Saturday, June 24, 2017


"Joan of Arc: a Life Transfigured" is the story of the rise and fall of La Pucelle, the virgin warrior who claimed she was sent by God to save France.  Joan was born in 1412 and was only 17 years old, an age when most girls of her time were either married, betrothed or dreaming of it, when her “voices" told her to rescue Charles the Dauphin and lead him to Reims to be throned as France’s lawful king.  She was only 19 years old when she was burned at the stake on trumped up charges because she terrified the Burgundians and British, who feared her powers of inspiration over the rag-tag french army.
For two years in the late 1420s Joan, with her sharp eyes and strong will, was able to persuade the cream of French nobility to believe in her vision of expelling the English from French soil and autonomy for France.  Unfortunately for Joan, she had enemies among the Dauphin’s advisers, the clergy and the Burgundians who were allied with the British in these middling years of the 100 Years War. The British had been occupying France for 75 years.  It is only fair to say, from the British standpoint, they had a lawful right through birth to the area of France they occupied.  By Joan’s time, it was unclear who had a right to any of the fought over territory.
After successfully convincing a number of worthies as well as the Dauphin (though cautiously and half-hearted) to grant her funding for arms and men, Joan set out to drive the English from Orleans. By this time she had transformed herself from a simple village girl to a woman who donned fancy armor, cut her hair to a bob, and rode and spirited horse with confidence and skill.  Further, she seemed with little effort to be able to carry and use a heavy medieval lance. After a fierce battle, she shocked the superior British army with a victory achieved almost by force of will.  From there she and her army moved on to Jargeau, again with success.  Marching on to Reims with Charles, she sees him crowned in the grand cathedral amid pomp and ceremony.  Alas, the perfidious Charles under the influence of his closest advisor signed a four month truce with the Burgundians.

Unaware of this, Joan pushes on to other occupied cities.  By now, Joan is addicted to battle, for what is her purpose unless it is to fight for the ideals she believes in.  Unfortunately in 1430, Joan is captured at Compiegne along with her brother and squire.  Joan is moved from place to place until she arrives in Rouen where a public trial is to be held.  Luckily for historians, there is ample documentation of this travesty of justice, even held up to medieval standards.  The villain here is Bishop Cauchon who does his best to trap Joan into perjuring herself without success.  Joan seems to have a brilliant mind fully able to take on the court officials as well as the Church.  What finally undoes her is her deteriorating health caused by torture and poor diet. In a weak moment Joan agrees to certain conditions including putting on a dress.  She quickly returns to her male attire and is accused of being a lapsed heretic.  This is the final charge which leads to her burning at the stake.

Harrison has done a prodigious amount of research to give an accurate picture of Joan and life in medieval France.  There are excellent maps to help place battles and Joan’s travels through the countryside.  The author includes many references to artistic renderings of the myth of Joan by mentioning plays, movies, and quotes from famous authors such as Voltaire, Shaw and Twain.  I could have done without the movie and fiction accounts, though they only occupy a small part of the book.  Harrison is at her best explaining battles, Joan’s motivation, and village life. She gives an impressive account of Joan’s trial and sentencing.  There have been many many books on Joan in Europe and the Americas.  I found Harrison’s to be readable and interesting.  Joan still remains a mystery.  Did she hear voices, and have visits from angels and saints?  Did she make it all up or was she perhaps schizophrenic?  Whatever the answer, she has survived the ages and is an enduring symbol for French courage and bravery.

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