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December Book 20) Joan of Arc

20) Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, by Marina Warner

This is another one of those books that has been hanging around the shelves, mutely asking me when I will ever get around to reading it. And I'm glad that I did. I'm not really a Francophile, but I am a lapsed medievalist, and Marina Warner's meticulous sifting of fact from fiction in the first two-thirds of the book dealing with the actual career of Joan of Arc (not, as she points out, a name ever used by La Pucelle herself) is a beautiful example of how you should take your one major primary source (the transcript of Joan's trial) and test it against all the other available contextual evidence. (For instance, the only portrait of her that we can be sure was drawn from life is the scribe's doodle shown to the right, drawn in May 1429.)

Two points in particular stood out for me. First, Joan's entire career was very short - from March 1429 to her execution in May 1431, about the same length of time separating my writing this from the last U.S. presidential election campaign - and of course the last year of Joan's short life was spent in captivity. Second, something very special obviously did take place when she first encountered the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, at Chinon in March 1429: she was unable to describe the experience clearly, and nobody else seems to have left a record, but the consequences are quite clear - some kind of mystical event was experienced by both her and Charles, and by enough of his courtiers to establish the legend, but we will never know exactly what they thought had happened.

Warner explores Joan's significance as a woman, a hero, a warrior, a prophet, digging deep into late medieval ideas of religion, leadership and gender. In the last third of the book she goes on to look at Joan's influence after her death, on literature, French politics, the church's claims to authority, and concepts of sexuality in Western civilisation. It feels comprehensive, and I found it fascinating.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
inuitmonster
Dec. 31st, 2006 12:13 am (UTC)
My favourite Joan of Arc story is that at some point when she was being fitted up for some clothes the tailor tried to cop a feel, so she punched his face in and knocked him unconscious.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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