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The legend of Joan of Arc has always been well known: The Maid of Orléans, poor and uneducated, touched with divine guidance, led the armies of France to key victories over the English, and was burned at the stake by her captors at the tender age of 19. Twenty-five years after her death, she was labeled a martyr and canonized in 1920. That's the story. Simple. Majestic. Powerful. Yet as we recognize the 600th anniversary of her birth this year (the date is unknown as the practice of recording the dates of non-noble births were not in effect in the 15th century), Nancy Goldstone tells us that, up until now, we have only heard half the story. With THE MAID AND THE QUEEN, history is opened to illustrate a connection between Joan and the oft-forgot Queen of Sicily, Yolande of Aragon.
Who is Yolande of Aragon, and just what part did she play in the story of Joan of Arc? Beautiful, ambitious, and educated in the manner of the men of her time, Yolande was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. France was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with England and Burgundy. The throne of France was in upheaval, with Charles VII unable to claim his right due to the occupation by England and the betrayal of his parents (they declared he could not be King as he was the product of an affair by Queen Isabeau). Fearing for his life, Charles fled to the Queen of the Four Kingdoms: Yolande of Aragon. She would provide him protection and a wife, her daughter Marie, and begin to use her political acumen and impressive network of spies to see that her son-in-law could claim his throne. Some of her ploys backfired, such as the assassination of Charles's cousin, but she was soon driven more than ever to find the one who would bolster Charles and turn the tide against the English.
That "one" would turn out to be Joan. Growing up in Domrémy on the farm of her father, situated in the duchy of Bar, Joan had a connection to Yolande. Yolande of Bar, mother of Yolande of Aragon, held the duchy as her ancestral home, and throughout history it was loyal to the king of France. At the time of Joan's youth, Domrémy was on the front lines of conflict, with the loyalists of Burgundy just across the river. Yolande of Aragon had even manipulated to have her uncle, the duke of Bar, select her son, René, as a successor, who would steadfastly hold Bar and Lorraine for Charles. Goldstone thus acknowledges that by the simple nature of the size of the region and by Joan's later requests for men from the duke, there is no way she would not have known who René was, or his connections. And since Yolande was seeking a heroine, one who was touched and who could kindle the fires of valiant combat for her king, the fact that Joan began to hear voices at around age 13 only drew the attention of the Queen and her people --- in particular, René, who set in motion the acts by which she would gain audience to Charles.
THE MAID AND THE QUEEN is divided into three sections: the life of Yolande, the life of Joan, and the wrap-up of the events following the life of Joan, the impact on France, and the final years of Yolande's life. This template serves the story very well. So much of the groundwork for Joan was in place before she was born, and showing the life of Yolande goes a long way to making the case for her involvement in the events to come. Citing medieval sources only written in French as well as Joan's trial documentation, the notion that Yolande pulled the strings that led to the success of France are quite plausible.
Goldstone weaves a remarkable dual biography. The intrigues of the history and the miraculous unfolding of the story of Joan make the book seem as gripping as any novel. Among the great positives is that it moves at an incredibly readable pace. One of the drawbacks to this is that so much more could have been laid out and explained, doubling the book's size. Perhaps others will follow in her footsteps and take up this line of inquiry. Until then, THE MAID AND THE QUEEN stands as a fascinating new take on the legacy and legend of Joan of Arc, and a great introduction to the oft-overlooked Queen of Sicily.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard
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Beth E. Williams
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Joan is a most endearing, and at times, unnerving, figure, regardless of whether or not we believe she heard voices (or what kind of voices, or to what purpose); but, for the historian or biographer she can only be described as a loaded subject (being both a political and religious phenomena).
So, when I read that a new study was coming out about her for the 600th anniversary I was not surprised, but the author, Nancy Goldstone, did give me pause, mostly with a quiver of excitement. Would Joan finally have a biographer who could make her improbable, short life the stuff of immediacy, with a palpable authenticity that we have missed despite numerous efforts to give us the "real" Joan?
Just on reputation alone I guessed Goldstone would be up to the challenge, she is one of the truly elite historians, she knows her subjects with a thoroughness that has overwhelmed even me, and I am a fool for mountains of research. It was a surprise, anyway, that in this parallel biography of a Saint and a Queen, Goldstone pursued a macro approach, one of assessment, vision, a summary only possible with historians who do know every last letter, document, writ, who inhale archives as if oxygen itself. From this massive saturation of information they distill an essence.
