Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

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by Kathryn Harrison

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Kathryn Harrison gives us a Joan of Arc for our time—a shining exemplar of unshakable faith, extraordinary courage, and self-confidence on the battlefield, in the royal court, during a brutally rigged inquisition and imprisonment, and in the face of her death. In this new take on Joan’s story, Harrison deftly weaves historical fact, myth, folklore,


Kathryn Harrison gives us a Joan of Arc for our time—a shining exemplar of unshakable faith, extraordinary courage, and self-confidence on the battlefield, in the royal court, during a brutally rigged inquisition and imprisonment, and in the face of her death. In this new take on Joan’s story, Harrison deftly weaves historical fact, myth, folklore, scripture, artistic representations, and centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation into a fascinating narrative, revitalizing our sense of Joan as one of the greatest heroines in all of human history.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Dunant
As its subtitle suggests, Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured both tells and observes history, interweaving Joan's own story with fictional and historical interpretations…It makes for rich cultural reading…Absorbing a huge amount of research, [Harrison] has a fine eye for detail…And though she uses her novelist's pen sparingly, it can be to great effect…
Publishers Weekly
Joan of Arc was the subject of rumors and legends even in her own time, and from the 15th century onward her experience has been appropriated according to the needs of the age and artist. Novelist and memoirist Harrison (Enchantments) makes Joan’s story almost surreal as it’s untethered from time or context. Harrison compares Joan to Jesus: “Where no tangible historical records or artifacts provide a counterweight to the pull of a narrative tradition shaped by faith, the historical truth of a life like Joan’s or Jesus’s gives way to religious truth.” But it is never clear whose truth is being discussed. Harrison relays the events of Joan’s life by quoting other interpreters such as George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Cecil B. DeMille, and Luc Besson. Often it is implied that these are a reflection of Joan’s own reality. Harrison draws on previous biographies—and the records of her trial—for the established facts of the brief life and tragic execution of the Maid of Orléans. However, just as many, if not more, of Harrison’s citations refer to films or fictions, and a host more from other biographers. Too many other reported conversations are not cited at all. In the end, Harrison’s jumble of biography and hagiography falls between two stools. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Best known for her pointedly vivid and feminist fiction and eye-opening memoirs, Harrison here offers a biography of Joan of Arc billed as "for our time." It certainly pays to ask whether the legend-shrouded Joan was inspired, insane, or perhaps a notable example of unshakable moral conviction.
Kirkus Reviews
The versatile Harrison (Enchantments, 2012, etc.)—novelist, biographer, memoirist and true-crime writer—becomes the most recent in a long list of authors to tell the story of the unusual warrior. Born in 1412 and executed just 19 years later, French peasant Joan of Arc began listening to the voices of angels at age 14 ("hers alone, a rapturous secret"). She did not suspect at first, nor did anybody else, that those angels wanted her to undertake a seemingly impossible task: to lead an army of Frenchmen into battle against the mighty enemy forces from across the channel in England. The tale of Joan of Arc has been told countless times, so why revisit it, especially when hard evidence is lacking? For starters, Harrison's editor suggested the topic. At that point, the author decided 21st century readers required a new narrative of a life so improbable and heroic. Harrison knew, of course, about the daunting list of previous interpreters, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. She wisely examines some of those previous interpretations, finding some of the speculation and historicism plausible but some of it wanting. Harrison examines Joan as a sexual being as well as a warrior and perhaps a schizophrenic. The sexuality angle becomes especially provocative when Harrison discusses how God may have favored Joan due to the virginity she advertised so boldly. The author recounts the battle scenes in sometimes-excruciating detail and gives plenty of space to her arrest, trial and execution. She also provides a chronology. The vivid stories of Joan's remarkable life never died completely, leading to her canonization as a saint in 1920. Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach.
From the Publisher

“Passionate. . . . Harrison superbly teases out the politics and paradoxes of the Maid of Orleans’ wildly improbable saga.” —Elle

“It remains, after nearly 600 years, a story to break your heart . . . . It is Joan’s rambunctious humanity as much as her divinity that makes her powerful, both for modern audiences and historians.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Stunning. . . . A layered portrait not only of Joan’s life, but of her times. . . . [Harrison] awes us with her incisive intelligence, her fierce curiosity, her literary prowess.”
   —The Boston Globe
“Working from trial records and modern literature, the Bible and Bresson, Harrison marshals all the forces. The result is sumptuous, as rich and radiant as Joan’s (apocryphal) golden cloak.”
  —Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Cleopatra

“It is impossible for Harrison to write an uninteresting book. She is too skilled a prose writer, too good a storyteller, too alert to passions and the human heart to produce a work that ever flags. But read Joan of Arc for what it tells you about the world in which the subject lived and the half-millennium of culture that has continued to mythologize her. In this striking volume, it is clear that Joan fell victim to more than an era’s intolerance. She became a victim to other dreamers’ dreams." —Marie Arana, The Washington Post

“If you aren’t already in thrall to the ‘Maid of Orleans’, you might be by the end of Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc. . . . [It] builds Joan’s story with such novelistic detail and grace that the author’s rapture becomes ours.” —The Oregonian

“Vivid and compelling. . . . Suffused with a novelist’s imagination. . . . Creative flourishes enliven Harrison’s book from its retelling of Joan’s spectacular anomalous career to the long and equally fascinating story of her ‘afterlife’ in books, movies, and the popular imagination.”
  —Open Letters Monthly

“If you want a badass heroine like Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild crossed with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (only with angels and Jesus) read Kathryn Harrison's hair-raising bio of Joan of Arc—the best of six I've read. She weaves a mesmerizing tale of this cross-dressing warrior who made her torturers weep, who plowed her way to the throne and led an army while never shedding a drop of blood. This year's cult book.”
   —Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club and Lit

“In Harrison’s telling, Joan loses her mythic accessories, but the unadorned truth is more than enough.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“I’m impressed by the way Kathryn Harrison so brilliantly blends narrative and scholarship in this gorgeous rendering of Joan of Arc’s story. Harrison draws on her deep understanding of religion, feminism and literature to produce the biography of one of the most interesting women in history. She was a mystery, a virgin, visionary, soldier and martyr, and Harrison shows vividly how all these strands connect. If you’ve never quite managed to get around to reading a book about Joan of Arc (I hadn’t), this is the one to read. If you’ve read all the others, you’ll need to read this one, too.” —Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life

“Deeply researched and thoughtful. . . . In Harrison’s hands, Joan’s confidence and intelligence come alive.” —BookPage

“Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Compulsively readable. . . . In novelist Harrison’s deft hands, the latest analysis is both vividly detailed and historically grounded. Casting a modern eye on a medieval legend, she is able to breathe new life into the girl, the warrior, the messenger from God, and the saint.”

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

chapter i

In the Beginning Was the Word

“Have you not heard the prophecy that France was to be ruined by a woman and restored by a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine?”

By the time Joan of Arc proclaimed herself La Pucelle, the virgin sent by God to deliver France from its enemies, the English, she had been obeying the counsel of angels for five years. The voices Joan heard, speaking from over her right shoulder and accompanied by a great light, had been hers alone, a rapturous secret. But when, in 1429, they announced that the time had come for Joan to undertake the quest for which they had been preparing her, they transformed a seemingly undistinguished peasant girl into a visionary heroine who defied every limitation placed on a woman of the late Middle Ages.

Expected by those who raised her to assume nothing more than the workaday cloak of a provincial female, Joan told her family nothing of what her voices asked, lest her parents try to prevent her from fulfilling what she embraced as her destiny: foretold, ordained, inescapable. Seventeen years old, Joan dressed herself in male attire at the command of her heavenly father. She sheared off her hair, put on armor, and took up the sword her angels provided. She was frightened of the enormity of what God had asked of her, and she was feverish in her determination to succeed at what was by anyone’s measure a preposterous mission.

As Joan protested to her voices, she “knew not how to ride or lead in war,” and yet she roused an exhausted, under-equipped, and impotent army into a fervor that carried it from one unlikely victory to the next. In fact, outside her unshakable faith—or because of that faith—Joan of Arc was characterized above all by paradox. An illiterate peasant’s daughter from the hinterlands, Joan moved purposefully among nobles, bishops, and royalty, unimpressed by mortal measures of authority. She had a battle cry that drove her legions forward into the fray; her voice was described as gentle, womanly. So intent on vanquishing the enemy that she threatened her own men with violence, promising to cut off the head of any who should fail to heed her command, she recoiled at the idea of taking a life, and to avoid having to use her sword, she led her army carrying a twelve-foot banner that depicted Christ sitting in judgment, holding the world in his right hand, and flanked by angels. In the aftermath of combat, Joan didn’t celebrate victory but mourned the casualties; her men remembered her on her knees weeping as she held the head of a dying enemy soldier, urging him to confess his sins.

A mortal whose blood flowed red and real from battle wounds, she had eyes that beheld angels, winged and crowned. When she fell to her knees to embrace their legs, she felt their flesh solid in her arms. Her courage outstripped that of seasoned men-at-arms; her tears flowed as readily as did any other teenage girl’s. Not only a virgin, but also an ascetic who held herself beyond the reach of sensual pleasure, she wept in shock and rage when an English captain called her a whore. Yet, living as a warrior among warriors, she betrayed no prudery when time came to bivouac, undressing and sleeping among lustful young knights who remembered the beauty of a body none dared approach—not even after Joan chased off any prostitute foolish enough to tramp after an army whose leader’s claim to power was indivisible from her chastity. Under the exigencies of warfare, she didn’t allow her men the small sin of blasphemy; coveting victory above all else, she righteously seized an advantage falling on a holy day. She knew God’s wishes; she followed his direction; she questioned nothing. Her quest, revealed to her alone, allowed her privileges no pope would claim. On trial for her life and unfamiliar with the fine points of Catholic doctrine, she nimbly sidestepped the rhetorical traps of Sorbonne-trained doctors of the Church bent on proving her a witch and a heretic. The least likely of commanding officers, she changed the course of the Hundred Years War, and that of history.

The life of Joan of Arc is as impossible as that of only one other, who also heard God speak: Jesus of Nazareth, prince of paradox as much as peace, a god who suffered and died a mortal, a prophet whose parables were intended to confound, that those who “seeing may not see, and hearing may not understand,” a messenger of forgiveness and love who came bearing a sword, inspiring millennia of judgment and violence—the blood of his “new and everlasting covenant” extracted from those who refused his heavenly rule. More than that of any other Catholic martyr, Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s, hers “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One,” Mark Twain wrote. Her birth was prophesied: a virgin warrior would arise to save her people. She had power over the natural world, not walking on water, but commanding the direction of the wind. She foretold the future. If she wasn’t transfigured while preaching on a mount, she was, eyewitnesses said, luminous in battle, light not flaring off her armor so much as radiating from the girl within. The English spoke of a cloud of white butterflies unfurling from her banner—proof of sorcery, they called it. Her touch raised the dead. Her feats, which continue six centuries after her birth to frustrate ever more modern and enlightened efforts to rationalize and reduce to human proportions, won the allegiance of tens of wonder-struck thousands and made her as many ardent enemies. The single thing she feared, she said, was treachery.

Captured, Joan was sold to the English and abandoned to her fate by the king to whom she had delivered the French crown. Her passion unfolded in a prison cell rather than a garden, but like Jesus she suffered lonely agonies. Tried by dozens of mostly corrupt clerics, Joan refused to satisfy the ultimatums of Church doctors who demanded she abjure the God she knew and renounce the voices that guided her as the devil’s deceit. When she would not, she was condemned to death and burned as a heretic, the stake to which she was bound raised above throngs of jeering onlookers curious to see what fire might do to a witch. She was only nineteen, and her charred body was displayed for anyone who cared to examine it. Had she been a man after all, and if she were, did it explain any of what she’d accomplished?

A sophisticated few of Joan of Arc’s contemporaries might have understood the idea of salvation at the hands of a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine as a communal prayer—more a wish for rescue than a prophecy. Probably, most took the idea at face value, some giving it credence, others dismissing it. But only one, a girl who claimed she knew little beyond what she’d learned spinning and sewing and taking her turn to watch over the villagers’ livestock, heard it as a vocation. The self-proclaimed agent of God’s will, Joan of Arc wasn’t immortalized so much as she entered the collective imagination as a living myth, exalted by the angelic company she kept and the powers with which it endowed her.


The woman who “ruined” France was Isabeau of Bavaria, a ruination accomplished by disinheriting her son the dauphin Charles, to whom Joan would restore France’s throne, and allowing his paternity to be called into question. It was a credible doubt that might have been cast on any of Isabeau’s eight children, as she was notoriously unfaithful to her husband, the mad (we would call him schizophrenic) Charles VI. Bastardy, though it invited dynastic squabbles among opposing crowns with shared ancestry, wasn’t a cause for shame among the nobility but was announced if not advertised, a brisure, or “bar sinister,” added to the coat of arms worn by sons conceived outside a family patriarch’s official marriage. In fact, it was an illustrious bastard’s invasion of England in 1066 that precipitated the centuries of turf wars between the French and the English. As Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror claimed England’s throne for his own but remained a vassal of the French king, as did those who ruled after him. The arrangement guaranteed centuries of dynastic turmoil, and the house of Valois had the misfortune of presiding over the Hundred Years War, at the beginning of which France had everything to lose. Centuries of crusades following the Norman conquests had established the livre as the currency of international trade, and France’s wealth purchased its preeminence among nations. French was not used for purposes of haggling alone but was the lingua franca of Europe, the language in which Marco Polo’s Travels was published.

Punctuated by periods of exhausted stalemates, occasional famine, and the arrival, in 1348, of the bubonic plague, the Hundred Years War ground on until the population of France was halved. When Joan set out on her divine mission, England had taken control of almost all of France north of the Loire River. By the time Isabeau revealed the dauphin’s questionable ancestry, effectively barring him from the French throne, portents of salvation by a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine had been circulating for decades, multiplying with the woes that inspired them, the putative historic reach of prophecies concerning Joan’s advent reaching ever further back in time as her fame spread. Joan’s contemporary the poet and historian Christine de Pizan reported that on the occasion of Joan’s first formal ecclesiastical examination—a cautionary investigation the French ministers considered necessary before the dauphin placed his trust in an otherwise untested visionary—she was embraced as a messiah whose coming had been predicted by Merlin, the Sibyl, and the Venerable Bede. The widowed Christine supported herself and her children by composing love poems for wealthy patrons, but the work for which she would be remembered is The Book of the City of Ladies, an allegorical gathering of history’s most illustrious and influential women. As the daughter of the court astrologer and physician to Charles V, whose vast royal archives had provided her the education universities denied her sex, Christine made it her purpose to challenge the misogyny that characterized late medieval thought and literature, and she welcomed Joan as a citizen of her utopian vision. “In preference to all the brave men of times past, this woman must wear the crown!” the poet exclaimed. Her Ditié de Jehanne (Song of Joan) was the first popular work about the girl who would be remembered as France’s savior, an epic ballad she composed at the height of Joan’s glory, about a “young maiden, to whom God gives the strength and power to be the champion.”

