detailed account of Joan’s life.
Joan came from fairly humble beginnings as part of a middle-class family. She lived in the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France. She watched as her village was ravaged by war by one side or the other.
When Joan was 13 she began to hear the voices of angels and saints convincing her that she had an important role to fill. Joan was the predestined Pucelle or virgin that would lead France to victory. But she faced an uphill task, convincing people of who she was destined to be, including her own family. That a woman could lead an army to victory was hard to swallow. Eventually, the people around her were convinced, in no small part due to Joan’s conviction. Once she convinced the people close to her she was able to gradually convince more and more people including the king and his advisors. Who was able to give Joan an army.
Joan’s ultimate goal was to get the King of France to his coronation in Reims. But in order to get there, the King had to travel through many cities captured by the English. Joan went from city to city freeing them from the English and was able to safely lead the King to her coronation. With each victory, her knights and the people in the cities she passed through became more and more enthralled by her. But even though she succeeded in her task, this was not enough. Joan wanted to free France from the English so she kept fighting battles and during one of these battles after the coronation she was injured and captured.
The English held her captive for a year during where she was imprisoned in small dark cells subjected to the treatment of antagonistic guards and many brutal interrogations from people who wanted nothing more than to prove that she was a liar and prove the visions she claimed came from God were instead from the devil. After a year captivity a trial was held and to avoid execution she said that her voices came from the devil but later when it became clear she was to be executed anyway she recanted, everything was true and from heaven. She was accused of wearing men’s clothes and was executed the same way witches were executed by burning alive at the stake.
After the execution people were convinced they had made a horrible mistake. Later, after Joan’s death another trial was held, one where she was declared innocent. She was eventually beautified and made a saint.
My Thoughts on the Book:
Kathryn Harrison provides a very detailed account of Joan’s life, especially of her military campaigns. The author does many things well in this biography, she provides a thorough accounting of Joan’s life and the skepticism that Joan faced. Although, at times the author herself comes off as a skeptic. But the reader can tell that the author finds this woman remarkable for what she accomplished.
The writing tended to be a little overly detailed for me. But I think that’s probably because I had very little background knowledge about the time period and about Joan herself so at times I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of detail. However, I think that someone who had an interest in Joan of Arc and had read some other materials and had some background knowledge would find this book quite interesting.
What I particularly liked about this book was the comparisons of the conceptions of Joan that pop culture has perpetuated. There are many different aspects of Joan and people create a Joan that mirrors the point that they are trying to make. The author includes many examples of how film and the other forms of media have changed the story of Joan to fit with the point that they are trying to get across. But the author makes sure that you know what is fact and what is fiction. I think I would actually have enjoyed learning more about the people and groups that identified with Joan of Arc, like the suffragettes.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It gave me a detailed understanding of a cultural icon that is ubiquitous in our society and this understanding will help me understand what these people are championing when they identify with Joan of Arc. This was a fascinating read.