historical figures

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

Guest Post: Robert Parry, author of Virgin and the Crab

 Welcoming author Robert Parry today in honor of the 3rd Birthday of his debut novel, Virgin and the Crab (this is a cross post from Historical Fiction Connection)!

HISTORICAL FICTION – A Writer’s Perspective on Celebrating the 3rd Birthday of his Debut Novel

Once upon a time, in the days before the interenet and the advent of so much of the passionate discussion that we now encounter online, the work of the writer of historical fiction was relatively easy. One simply got hold of a biography or two, looked up a few facts and figures, dates and places, and hey-presto! The author could then just let his or her imagination run riot and delight everyone with yet another story about their chosen heroes, all those kings and queens of bygone days and all their legendary exploits!
Now, however, it is all so different. Now every possible item of information about every prominent historical figure is scrutinised and picked to pieces by whole armies of avid enthusiasts. Do you think you know where Queen Elizabeth was located on such and such a date, who she was with, or even what she might have been eating for dinner? It’s all out there … somewhere. And it changes quite often, too. So if you are not content with one version of events, you can always find an alternative point of view, supported by this or that document or state paper or erudite thesis from prominent scholars or TV personalities who all insist they have the right answer. There also seems to be a clear trend – away from information written down by people who actually lived at the time (unreliable – what did they know, anyway!) towards the discovery of more and more unromantic counter-assertions that seek to ‘put the record straight’ or ‘explode the myths.’ There are even a number of historians who have become novelists themselves! The whole genre has moved up a notch. Or has it?
The question is, should writers of historical fiction now be quaking in their boots at the prospect of any new venture they plan? Should they pepper their pages with footnotes and provide appendices explaining why they chose to write what they did, and the sources they used – a little apologetic perhaps just in case they might have drifted too far into the realms of speculation or untruth? Should they? No, of course not. That’s why, whenever I sit at my desk and reach for the keyboard, I console myself with the recollection that literature, be it good bad or indifferent, is a branch of the arts. And whenever the day comes when artists begin to worry about what they write or whether it conforms to some external standard of conduct, or version of ‘truth’ as perceived at the time, then it probably ceases to be art at all – and then we are all in big trouble.
Well, all this might sound terribly irresponsible, and anarchic, and there are certainly many people who would disagree. But my assertion is this: it is every bit as interesting for writers and readers of historical fiction to speculate on what their characters might have been thinking about, dreaming about and imagining for themselves, as it is to describe what they actually did. This approach provides us with a number of possible insights into the past, insights that can reveal how the world we live in today might have been formed and, ultimately, why we are who we are, and why we think the way we do. And that, I believe, is important.
Thanks to Michelle for her continued support of this novel and for hosting this article here today. ‘Virgin and the Crab’ is named after the astrological signs of the two main characters: Virgo (the Virgin) for Elizabeth Tudor, and Cancer (the Crab) for her illustrious mentor John Dee. It is set in a period of twelve short years (1547 to 1559) in which England saw no less than two kings and three queens upon the throne in rapid succession. As you can imagine, there certainly was a lot of research needed in the making of it. But it’s not a history book, and the sub-title should serve as a suitable health warning: ‘Sketches Fables and Mysteries from the Early Life of John Dee and Elizabeth Tudor.’ In other words it is all rather theatrical; dramatic and full of fantasy, dreams and speculation.
To celebrate it’s 3rd Birthday there is a giveaway contest taking place over at The True Book Addict. Good luck, if you enter.
My website is on: http://robertparry.wordpress.com

And looking forward, perhaps, to meeting you on my Facebook page, too, sometime: https://www.facebook.com/RobertParry.author

Categories: 16th century, historical fiction, historical figures, history, Queen Elizabeth I, Tudors | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

This is a cross post from my book blog, The True Book Addict.

My thoughts:

Once again, I am fascinated and impressed with Rose’s knowledge of reincarnation.  By now, everyone knows about my interest and belief in the subject and I truly never tire of reading about it, whether it be in a fictional context or in non-fiction (although some may argue that it’s all fictional).  What I like about Rose’s portrayal of the subject is her incorporation of it with history, as well as the current events of the day.

