Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Book Review

Kelly DeVries. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader.

In his book, Joan of Arc: A Military leader, author Kelly DeVries takes an unusual approach toward this illustrious figure, focusing not on the origin of her voices or her relationship with God, but instead on her military tactics. In fact, DeVries has written over a dozen critically-reviewed books on the topic of medieval warfare. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader is written for a professional audience, already versed in the history of Joan of Arc, and with a particular interest in the strategies and politics of war. 

A good deal of the book discusses not merely the facts of Joan’s accomplishments, but the political controversy and the power play inherent in King Charles’ attitude toward these accomplishments. DeVries presents a Joan of Arc who rose to command because, initially, she served the interests of those French looking to achieve power. Ironically, she fell from command for this same reason. DeVries methodically demonstrates each of the tactics that made Joan successful. First, she was charismatic and enthusiastic in the face of countrymen whose collective morale had been worn abysmally low by the lack of an organized French army. Many towns in France surrendered automatically to the English or the Burgundians only because they could not depend on French forces coming to relieve them. But Joan’s proclamation of her "mission from God" cut through their resignation, reigniting French patriotism. Like with all good leaders, her words and actions were an inspiration to her followers. Next, DeVries states, Joan knew how to build alliances for the good of her country—not least with its leader. Her endless devotion to King Charles, her insistence that she, "the Maid," be the one to crown him, reveals her integral understanding that she would need a confident monarch to support her army, just as France’s Armagnacs needed a king of their own nationality. Third, DeVries explains, Joan’s strategy of attack was unprecedented in France during this time, a strategy that was first demonstrated in her brilliant siege of Orleans. She used psychological warfare, for example, in writing letters to the English occupiers asserting that she was the prophesized Maid who had come to save France. She railed against any hesitation on the part of either King Charles or her combatants, during or between battles. She earned her soldiers’ wholehearted cooperation by assuring them that they were doing God’s will, and would have a guaranteed place in Heaven should they be killed in battle. She had the foresight to form strategetic partnerships with such leaders as Arthur de Richemont—who had ties to the English—so that she could make use of his troops. She and her men captured the English troops’ only access across the Loire River to make it obvious to the English that she was determined to counteract them every step of the way. She carefully considered every advantage, and then utilized it. She established early on that she could not be intimidated. Joan might have gone on to score victories for the French a good deal longer if she had not met with opposition on a very important front: from the king. King Charles’ increasing apathy toward Joan’s cause following his coronation, influenced by his diplomacy-minded advisors, is the primary reason DeVries cites for her declining successes thereafter. The king failed to replenish her troops’ ammunition, he ignored her pleas for quicker action, particularly when she wanted to take Paris; eventually, he transferred her to a site where she would be less capable of causing trouble for him. Following her capture, the king never tried to rescue her.

 She began her fight as a military savior, DeVries concludes, but those more powerful than she turned her into a political pawn. DeVries provides evidence for his arguments largely through primary sources. He quotes Joan’s own letters to demonstrate her reasoning; he presents the comments of her contemporaries at different points during her career (The duke of Alencon, her military advisor, is quoted most often). The Journal de siege d’Orleans and Chronique de la Pucelle, composed in the 19th century, are frequently quoted as well. DeVries also includes a number of maps of the discussed locales, and portraits of relevant individuals. DeVries’ use of primary sources are the biggest strength of the book, as they establish the speakers’ motivations, beliefs, and experiences involving Joan, and in their own words. DeVries supports his arguments well; especially noteworthy is his analysis of the personal reasons behind an individual’s behavior. For example, Georges de la Tremoille, an advisor to King Charles, showed reluctance toward Joan’s plans to retake occupied sites. DeVries explains that it was a "personality flaw" in de la Tremoille—his jealousy toward anyone who had influence over King Charles—as well as his personal desire for a truce between France and England, that motivated him to make sure that anyone "who sought to win by warfare was disliked and…forced out of favor at court (126)." Such explanations clarify the factors behind Joan’s downfall, and also give a "human face" to the major actors in the book. 

Unfortunately, although the structure of the book is excellent in that DeVries describes Joan’s career, and his own arguments, chronologically and thoroughly, the narrative can be confusing. He recounts battle after battle, and one has to pay close attention to catch at what point one has ended, and another begins. DeVries goes into detail about Joan’s method of attack that likely only someone already interested in war techniques would care about—how she employed cannons and gunpowder weapons, her choice of battle formations, and various methods of taking a city. Also, DeVries discusses so many different figures—French, Burgundian and English royals, nobles and other leaders—that it can be difficult to keep track of them all. DeVries’ arguments are well thought-out and solid. As far as Joan as a military commander is concerned, he covers all major bases. Through his sources, he provides complete testimony to his theories regarding Joan’s military character and techniques. The only contention he makes that I might argue is that Joan of Arc is primarily remembered by her role in battle. It seems to me that she is remembered most often as a saint. Overall, this is an excellent book on Joan of Arc—for those who are interested in her accomplishments from a military standpoint. As said above, the text may prove confusing to many people, with all the various battles and people. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader is not a book I would recommend to anyone not already well versed in the life of Joan of Arc. 


Kirkus Reviews. "Review of Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud & Marie-Veronique Clin." The Kirkus Service, Inc. December 15, 1998. November 16, 2000.
The author finds Pernoud and Clin’s book to be "a useful and innovative documentary history" of Joan of Arc. He claims that the work isn’t quite a chronological biography of Joan, but more a portrayal of Joan as she appeared in descriptive documents of her time. The author notes that this approach—comparing each source to the others--offers valuable insights into Joan of Arc’s true character. He feels that Pernoud and Clin may be "overly sympathetic" in their description of Joan’s crusade; however, he concludes that their presentation of the documents do invite readers to form their own opinions.


Rathbone, Julian. "A Military Leader by Kelly DeVries." The Sunday Telegraph (London). December 12, 1999. November 16, 2000.
Rathbone criticizes DeVries’ assertion that Joan was first and foremost a soldier, commenting, "One instinctively questions such simplifications." He questions DeVries’ choice of wording in the book, stating it is vague and confusing. He likewise wonders why DeVries went to such pains not to discuss the religious aspects of Joan; specifically, the nature of her voices, since this issue played such a key role, apparently, in Joan’s own interpretation of events. Rathbone believes this oversight detracts considerably from the book. However, he also feels that DeVries was accurate in blaming Joan’s eventual failure on the king’s indifference, rather than on her carelessness or arrogance.

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Written by Dawn Drumin, 5 December 2000
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