Posts Tagged With: history

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

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: 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

Blog at