In this book, the fourth installment in The Reincarnationist series, we are treated to ancient Egypt, another subject of endless fascination for me, and the culture’s use of fragrance as a link to past lives, particularly during the Ptolemaic period.  From there, we are whisked forward to present day China and the endless struggle between Tibet and the Chinese government to control the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama.  As usual, there is mystery and intrigue, which adds a suspenseful element to the story.  For me though, the historical aspects of the story are sufficient to keep my interest.  Add in a bit of alchemy, and you have a well-rounded and interesting story of history, science, and mysticism.

The beauty of this series is that you really can read the books without having read the earlier books.  I still have not read the first and second books in the series (although they are on my shelf), but I had no problem reading the third, The Hypnotist, and the fourth (this one) books as stand alone novels.  Rose is a talented author, with a gift for writing about a subject of whic she is clearly passionate.  I sincerely look forward to any and all future offerings from her, whether it be more books in this series, or a new set of books down the road.

About the book:

A sweeping and suspenseful tale of secrets, intrigue, and lovers separated by time, all connected through the mystical qualities of a perfume created in the days of Cleopatra–and lost for 2,000 years.

Jac L’Etoile has always been haunted by the past, her memories infused with the exotic scents that she grew up surrounded by as the heir to a storied French perfume company. In order to flee the pain of those remembrances–and of her mother’s suicide–she moved to America. Now, fourteen years later she and her brother have inherited the company along with it’s financial problems. But when Robbie hints at an earth-shattering discovery in the family archives and then suddenly goes missing–leaving a dead body in his wake–Jac is plunged into a world she thought she’d left behind.

Back in Paris to investigate her brother’s disappearance, Jac becomes haunted by the legend the House of L’Etoile has been espousing since 1799. Is there a scent that can unlock the mystery of reincarnation – or is it just another dream infused perfume?

The Book of Lost Fragrances fuses history, passion, and suspense, moving from Cleopatra’s Egypt and the terrors of revolutionary France to Tibet’s battle with China and the glamour of modern-day Paris. Jac’s quest for the ancient perfume someone is willing to kill for becomes the key to understanding her own troubled past.

Categories: 18th Century, Ancient Egypt, historical fiction, historical figures, history | Tags: | 1 Comment

Book Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

This is a cross post from my book blog, The True Book Addict.

My thoughts:

It was a perilous time during the reign of Henry the VIII of England.  Women who caught his eye and who were ‘lucky’ enough to be made his wife would not feel so lucky for long.  At least, in the case of a few of them.  Loyal servants who served his will in one instance could next find themselves out of favor and facing execution for some failing, many times through no fault of their own.  And none felt the danger more than the faithful who served at the monasteries, at the priories and abbeys throughout England at the time.  These institutions were being suppressed and the nuns and monks turned out (with or without pensions, depending on the situation) to either find houses in foreign countries or to find new ways of life.  For many, a life outside of an religious order was unthinkable, but they were given no choice as Henry appointed himself the head of the Church and ushered in a new era of religious reform.

It is among this strife that this excellent novel is set.  Meticulously researched, The Crown is at once a historical novel that the reader will learn a lot from.  I am always pleasantly surprised when I learn something new from a historical novel and in this case, I learned of King Athelstan, a king that I had never heard of.  Just when you think you know pretty much everything about a particular country’s history, something like this comes along to prove you wrong.  It happened to me here in a big way.  I can’t wait to go off on my own and read more about him and the legends surrounding him.  One of these legends is about his crown which is what the book is about.  There is a desperate search for this crown and so we are also given an exciting and interesting mystery along with the excellent historical prose.  I’m not kidding when I say exciting.  I was literally on the edge of my seat during many parts of the book.

Add to what I’ve said above the seamless incorporation of historical figures, such as Mary Tudor, Katherine of Aragon, Anne and George Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, as well as compelling and heroic characters, and this book easily takes a place on my list of great works of historical fiction.  Joanna is a heroine I have a strong liking and admiration for and I look forward to the continuation of the series in the second book, The Chalice.

About the book:

An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537…

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain.

But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive. At Malmesbury, secrets of the crown are revealed that bring to light the fates of the Black Prince, Richard the Lionhearted, and Katherine of Aragon’s first husband, Arthur. The crown’s intensity and strength are beyond the earthly realm and it must not fall into the wrong hands.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must now decide who she can trust with the secret of the crown so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.