If a prediction made by a magician who was himself a myth strikes the present-day reader as suspect if not worthless, the medieval mind, preoccupied with sorcery and tales of chivalry and untroubled by the future scholarly detective work that would exhume the sources of the Arthurian legend, gave Merlin’s presumed words credence, the Sibyl and the Bede joining him as remote mystical buttresses to the more precise predictions made around the time of Joan’s birth. Once Joan had announced herself as the vehicle of God’s salvation, her initial examiners turned to prophecy as a means of retroactively validating a declaration they desperately wanted to be true, and during the late Middle Ages, Merlin, the Sibyl, and the Bede were typically summoned as a trio, each associated with pronouncements at once mysterious and archetypal. “A virgin ascends the backs of the archers / and hides the flower of her virginity,” was Merlin’s contribution. Copied from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, which introduced the Arthurian legend to continental Europe, it invited a broad spectrum of interpretations, as must any lasting prediction. Applied to Joan, it sanctioned her authority to lead men in war and underscored her celibacy, protected by male attire and armor. The Church, whose reflexive revisionism cannibalized any myth that might distract from its doctrine, had long ago consumed and rehabilitated the Sibyl, a legendary seer traced as far back as the fifth century bc and often referred to in the plural. Whether one or many, having left no recorded oracle, the Sibyl could be summoned to reinforce any appeal. The Venerable Bede’s presentiment of Joan’s saving France was harvested from an Anglo-Saxon poem written six centuries after Bede’s death and rested on a single sentence: “Behold, battles resound, the maid carries banners.”

Jesus’s advent was similarly legitimized. The evangelists applied messianic prophecies as generic as “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder” to the coming of Christ and revised what they knew of Jesus’s life to fit specific predictions made by the prophets Isaiah, Daniel, and Hosea. More significant, Jesus consistently presented himself as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, for example, deliberately staging his Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem according to the six-hundred-year-old direction of Zechariah. “Lo your king comes to you,” the prophet wrote of the Messiah, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass.” This wasn’t prophecy fulfilled so much as a public announcement resting on biblical scholarship, for Jesus was, if nothing else, a Jew who knew his Scripture, knew it as well as did the high priests who called for his death in response to the presumption of his claim of divinity. “All this has taken place,” he said to his disciples, “that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” He was, Jesus told the temple elders, the Messiah whom Isaiah promised would come to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Like Jesus, Joan recognized herself in Scripture, but from the New rather than the Old Testament. “I was sent for the consolation of the poor and destitute,” she proclaimed, borrowing her lines from Gospel accounts of a career that, like hers, convinced by means of miracle, spectacle, and prophecy fulfilled.

Of the handful Joan would have heard growing up, the only prophecy she is known to have identified with her mission was particular to her place of birth: France was to be ruined by a woman and restored by a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine. As Old and New Testaments illustrate, prophecy has always been a political medium, broadcasts from a jealous god who distributes land grants to nations worthy of reward. In 1398, when France’s national oracle, Marie Robine, foresaw the desolation of her homeland, she came directly to the court in Paris to describe it in full. A recluse of humble origins embraced by the poor and the exalted alike, Marie derived her authority from the attention popes paid her apocalyptic Book of Revelations. Refused an audience with Charles VI, who was likely in a state of mental confusion, the seer warned that “great sufferings” would arrive. One vision presented Marie with armor, which frightened her. “But she was told to fear nothing, and that it was not she who would have to wear this armor, but that a Maid who would come after her would wear it and deliver the kingdom of France from its enemies.” While witnesses remembered Joan speaking only of the prophecy specific to Lorraine, she undoubtedly knew the content of Marie’s visions. Not only were they common lore, but they illustrated her vocation and validated her wearing armor.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

KATHRYN HARRISON has written the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, and Envy and Enchantments. Her autobiographical work includes The Kiss, Seeking Rapture, The Road to Santiago, and The Mother Knot. She has also written a biography, St. Therese of Lisieux, and a book of true crime, While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.

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Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lot of factually inaccurate editorializing interwoven with interesting historically accurate material gives this book 2 star rating. However, the blasphemous material with respect to Jesus Christ reduces this book to a 1 star rating...because there is not a zero star category.
Patrick114 More than 1 year ago
An extraordinary look at the life of Joan of Arc.  Timeless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JC1010 More than 1 year ago
I think the working title was Joan of Arc: A Life Transgendered.