Doubleday, October 2014
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
The story of Joan of Arc is as fascinating and mysterious as it is well known: A teenage girl called upon by God to lead an army, and then burned at the stake for her efforts. Guided by the voices of angels, abandoned by the king who would never have been crowned without her, she claimed to fulfill the prophecy that France was to be ruined by a woman and restored by a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine. Her enemies called her a witch and a whore. She referred to herself as La Pucelle—the Virgin—and was known as the Maid.
There have been countless books, films, and songs telling the story. So why do we need more? Kathryn Harrison’s new biography Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured answers the question with its very power, persuasion, and page-turning readability. Harrison has the benefit of writing after what everyone has done before, and so she has synthesized and distilled the various interpretations into one cohesive and beautiful whole. As a novelist she is able to not only write gorgeous prose, but also give equal credence to both fact and fancy, to both evidence and the legend, indulging in myth while displaying remarkable knowledge of the historical and scriptural context in which it’s necessary to understand the person and mission of Jehanne d’Arc.
Harrison’s biography rests on two main focuses, binary stars orbiting each other, the symbiosis providing both energy and illumination. The first is how Joan of Arc’s story closely mirrors that of Jesus of Nazareth:
Jesus, like Joan, was a messiah as political as the prophecy that summoned him, promising salvation, deliverance from an enemy, and preaching love and violence. A king, humble and riding on an ass, a girl leading an army from the back of a charger, each possessing royalty that cannot be conferred by any hand but God’s. Figures of purity, free from sexual stain. Impossible people, alien architects of their own destruction.
At every turn, on what seems like every page, Harrison notes how Joan’s words echo those attributed to Jesus, and that even the plot of her story often follows the plot of his—especially the end. Where Jesus was arrested by the occupying Romans and tried by the Sanhedrin set on proving rebellion and blasphemy, Joan was captured by the occupying English and faced an inquisition by Sorbonne-trained doctors of the Church bent on proving her a witch and heretic.
Why these men were so intent on destroying a chaste peasant girl who believed to be following the commandments of their God has always seemed baffling. Where did their fire-hungry hatred come from? Harrison makes their motivation clear: misogyny. For, in a time when a woman always wore a dress and never cut her hair, Joan had a bob and dressed like a man, not only in pants but in armor. Her clothes were elaborate and expensive, a desire for finery and fashion being her only vice, which further advertised her transgression of the dress code. Not only did she wear a sword, but she was given an aristocrat’s coat-of-arms, something unheard of for a commoner and a woman. In Harrison’s words, she disrupted “what was, to the medieval mind, the crucial order upon which human existence depended: an inalterable hierarchy decreed by God.” Joan challenged the sexist social structure of the time, and it’s this subversion of gender roles for which she was killed. It’s the reason why people called her a whore and spit on her, and why so-called righteous men treated her so sinisterly.
Perhaps more than any other, Joan’s story exposes the hypocrisy of religion. Claiming that the voices she heard belonged to demons she mistook for angels, her enemies tortured and killed her in order to save her soul. In doing so, they showed that they themselves had no soul to speak of, and were happy to perform the work of the Devil in God’s absence. To them, following God meant following the Church, and these men believed they were the Church. Predating Luther by a hundred years, Joan was essentially acting as her own priest, showing a blasphemous disregard for the institution of the Catholic Church by rendering it irrelevant. And it’s for such subversion that she was tried and burnt at the stake. If she weren’t, other women might also cut their hair and dress in male clothes, and people might stop ceding authority to the Church.
All of this is not only supremely unjust but bizarre. From a modern perspective, Joan was, of course, insane—as is anyone who claims to hear the voices of angels and obeys the commands of invisible beings. But such ideas were common at the time, part of the pre-scientific worldview of the period in which she lived, and Harrison never makes the suggestion of insanity or delusion. (Nor does she suggest epilepsy, even though this would be a safe bet of what caused her visions and voices.) Despite leading the slaughter of her enemies, Joan shines as nothing but a good Christian, as innocent as she is faithful. In other words, she was the real deal. It should have been clear to anyone in her presence, especially men of the cloth. You don’t need to watch Maria Falconetti’s absorbing performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc to envision the wide, ecstatic eyes with which Joan must have spoke. You can see her passion simply by reading the transcription of her trial.
Her absolute certainty rings through each word, and it’s her very certainty that is convincing—not only to us six centuries after her death, but to the men who initially laughed at her and then devoted themselves to following her while she lived. A notorious virgin living among soldiers, many thought to rape her and thus take away her power. Yet these men claimed to have lost all sexual desire in her presence, even as she changed clothes in front of them. Forget about the signs people claim to have witnessed at her death or her alleged gifts of prophecy, because this alone is a miracle. The fact that an army of men obeyed the command of an inexperienced teenage peasant girl is itself a miracle and a mystery. To paraphrase the author, we only forget the stories we understand, which is why the story of Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest.