15th Century

Book Review: Timothy Wilson-Smith’s Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History


Timothy Wilson-Smith. Joan of Arc:  Maid, Myth and History.
United Kingdom:  Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006.

Timothy Wilson-Smith’s Joan of Arc:  Maid, Myth and History is a broad, in depth, overview of the historical figure, Joan of Arc.  Wilson-Smith seeks to provide the reader with a full-bodied account of the French heroine and saint by not only accounting for her life, trial, and death by execution, but by what played out after her death—the rehabilitation of her guilty verdict, the various historical accounts, her eventual canonization, and finally her portrayal by various writers, poets, playwrights, even film and Hollywood.

The purpose of the author is somewhat misleading at first.  In the Prologue, Wilson-Smith begins a discussion of abnormal psychology as he relates the first occurrence of Joan hearing voices.  The reader might be immediately led to believe that this book is a study on whether Joan of Arc was mentally disturbed or not, which could be a detriment as some readers might not continue.  However, if the reader proceeds, she will find that the author is merely setting the stage for a depiction of Joan’s judges being ill-equipped to deal with a woman who “had unusual religious experiences” (1).

The subject of Joan of Arc is a passionate one for me and, I am sure, for many others.  If not, how else could this 15th century figure have endured for so long?  Wilson-Smith portrays every aspect of the subject of Joan.  He starts with her early life, takes us through her “calling” and her admonition as “The Maid”.  We follow her through her approach of Charles, the Dauphin of France, her battles, and her presence at the coronation of the Dauphin as King Charles VII.  Finally, the reader is present at her trial and her execution—as she is burned at the stake.  Although the author speaks of these events in a factual tone, the reader is transported, as if there.

The reader is also given an excellent look at how Joan has been portrayed historically and fictionally by various historians, theologians, and writers.  A poem by Christine de Pisan, Ditie’ de Jehanne d’Arc, “took up the case of the most extraordinary woman of the age” (97).  The Journal du siege d’ orleans et du voyage de Reims, the longest chronicle favorable to Joan.  During the time of Shakespeare, Holinshed’s ‘Union of (the) Families of York and Lancaster’ spoke unfavorably of Joan, “she rode horses in an unmaidenly way and kept her virginity because she was ugly” (161).  In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan portrays her as “a stubborn, spirited young woman, condemned by well-intentioned judges” (201) and the more recent Hollywood production of Luc Besson’s 1999 film The Messenger which depicts Joan as a hysteric.  The author’s method of tying together the scholarly and pop culture treatments of the subject of Joan of Arc make this book very approachable by professional and lay person alike.

The book is an excellent source on the subject of Joan of Arc.  Wilson-Smith gives the reader a wide range of discussion of the events during and after her life.  He ties the past to the present by linking the way various people, from her time to ours, viewed Joan and how they felt about her.  One shortcoming in the book is in the parts about the trial.  The author is redundant at times in his repetition of the events of Joan’s trial.  This could be due to the actual documentation of the trial, which Wilson-Smith states in his notes “the boring way in which the evidence was recorded by trained lawyers…” (230).

The author used many sources.  One of his main sources was compiled by Jules-Etienne-Joseph Quicherat from manuscripts in the Bibliotheque royale in the 1840s.  Proces de condamnation et de rehabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc, dite La Pucelle:  publies pour la premiere fois d’apres les manuscripts de la Bibliotheque royale, suivis de tous les documents historiques qu’on a pu reunir, et accompagnes de notes et d’eclaircissements was published in five volumes.  The early histories of Joan of Arc appear in the fourth volume.  Wilson-Smith used predominantly secondary sources dating from the late 1500s through 2004.  The author seems in tune with current scholarly arguments, such as Marina Warner’s exploration of Joan and female heroism in Joan of Arc:  The Image of Female Heroism.  Although this source dates from 1981, the author uses a great many sources within ten years of his 2006 publication date.

Overall, Joan of Arc:  Maid, Myth and History provides the reader with a well-rounded view of Joan of Arc.  Wilson-Smith gives the background of a historical heroine and then skillfully propels her in to the modern psyche, making her relevant in the past and the present.  If one was not a fan of, or did not have an interest in, “The Maid”, upon reading this book, one would be hard put not join “the Cult of Joan”.
Written October 10, 2007, Michelle Miller

Categories: 15th Century, historical figures, Joan of Arc | Tags: | 4 Comments

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