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Joan of Arc (Penguin Lives Series)

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With the passion and grace that mark her bestselling novels of women and faith, Mary Gordon contemplates one of history's earliest and most powerful female martyrs

Eternally fascinating, an enigma no less in our time than in her own, Joan of Arc has haunted Gordon's consciousness since childhood. Who was this girl who came from nowhere, supported an equivocal cause, triumphed for a scant few months, failed as a soldier, vacillated about her ...
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Joan of Arc: A Life

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Overview

With the passion and grace that mark her bestselling novels of women and faith, Mary Gordon contemplates one of history's earliest and most powerful female martyrs

Eternally fascinating, an enigma no less in our time than in her own, Joan of Arc has haunted Gordon's consciousness since childhood. Who was this girl who came from nowhere, supported an equivocal cause, triumphed for a scant few months, failed as a soldier, vacillated about her vision, died in agony, was refused canonization for five hundred years, yet, ponders Gordon, "stands alone in our imagination for the single-minded triumph of the she--and it must be a she--who feared nothing, knew herself right, and chosen of the Lord?"

Joan of Arc penetrates the popular cultural icon to examine the vulnerability of a woman forced by her mission into the public world of men, from her first march at the head of the French soldiery at the age of seventeen to her capture by the British in 1430, from her vilification as a witch to the formidable legacy of her struggle. Only Gordon--a storyteller the San Francisco Chronicle calls "scintillating"--could breathe life into a figure so ethereal, so puzzling, so human.
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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Gordon introduces the peasant girl of Domr my as a typical young woman of her time, yet stresses emphatically the ways in which, "There is no one like her." She dramatically presents what is universally known of Joan-young, countrified, riding astride in men's armor amid fleur-de-lis banners. Readers see Joan entering Orl ans in triumph, controlling her frightened horse when a pennant she is carrying is accidentally set afire. Then she is a commoner at Charles's side in the cathedral at Rheims, holding her standard as he is crowned king of France. At each of the tableaux, Gordon delves into significant deeper meanings. She is particularly insightful in determining the element of danger for Joan in all of her relationships-with Charles, with the treacherous Burgundians, with the English, and ultimately with the church. She cites Joan's courage and tenacity of vision and her confidence in divine support. Gordon concludes, "Ardent, impatient, boastful, resistant, implacable, she is like all great saints a personality of genius." Teens are sure to be intrigued by her.-Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
James Carroll
Gordon is perfectly matched with Joan of Arc, and the book she has written is both a compelling life story and a shrewd analysis of the mythical uses to which it has been put.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670885374
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Series: Penguin Lives Series
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon
The McIntosh Professor of English at Bamard College, Mary Gordon is the author of several acclaimed novels that deal with the conflicts facing modern women, including Spending and Pearl, as well as a stirring memoir about her father, The Shadow Man.

Biography

Mary Gordon is the author of the novels The Love of My Youth, Spending, The Company of Women, and The Rest of Life, as well as the memoir The Shadow Man. She has received a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 1997 O. Henry Award for best short story. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Gordon:

"I don't have any great first job tales: I‘ve never worked on a tramp steamer or in a coal mine or anything like that. I think the inspiration for my writing came largely from my father and the joy that life in books represented to me."

"I love dancing; I adore salsa dancing and wish I could be in a Broadway chorus."

"I could not write without my dog, Rhoda, a Lab-chow mix."

"I would trade any writerly success if it would mean my children would be happy."

"I hate George Bush, John Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. I hate bullies. I hate people who say, ‘It's so fun,' and say, 'literally,' when they mean, ‘figuratively.' "

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    1. Also Known As:
      Mary Gilmour
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 8, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Barnard College, 1971; M.A., Syracuse University, 1973

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


OF HER TIME AND PLACE


The first dream of Joan of Arc was dreamed by her father. He saw his daughter traveling with an army: a camp follower.

    When he awoke, he told her brothers that if this ever happened, he would ask them to drown her, and if they refused, he would do it himself. He communicated nothing of this to his daughter directly; her mother relayed it to her. Father fears for daughter's virtue and tells sons and mother: mother tells daughter. No surprises here.

    It is profitless for us to look at Joan's family background for clues about her history. She was probably born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, in the year 1412, the daughter of Jacques d'Arc, or Tart, and Isabelle, called Romée. Jacques d'Arc was a peasant in the village of Domrémy, on the border between the provinces of Champagne and Lorraine, distinguished only because he seems to have been a person of some local consequence; he was appointed the representative of the villagers in a suit that had been brought against Robert de Baudricourt, the lord of neighboring Vaucouleurs. Later, Baudricourt would give Joan her first official support.

    Isabelle was given the name Romée because that was a sobriquet given to one who had participated in a long pilgrimage; this would indicate an unusual piety, and probably, as well, a somewhat unusual, though not unheard of, initiative in a young woman. Joan tells us that from her mother she learned her prayers, and the ordinary household tasks that would be taught to a young woman.With her characteristic boastfulness, she asserts that there was no one superior to her in sewing and spinning. She probably had charge of the sheep, although this was not so much a part of her daily life as iconography about her would indicate, and she probably drove the cattle from time to time, although she denied the importance of it at the trial, as if it suggested a lowness of occupation with which she was unwilling to associate herself. She had a sister and two brothers, the younger of whom accompanied her until her capture. After Joan's death, her brothers participated in a scheme to pass off an imposter as the real Joan, a kind of sideshow. They did it for the money.

    But Joan's family does not seem to have been of much consequence to her. When she decided to obey her voices and go off to crown the king of France, she left home with a cousin, who was her godfather, employing an ordinary, adolescent lie. She told her parents she was going to help out with the cousin's wife's labor, and then with the new child. She never spoke to her parents again, and when she was asked during her trial if she felt guilty about what could only be construed as a sin of disobedience, she said, "Since God commanded it, had I had a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers, had I been born a king's daughter, I should have departed."

    So we would do well not to linger over Joan's family for explanations of anything. Like any genius, Joan resists attempts to trace the nature of her history in clues from antecedents. She is an impossibility, a puzzlement, and yet she did come from somewhere. It is probably more useful to look at the larger context of her early life than at the narrow sphere of the domestic, which she could hardly wait to leave.


The State


The Hundred Years' War is one of those historical events or epochs to which the imagination is not naturally drawn. The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries can be thought of as the otiose and yet malnourished rump of the Middle Ages. The major war was not a cataclysmic horror but the drawn-out dance of nearly a century of fruitless and debilitating destruction. Rather than imagining a great blaze, we should think of a series of small brushfires that are never put out but smolder continually, creating a noxious smoke and sparking other small fires in the vicinity, filling the air with poisonous vapors and destroying the land's possibilities for productive habitation. The population of France had been decimated by plagues and famine in the fourteenth century, but now the countryside was being devastated not as the result of great battles but because of the marauding of the armies when they were not engaged. These freebooters, called écorcheurs, or fleecers, ravaged the land looking for spoils—the only way they could support themselves, since the powers who had hired them (England and France) could not raise enough money to pay them properly. Ostensibly the war was fought under the banner of chivalry, but the gap between the chivalric ideal and the behavior of those who claimed it was enormous. The écorcheurs were not noble themselves, but their behavior was tolerated by nobles who turned a blind eye.

    The people of the countryside had to contend with a shifting cast of ravagers, and all the divisions of this vexed society were mirrored in the mixed origins of the écorcheurs. The mix was made more complex by the fact that the marauders whom we would think of as "French" were composed of two separate and warring factions, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. At the time of Joan's birth, France was not only at war with England; it was also in a state of virtual civil war, the rich duchy of Burgundy having allied itself with the English against the French monarchy.

    The Burgundian marauders were the ones whose effect Joan and her family most closely felt. In 1425 the Burgundians, and some English, drove off the cattle of the inhabitants of Domrémy, and the church was burned and plundered; 1425 was the year that Joan first heard her voices. The juxtaposition of Joan's first experience of civil violence and the onset of her puberty may be one of those historical accidents that suggest more than they finally explain. But, no doubt, the witnessing of hatred and disorder at a vulnerable time in her life marked Joan permanently. In 1428, months before she left Domrémy on her mission to crown the dauphin, her family had to flee their home for the neighboring town of Neufchâtel as a result of Burgundian marauders. It was here that Joan worked at the inn of a woman called La Rousse, generating later rumors that she had consorted with soldiers. It was here, and no earlier, that she learned to ride a horse.

    Joan was clear, when she spoke during her trial of her early years, that the Burgundians were her chief enemy and that Domrémy was united in its hatred of them. With her usual avoidance of understatement she said, "I knew of only one Burgundian there, and I could have wished his head cut off—however only if it pleased God." But just across the river Meuse, in the neighboring town of Maxey, the citizens were supporters of Burgundy. The children of both villages would come home bloody from fighting over loyalties to the duke or the king. It is tempting to wonder what would have become of Joan had she been born on the other side of the river Meuse, where devotion was not to the beleaguered king but to the duke who had allied himself across the Channel.

    This confusion of affiliations is an index of the disorder of the times and the muddled loyalties that a nature like Joan's, thriving on clarity, must have found as anguishing as the burning of her church and the destruction of her neighbors' cattle. But muddle and confusion are the hallmark of the Hundred Years' War, which victimized thousands because of an unclear dynastic claim, a problem created by the fact that the royal families of England and France were closely related by blood.

    The dynastic muddle begins with Edward II of England. He claimed the French crown as a result of his being the grandson of Philip IV, the French king, who died in 1314. Philip's three sons had no male issue; Edward was the child of Philip's daughter, Isabella. When the youngest of Philip's sons died, the contenders to the throne were Edward of England and Count Philip of Valois. Philip of Valois was the son of the dead king Philip's younger brother. Edward's claim to the throne was, therefore, a generation nearer to the crown than Philip of Valois's, but its validity was weakened because it came through the female line. Whether this invocation of the "salic law" was in fact valid, or just a ploy used by the French to prevent having an Englishman on their throne, has been a matter for scholarly debate.

    In 1337, Philip of Valois, after declaring Edward a "contumacious vassal," confiscated the duchy of Gascony, which the English considered theirs since the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). Edward, unwilling to give up his sovereignty in Gascony, waged war with France. But the economic conditions at home made it a halfhearted effort for the English, and for some years the war went on with no clear victory on either side, only misery for the peasants who were its victims, particularly the victims of the underpaid, underemployed soldiers. Then in 1346, the English scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Crecy, and ten years later they did the same at the Battle of Poitiers, during which time King John of France was captured by the English and held for ransom. He died in London in 1364. Under the leadership of his son Charles V, an intelligent and able ruler with little stomach for war, France prospered while England was too absorbed in its own domestic troubles to continue the fight. Charles V's reign lasted from 1364 to 1380; he was succeeded by his son Charles VI.

    Enter Henry V, the first English king strong enough to devote himself to full-scale operations in France. Henry was both a great king and a great general. His counterpart in France, Charles VI, was probably a paranoid schizophrenic subject to long bouts of insanity. The Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, won the French crown for Henry's heir, and he persuaded the defeated Charles VI to give him his daughter Catherine in marriage, thus strengthening his claim to the French crown. But both Henry V and Charles VI died in the same year, 1422. Henry's one-year-old son, Henry VI, and Charles VII, then nineteen, were both proclaimed kings of France.


Echoes of this dynastic struggle are familiar to us from Shakespeare: Richard II's errors of extravagance are set against the backdrop of the economic disaster of the Hundred Years' War; and the breach that Henry V rode into was at Agincourt—his victory there resulting in untold hardship for the French population. Even though Henry's soldiers were, as a result of his good leadership, relatively better disciplined than their predecessors (Pistol, Henry's former friend, is executed for brigandage), the French still had endured seventy years of devastation, during which English troops plundered their stores of food and wine, stole their harvests, drove their cattle from their fields, feasted in their towns by night and set them aflame in the morning. The noble soldiers with the golden tongues whom we encounter in Shakespeare were of the same party as the brutish mercenaries whom the French, including Joan, knew by their constant curse "goddamns" (rendered by them as "godons," their name for their invaders).

    And lest we forget what the real implications of the dynastic claims were, we should try to imagine an English France. An extension of the island kingdom across the channel: a Normandy, Brittany, Provence, all English-speaking, a cultural history in which there was only cheddar and no brie, only Congreve and no Molière, only Chippendale and no French Provincial, only Turner and no Monet. In our time we have seen the ravages of nationalism so clearly that it is easy to think of it only as a curse, but to imagine the flattening out of culture that could have occurred if the English had won the Hundred Years' War is a deeply dispiriting mental exercise.


Joan, then, came into a world tainted with political and economic disorder, and the moral tone of the society reflected this. Abuses were rampant; the countryside starved while the king's court was luxurious. The atmosphere of the time was a dark cloud of depression and entropy. It is against this gray-brown background that the girl in white armor, on her black horse, placed herself.


The Church


If the state was in disarray, the Church was no better. At the time of Joan's birth in 1412, there were three claimants to the papacy: one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one in Spain. She was born into a Church torn by schism, and at the time of her death, although a council of the world's bishops had removed all the contenders to the papal throne from office and elected a new one, Martin V, the old Spanish pope, Benedict XIII, despite the fact that he had no authority and no followers, would still not give up his claim.

    The history of the Great Schism is an indication of the mutually infecting relationship between a civil and religious order. Originally, the first Avignon pope had moved there because internal wars in Italy made it impossible for an orderly running of the Church's affairs to take place in Rome. But Avignon was in France, and France was involved in a war with England; England and her allies—particularly Germany and Italy—naturally resented the profits that would accrue to France as a result of the papacy's being centered there, so they put pressure on the Church to return the seat of St. Peter to Rome. In 1378, when the cardinals met in Rome to elect a pope, the population of Rome stormed the streets, demanding the election of an Italian. Probably in response to this, the cardinals elected Bartholomew, archbishop of Bari. Urban VI, as he was known, was a man of such violence of temper that all the cardinals fled his vicinity in Rome and moved back to Avignon to elect another pope, claiming that the election was invalid, since it had been motivated by fear of the crowd. The cardinals elected a Frenchman who took the name of Clement VII.

    But Urban would not withdraw his papacy, so there were two popes, both with legitimate claims to having been properly elected. Neither Clement nor Urban possessed admirable qualities. Abuses and corruption were particularly egregious, largely motivated by the Church's constant need for new sources of money as a result of newly powerful monarchs unwilling to knuckle under to papal demands for revenue. Urban was interested in speaking to these abuses, but his approach was to insult and bully his enemies; Clement seems to have had no impulse to attend to corrupt practices at all.

    This corruption led to the rise of such reformers as John Wycliffe in England, and his disciple in Bohemia, Jan Hus. Wycliffe and Hus were appalled by the greed of the clergy and the hierarchy, and their distance from the people whom they were meant to serve. They advocated the use of reason in coming to spiritual and moral conclusions, and a translation of the Bible into the vernacular in order that it could be more widely available to the people.

    Wycliffe's teachings had comparatively little immediate effect in England, but Hus had an enormous following in the kingdom of Bohemia, where the university's popular anticlericalism gave him an important base. His own popularity contributed to the Church's decision to burn him as a heretic in 1416.

    It is easy to see the roots of Protestantism in the ideas of Wycliffe and Hus, and it is not difficult to understand the Church's unease at the power of this new, popular movement. Part of their anxiety about Joan can be traced to the threat they felt from popular movements which stressed private inspiration and the primacy of the individual conscience; in burning Joan, they believed they were burning a heretic; her death, mirroring Hus's, was a blow for orthodoxy against the disease of antiauthoritarian populism.

    This spirit had expressed itself in the secular realm by revolts among the lower orders—the jacquerie in Champagne, Picardy, and Beauvais, and the artisans of London—all these taking place in the last years of the fourteenth century. Every word out of Joan's mouth at her trial reinforced the clerics' suspicions; they could hardly have invented speech that could more clearly have indicated her insistence on the primacy of her own vision over the authority of the Church.

    This authority had been remarkably shored up after the disaster of the schism by the success of the Council of Constance and the election of Pope Martin V in 1417. When Joan came on the scene in 1429, the Church was determined to hold on to the authority it had been successfully wielding for a dozen years. Its new sense of authority expressed itself in an increased appetite for enforcing orthodoxy—as seen in the execution of Jan Hus.

    The newly shored-up Church understood the sources and limits of its power. It had to contend with a world of powerful monarchs—it could not afford to ignore the wishes of kings as it had a century earlier. This new understanding of itself as a player in a geopolitical game made the Church much more aware of the need to ally itself with the strong rather than the weak. With France in a state of chaos, the choice to connect itself with England and its allies rather than France was a clear one for the Roman Church. This would have tragic consequences for Joan.


While these struggles for power were playing themselves out in the larger arena, on a local level, the late-fourteenth-and early-fifteenth-century Church was replete with lively popular activity, which took its form in an active folk tradition, visionary activity of a private, mystical nature, and apocalyptic preaching whose fiery tone roused the populace to ardor. St. Bernardino of Siena and St. Vincent Ferrer were both charismatic, colloquial speakers whose bonfire-of-the-vanities rhetoric attracted huge followings.

    The grafting of pre-Christian and popular customs onto Christian practice was a cause of great anxiety to a Church which was all too aware of rumblings of rebellion and discontent. This was reflected in the behavior of Joan's judges during her trial. They seemed almost fixated on the popular folk practices of the villagers of Domrémy. They concentrated on a local custom of dancing around what was called the fairy tree. Joan seemed bored by their interest in fairies; she asserted that she never saw one, that some people in the town said there were some, but she had no knowledge of that. She spoke about some of her play with the other girls, and we get a picture of what is unusual in Joan's history: an ordinary life. She said that she hung garlands on the fairy tree and that she danced there with the other children, but that she "sang more often than she danced." It is a charming moment in the trial: Joan's care to distinguish between the childish activities of singing and dancing, giving pride of place to singing as if to make sure that at least in this happy occupation she was clearly and properly seen.

    Joan answered all her judges' questions about superstitious or cult practices impatiently, speaking offhandedly about her ring, its powers, and the veneration of the public. She said her ring was a present from her parents. She admitted that she did cure a baby who was presented to her "as black as my cloak," but she had no interest in claiming that it was her own power that effected the cure, and she reiterated that she discouraged being made a cult figure. Religious life was always connected to action with her; the aspects of it that were merely pious had no place in her imagination.

    Certain popular legends, however, served Joan very well in that they made a place in the public mind for someone like her. Many prophecies, from widely diverse sources, were abroad in Joan's time about a maiden who would save France. The earliest is from the Arthurian wizard Merlin, who prophesied that a marvelous maid would come from the Bois Chesnu, the ancient wood, to save France. A response to the scandalous behavior of Isabeau of Bavaria, mother of Joan's dauphin, was the prophecy that a virgin would save France after a fallen woman had shamed it. Marie d'Avignon, a woman with a reputation as a prophet, had, some years earlier, foretold the arrival of someone like Joan at the dauphin's court. "She spoke of having had frequent visions concerning the desolation of France. In one of them Marie saw pieces of armor that were brought before her, which frightened her. For she was afraid that she would be forced to put this armor on. But she was told to fear nothing, that it was not she who would have to wear this armor, but a Maid who would come after her who would wear it and deliver the kingdom of France from its enemies."


Joan's history becomes somewhat less baffling when one remembers the importance of the prophetic and the mystical in the mind of her time. Whether or not she understood that the Zeitgeist was making a place for her, she took the place brilliantly. And some of the most important people who made Joan's way possible were the female mystics of the generations immediately preceding her. Notable among them were Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373) and Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), whose activities in relation to the Great Schism earned her the rank of doctor of the Church. Closer to Joan's home, and her nearer contemporary, was St. Colette of Corbie. She was born in northern France in 1381 and devoted herself to reform of the order of the Poor Clares. There were rumors that she and Joan encountered each other and that she gave Joan the ring inscribed with the words "Jesus Maria," emblem of the popular cult of the Holy Names. In fact, the women never met.