Goldstone, then, is not doing a straight chronological history, nor a political or social essay, she is stepping back and considering this phenomena, as Joan was seen in her own day, and as we see her after 600 years. There are also chapter ending statements, micro elements, the details or summary statements that pinpoint just when the whole narrative changed, when the dynamics of opinion and history writing coincide, or diverge, and left in the middle, stripped of all sorts of academic-speak, is a quite fine revelation of an era, a political system, a religious architecture that could sustain a young peasant from Domremy with a mission, and the Queen who could see that mission imbued with spiritual authority.
In many ways this was a new to me from Goldstone's earlier efforts, far more accessible to the non-history reader, and I think her best one yet. It took me a couple chapters before I realized what she was doing was not only the best course but an inspired one. One of the "problems" any writer has to address is a Subject for whom we have no surviving documents to reveal their personalities and decisions. Joan, in contrast, had extensive interrogation records that we can still read for ourselves, indeed, every serious biography or study of Joan would include them.
What Goldstone did is quite interesting from the perspective of having that rare Subject for whom we do have their own words but stretching past the almost cement stereotype of what we "see" and hear in those words. Is the Joan of the interrogations the only Joan, the full Joan? She was after all, a prisoner, more or less abandoned by the would-be king that she made an anointed real-king, still perhaps only 18 or 19 years old, completely illiterate, without counsel, and in what can only be described as an adversarial, defensive, vulnerable position. Any one word or phrase that could be used to damn her would be found, through endless sessions and repetitive questioning to catch her out. If we wanted to hear the Joan who was not being interrogated, what would that Joan sound like? Who is that Joan?
This is what I suspect Goldstone wanted to ask as well, and by couching Joan's very brief micro story within the context of the macro picture (court politics, gender politics, religious zealotry and religious hypocrites who lived side by side in Joan's world) she achieves what I have never seen even tried. The means by which she cuts through the "Joan-being-interrogated" persona that we all know too well to the fuller grasp of this odd young woman, is the device of Queen Yolanda of Aragon. Now that lady deserves a biography of her own! Fortunately, for the readers, we do get some measure of this equally resolute, indomitable, highly ethical woman in the process of getting to the essence of Joan of Arc.
What an achievement. For those who are new to Goldstone use this as a springboard to her earlier efforts on the Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe (Eleanor of Aquitaine et al) and the almost encyclopedic study of Joanna I Queen of Naples; these are dense and certainly complex studies, but give them a look, then go back and reread this latest one.
You will see that Goldstone made the right call for this parallel biography. Joan was not the stuff of every day queens and rulers and marriage politics and ambitious, duplicitous courtiers, diplomats and counselors. She was an exception, an oddity, an almost mythical heroine made flesh in her own time; her interrogation statements only serve to accentuate just how bizarre she must have appeared to her own peers. Most of us are gratified when she is rude, cursory, annoyed, disgusted with the pointed, harassing, sometimes inane questioning by her "betters," and with her life in the balance.
Goldstone chose to not retread all that we already know, but reveal how Joan was seen and perhaps used, for both the best reasons (Yolanda) and the worst reasons (Charles VII, Joan's feckless dauphin).
Now, for those who really love diving into a subject, read Goldstone's Maid alongside Juliet Barber's Conquest: the English Kingdom of France 1417-1450 (2009). These are both literary and historical bookends, really; Goldstone tells us about Joan and Yolanda from a French bias (it's true, but I expected that) while Barber is Henry V's perhaps most devoted and adoring recent biographer, and this book on the English "kingdom" (fantasy, actually) in France is by necessity the way Joan's "goddams" saw the war, the world, and by extension, how they saw her. Their writing style is also quite different, with Barber following a more conventional (but not unsympathetic view of Joan, at least) format; it is a nice contrast for Goldstone and I think really allows the Reader to appreciate just how inspired was her decision to rethink how to write about Joan.
And for hardcore readers, I throw in the study by Charles T Wood, Joan of Arc & Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages (1988). This is a volume of academic essays, and certainly too dry for the new reader to history, but, again, for point of comparison to both the English-centric and French-centric views from Barber and Goldstone, Wood's example does highlight what the historian is dealing with in a subject like Joan, and why Nancy Goldstone surpasses all those hurdles with ease.