HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Joan of Arc and The Great Pity of the Land of France’ by Moya Longstaffe

Joan of Arc’s life and death mark a turning point in the destiny both of France and England and the history of their monarchies. ‘It is a great shame,’ wrote Étienne Pasquier in the late sixteenth century, ‘for no one ever came to the help of France so opportunely and with such success as that girl, and never was the memory of a woman so torn to shreds.’

Biographers have crossed swords furiously about her inspiration, each according to the personal conviction of the writer. As Moya Longstaffe points out: ‘She has been claimed as an icon by zealous combatants of every shade of opinion, clericals, anticlericals, nationalists, republicans, socialists, conspiracy theorists, feminists, yesterday’s communists, today’s Front National, everyone with a need for a figurehead. As George Bernard Shaw said, in the prologue to his play, “The question raised by Joan’s burning is a burning question still.”’

By returning to the original sources and employing her expertise in languages, the author brings La Pucelle alive and does not duck the most difficult question: was she deluded, unbalanced, fraudulent ‒ or indeed a great visionary, to be compared to Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi?

cover and blurb via amazon

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Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc, the girl dressed as a man, who heard godly voices telling her to run an army. But ask for more, the where, when and why, then the story becomes murkier. So a comprehensive book on Joan is perfect for anyone.

Joan, or Jeanette, was a woman, so naturally has been written in a less than ideal light throughout time. A saint, a lunatic, a heretic, a liar, witch, a leader. Poor Joan has been labelled it all. But who is Joan of Arc?

The book starts off with the detail of the country of Joan’s birth. ‘The Great Pity of the Land of France’ was the phrase, the pity being the sorry state of the country and the suffering of its people. First came civil war between the leaders of Orleans and Burgundy in the early 1400’s, before the English then  invaded France, with the massive battles of Harfleur, Agincourt and Rouen with King Henry V in 1415-1419. France was on its knees – a crazed leader, a dead dauphin, a ragged army and struggles for the people. Battles between France and England through the Hundred Years’ War, ending in 1453, is explained through this book, to give clarity to the life and situation that gave rise to such a heroine.

The book delves into Joan’s early life, the family who raised her, and what made her believe she was called by God to save her country. Joan of Arc was no great-sized warrior. An average girl of average height, her hair cut short like a soldier, the clothes of a soldier. Joan was not the first French woman to ride into battle but none before her had the qualities of young Joan. With God on her side, Joan was a unique figure. She set out from her home in Domrémy, where she had seen visions of  Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret from the age of 13. Leaving home at about 16 in 1428, Joan believed she had to drive the English out of France, and bring the King Charles to Reims where he would be crowned. Joan travelled to Vaucouleurs and petitioned an army commander with her tales of divine intervention. Joan told the men of tales of battle at Rouvray days before word spread to the area about the battle, convincing the army of her visions. What began was an extraordinary change in favour for the French army.

Joan was sent to meet with King Charles in 1429, age 17. Joan was sent on a relief mission to Orleans, all in donated armour, to be a message of hope to battling soldiers losing to the English. Some say Joan fought in battles, others say she merely sat in on military meetings and planning. Either way, for a young woman, any involvement is extraordinary for the time. But soon after Joan’s arrival, the French beat back the English, took Reims after other successful battles, and Joan’s family were ennobled. Her presence, her visions, her tales changed the war.

A year on and a truce with England collapsed and Joan was again at war and captured by Burgundy. She jumped from a tower up to 21 metres high to escape and had to be moved to a secure location. Then Joan was put on trial for heresy, a classic move when an enemy wanted to bring someone down. The English and the Burgundians wanted Joan gone. Not only guilty of heresy by claiming to hear saints, Joan was charged with cross-dressing, something only hated after she was caught. As a soldier, Joan was welcome to dress as a man, for necessity. Her male outfit also saved her chastity, and as soon as she was forced into a dress, an English lord attempted to rape her, allowing her back into male clothing.

The religious court lacked honesty or jurisdiction, and the English and Burgundians won out. Joan was found guilty of her charges, the penalty death at the stake. Joan was burned 30 May 1431 in Vieux-Marché in Rouen, and then her charred body was pulled from the ash and burned twice more to ensure her death. Both French King Charles and English boy-King Henry continued to claim hold over France, and the war carried on. It was not until 1452 did poor Joan get a retrial, ending in an innocent verdict in 1456, just as the wars finally ended in France’s favour.

I have to confess I did not know the detail of Joan of Arc’s life, so this book was of great interest. Someone interested in Joan may know all the facts as they are already known, but to me, the book is a treasure trove of detail on a great woman of history. Congratulations to the author for the wide research and careful construction of this great heroine.

 

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