    The assumption of the mantle of prophecy was one of the few ways by which medieval women could speak with public authority, certain of being listened to. Because Joan invoked the words of her supernatural visitors as the authority for her mission, she shares in this tradition. But though Joan was extremely pious and had experienced visions involving angels and saints, both the quality of her visions and the shape of her life mark her as radically different from the mystics who preceded her. The language and imagery of the great mystics is hypersensualized, and hyperspecific in its accumulation of physical detail. It is, however, often short on facts about the realm of action in this world. Joan's descriptions of her visions were cut-and-dried, matter-of-fact. She spoke of "a great light" and a "great Pleasure." She was—to her later peril when her prophecies were not fulfilled—extremely specific about the plans her voices had for her. During her trial she had to be forced to be concrete about the appearance of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, the angels and the saints who appeared to her and told her what she was to do. Contrast this lack of emphasis on physical detail with the acute focus of, say, the English medieval mystic Margery Kempe, a near contemporary of Joan's, who eroticizes and radically physicalizes her encounter with God.


Thus she had a very contemplation in the sight of her soul as if Christ had hung before her bodily eye in his manhood. And ... it was granted to this creature to behold so verily his precious tender body, all rent and torn with scourges, fuller of wounds than ever was a dovecote full of holes, hanging on the cross with the crown of thorns upon his head, his beautiful hands, his tender feet nailed to the hard tree, the rivers of blood flowing out plenteously from every member.


This is a different imagistic and linguistic universe from Joan's straightforward answer to the judges' questions about St. Michael: "He was in the form of a true and honest man, and as for the clothes and other things, I shall not tell you any more." When asked if he was naked, she replied impatiently, "Do you think that God cannot afford to clothe him," and when questioned as to whether he had hair, she snapped, "Why should it have been cut off?"

    Joan's history with an apocalyptic preacher, Brother Richard, reveals her uneasy relationship with the mystical. Richard's themes were the approach of the millennial Antichrist, the vanity of riches, and the perfidy of the Jews. In 1429 he fled Paris, prophesying the coming of great things. On the alert for marvels, his eye was caught by Joan, and he was sent by the people of Troyes to approach her and judge her fitness for their loyalty. At her trial, she gave a brusque version of their first meeting. "When he came to me, as he approached me, he made the sign of the cross, and sprinkled Holy water, and I said to him: `Approach boldly—I shall not fly away.'"

    Despite her later flippant account, Joan was taken for a time with Richard, as he shared her devotion to the cult of the Holy Name and encouraged her in her predilection for taking Communion frequently—sometimes as often as three times a day, which would have been heterodox at the time. But they fell out because he attached himself to another female prophet, who irritated Joan in the way that only a female rival can irritate another female. Joan knew herself to be the real thing, and she quickly spotted Catherine de la Rochelle as a fake. Catherine was supposed to have had visions of a white lady who came to her at night. Joan challenged her: She would spend the night beside her, and if the white lady came, she would see her as well. When the white lady never showed up, Joan told Catherine to go back to her husband and her children. We can hear in these words the echo of the professional woman's contempt for the part-timer. After Joan's huffy dismissal of Catherine, her relationship with Brother Richard never recovered.

    Although it is easy to distinguish Joan from other mystics or pseudomystics, we should not go too far in this direction and forget that she was, at her core, a person moved by a religious vision. Like everything else about her, the nature of her religious life was mixed; there was a strong sprinkling of the practical and the political about it. There is no doubt, however, that she would have been incapable of doing the sometimes literally incredible things she did if she were not convinced to the depths of her soul that she was inspired by God. She often separated herself from the soldiers for private prayer, from which she would return refreshed and visibly illuminated. She spoke of the delight of the presence of her voices. She insisted that the men under her rise to an acceptable level of morality and piety, and worried that her enemies might die unshriven. She was never without God except in the few moments before and after her abjuration when she saw herself, like Christ in the Garden, abandoned. But for most of her life, she understood herself to be constantly and palpably in the company of the divine. It is this source of companionship that provided her remarkable sureness, her superhuman courage, her faith in her own authority.

    Joan's formal religious training was rudimentary; she tells us that she learned her Pater Noster from her mother, and she spoke of no other religious instruction, from the local priest or any other church authority. Her speech is remarkably free of biblical allusion; illiterate, she would have learned what she knew of the Scripture from what she heard at mass. She also made no mention of devotion to the Virgin Mary, although Marian cults were popular during the period in which she lived. She related to Christ as "her lord" but offered no details of personal intimacy and did not focus on His Passion, although Franciscan and Dominican spirituality, with which she would have been familiar, as her mother had gone on pilgrimages with mendicant friars and her confessor was a Dominican, stressed gory physical details of Christ's Passion and death. In her moments of suffering, she did not link herself with the suffering of Jesus. She was loyal to God, as she was loyal to the king: she would be loyal to the Church except that the Church represented by her accusers she defined not as the Church (the Church was the pope in Rome) but as her enemies. Above all, she was loyal to her voices, whose divine source she never doubted.


As historical character, model, or exemplum, Joan would be far more palatable to the post-Enlightenment appetite if she hadn't claimed to hear voices. As it is, her definition of herself is impossible without them, and it is expected, presumably, of any writer about Joan to take a position about them. A comfortable position for our time might be a contemporary version of De Quincey's, who tried to paint Joan's experience in Kate Greenaway colors. "On a fine breezy forenoon, I am audaciously skeptical, but as twilight sets in, my credulity grows steadily, till it becomes equal to anything that could be desired.... Fairies are important, even as in a statistical view certain weeds mark poverty in the soil, fairies mark its solitude."

    Thomas De Quincey was a great lover of Joan, and he was trying to brush away the problems that nineteenth-century Protestants—including, probably, himself—might have with her. In the same way, George Bernard Shaw's assertion that her voices were her own "common sense" makes her acceptable to a skeptical, rational freethinker. But we do her an injustice to think of her experience without honoring the terms in which she thought of it: as a religious one. Joan's voices urged her to do things that common sense would find impossible and that a "fairies-in-the-garden" sensibility would find appalling. They urged her to leave home, to become a soldier, to engage in war, to risk her life and lead men into battle to crown a king. She did this not for personal gain, which never occurred to her, or for fame, which also never entered her mind, but because she believed herself to be called and because not to do so would seem to her a betrayal of everything sacred and precious.

    The voices are dear to her: She speaks of her joy in their presence, her sense of bereftness when they leave her. Although her language is far less florid than that of the female mystics, she uses the synesthetic image of light—a combination of sound and vision—that is a commonplace in descriptions of the mystical experience. The experience of her voices happens to her on the deepest level of a creature of flesh, blood, mind, and spirit; the whole of herself is absorbed in the vision that emanates from what she knows to be the source of love and truth and salvation. De Quincey's and Shaw's responses to her voices recall Mary McCarthy's attempt to make Flannery O'Connor's literal belief in the Eucharist acceptable. Helpfully, McCarthy suggested that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was symbolic. Flannery O'Connor retorted, "If I thought it was symbolic, I'd say the hell with it."

    Far more apt, I believe, is the analysis of Johan Huizinga, whose beautiful and elegant work on the medieval period grants him an unquestionable scholarly authority about the mind of the age. He explains in his essay "Bernard Shaw's Saint" that the reason he didn't include Joan of Arc in his milestone work The Waning of the Middle Ages was that he was afraid her vivid presence would overwhelm and overbalance the book. He suggests that Joan's expressing her experience as divinely sent voices was uncommon but not bizarre for the time, that to the contemporary framework of understanding it was no more odd than a twentieth-century person speaking of her unconscious or of outer space or relativity. He vehemently denies that her voices are pathological, and his work has not hesitated in pointing to the pathology of the age in which she lived. Her experience was unusual, he says, but it was not disturbed.


We know that an anomaly only becomes a sickness when it has a disturbing effect on the purpose of the organism. And Joan's voices may have had a very disturbing influence on her lower purpose of enjoying life and growing old, but it is not on such things that we would like to base our conclusion.


    One can hear the impatience in his usually quiet measured voice when he answers the charge of mental imbalance as the source of Joan's voices:


If every inspiration that comes to me with such commanding urgency that it is heard as a voice is to be condemned out of hand by a learned qualification of a morbid symptom, a hallucination, who would not rather stand with Joan of Arc and Socrates than with the faculty of the Sorbonne on that of the sane.


Huizinga's defense of Joan's voices is different from that of the Catholic apologists before and after Joan's canonization, who used Joan's voices as a proof of the justice of the Catholic cause—and the French one. Huizinga was a Dutch Moravian with no particular brief for either Catholicism or French nationalism.

    It is interesting to examine how Joan's descriptions of her voices changed during the course of the trial. As the trial went on, pressed by her judges, she became more and more specific about the identity of the voices and their physical appearance. The historian Karen Sullivan believes that this greater specificity was, in fact, a product of the language of the questions that the judges asked, an absorption, as a result of her desperation and exhaustion, of her accusers' terms and a rejection of her own nonclerical, vernacular ones.

    Sullivan notes that the judges were clerics formed by scholastic philosophy, the system of thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, famous for its method of finding truth through relentless dividing and questioning. His discussion of angels includes their movements, their knowledge, their hierarchy, whether they move through intermediate space, whether they know singular facts or only universal ones. She says that the chronicles describing Joan written by laypeople who knew Joan when she was alive don't refer to her voices as being embodied in the persons of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, but merely speak of them as the voice of "God." In tracing the trial testimony, she finds that Joan refused to specify the nature of her voices for the first three days of the trial. It was only when she was asked "if it was the voice of an angel that spoke to her, or if it was the voice of a saint or God without intermediary, that she responded that it was the voice of St. Catherine and St. Margaret and their faces are crowned with beautiful crowns, very opulent and precious." Even then, when asked about St. Michael's giving her comfort, she said, "I do not name to you the voice of St. Michael but I speak of a great comfort."

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Chronological Table xiii
Introduction xv
CHAPTER I: Of Her Time and Place 1
CHAPTER II: Approaching the Throne 28
CHAPTER III: Triumphant in Battle, the King's Anointer 47
CHAPTER IV: What Kind of Warrior, What Kind of Defeat? 72
CHAPTER V: Accused 96
CHAPTER VI: Virgin Body 136
CHAPTER VII: Food for the Feast 148
CHAPTER VIII: Saint Joan 166
Notes 175
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2000

    The best biography of Jeanne d'Arc I have come across so far!

    Mary Gordon is a masterful storyteller who has gathered an enormous wealth of facts and details that help to create a balanced portrait of Jeanne d'Arc and the times she lived in. No important detail is overlooked, and many fascinating glimpses of fifteenth-century culture and customs are brought to life. Her book is probing and insightful, and it kept me enthralled from beginning to end. Overall, this was a wonderful and fantastic read. My only possible complaint would be that the publishers have not included any illustrations or photographs, but perhaps they will remedy this fault in a future edition. (I would have gladly paid a higher purchase price in order to have been able to buy an illustrated copy of this volume!)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Happy I Purchased

    I really enjoyed this book, which was written out so nicely for being non-fiction. I was completely absorbed and it seemed more like an interesting/fun fiction story. The character and topic of this book being Joan or Arc and her life makes this book such an interesting and exciting read. Joan of Arc was a peasant girl, teenager, knight, martyr, and many symbolic icons. Her life, accomplishments, and what she stands for will continue to awe and inspire. I loved the author,s thoroughness on Joan's life and she did a great job portraying and analyzing the history and meaning of this incredible women. I'd pick up this book again one day for another exciting read and would def recommend it for anyone interested in learning about Joan of Arc.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    New Look at St.Joan

    Joan of Arc is my patron Saint and namesake so I have always been interested in reading about her.
    This book is the first new perspective on Joan's life that I have read in a long time: most read more like a history text book and are nothing new.
    Mary Gordon tries to get the reader into the mind,character and mystery of this facinating historical and iconic figure in World and Church history and what kept her going and drove her to face her destiny - either because of or inspite of herself.
    It is an easy read which I liked and will probably read again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2012

    Dusk

    Dis is annoying...I wonder why deh moved....

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2001

    Pretty Good

    This book did give me imformation i didn't know about her, and it probably will give info to others that read it, so i do highly recomend that u read this to learn about her.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2001

    Not So Good

    I thought this book was going to be interesting, but it turns out that you can't even understand it. I had to do a project for World History and my friend had a different Joan of Arc book and I started to read hers and it was a lot simpiler to understand. The other book was Joan of Arc: In her own words

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2000

    How good is this book?

    People who have read more than this book on Joan of Arc probably won't find much to recommend this one.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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