Nancy Bilyeau’s Website

Nancy Bilyeau on Twitter: @TudorScribe

Categories: 16th century, Henry VIII, historical fiction, historical figures, history, Tudors | Leave a comment

The Inspiration…William Wallace

The name of this blog was inspired by the film, Braveheart, which depicted the life of the legendary Scottish hero, William Wallace.  Historical purists get their feathers all a-ruffle because of the film’s historical inaccuracies and, after reading up on the subject myself, I have to admit that the film did take many liberties.  However, one cannot disagree that it was a well-made and beautifully acted film which garnered an Academy Award for best picture and director (1995) and was on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time (#62), 100 Most Thrilling American Films (#91), and has been one of the 400 nominees for the AFI’s top 100 films list.  The film remains my number one favorite of all time and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Now I’d like to talk about the real William Wallace.  What I discovered in my personal reading (William Wallace: Brave Heart by James MacKay) on William Wallace was that he was in fact quite a tall man for the time period (not the average height of Mel Gibson), that he did have a wife that was murdered, although it did not happen the way it did in the film, and that he was an excellent battle strategist and did indeed fashion the long pikes from trees that were used so efficiently in the film’s depiction of the Battle of Stirling.  In further reading online, I have learned more, but many of the sites I’ve visited do admit that the line between legend and fact is somewhat blurred.  The reality is that there really is not much in the historical record about Wallace.  What is written about him is either accounts written by the English which I’m sure are biased toward the English point of view.  And then we have the account by the bard, Blind Harry, which was composed some 200 years after Wallace’s death.  How accurate can that be really?  So here I will share with you some bare bone facts (source: williamwallace.com) that are generally believed to be true regarding Wallace’s life.

  • Wallace was born around 1270 AD. The exact location has been under dispute in recent years.  Some site Elderslie in Ayrshire, while others say Ellerslie in Renfrewshire.  Both places are located in southwest Scotland.
  • There is an historical account of Wallace having killed the Sheriff of Lanark in 1297.  This occurrence is generally sited as the beginning of his ‘guerrilla’ campaign against the English, who were occupying Scotland.  That same year the Scottish were to be victorious at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  The English temporarily lost power in Scotland.  In 1298, Wallace was appointed the Guardian of Scotland, but would later resign after the Battle of Falkirk.
  • After his resignation in 1299, travelled on diplomatic missions in continental Europe and attempted to garner support from France against the English.  Upon his return to Scotland in 1301, he would continue to fight the English king Edward I (Longshanks).
  • In 1305, he was betrayed by Sir John Monteith and captured by the English.  He was sent to London, where he was executed most gruesomely (this part the film got right) by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.  His head was placed on a pike above London Bridge and the rest of his body parts were sent to and exposed at Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and Aberdeen.  Upon his death, he became a martyr for Scotland’s independence.

When Wallace was accused of treason, this is said to have been his reply:

“I can not be a traitor, for I owe him no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon.”

Whether we choose to believe in the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film, Braveheart, the fact remains that the film fulfilled one important aspect in the depiction of a historical figure…it inspired an interest in that historic persona and the time period.    If fictional historical depictions do that one thing right, then I really can see no reason to find fault.  I credit many films for inspiring my lifelong passion for history.  Watching the film, Excalibur, when I was but a preteen sparked an endless fascination and interest in the real King Arthur.  Gone with the Wind and Roots made me want to know more about slavery and the Civil War.  In more recent years, films such as Braveheart and Rob Roy have provoked an avid interest in Scottish history.  And the film Elizabeth and its sequel added to my interest and major admiration for Queen Elizabeth I.  And let’s not forget The Tudors and The Borgias, both excellent premium cable series that also present rather skewed historical accounts, but still instill that desire to further investigate the subjects being depicted.  To have inspired a lay person to become a scholar of history is a feat that not many textbooks have achieved.  You may agree or disagree with me on the subject, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my inspiration for the name of this blog.  I hope you will visit often, as I plan to share my passion for history, for historical books–both fiction and non-fiction, and for the depiction of history and historical figures in art.  I certainly would appreciate the company.

To read more about William Wallace, check out the following sites:




Categories: 13th century, historical figures, history, movies, William Wallace | Tags: , | 14 Comments

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