Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department


Book Review

Frances Gies. Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Joan of Arc is one of the most famous and controversial women in history. Her unique story has led to many different treatments of her. Joan of Arc can be seen as many things today, and has been used as a model of virginity, patriotism, heroism, and sainthood over the years. Because of this many works about her tend to be based on the theme about how the author views her life. On the other hand, the book, Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, by Frances Gies is an extremely general biography of the life of Joan of Arc. For a professional or specialist reader, this book provides an analytical and unprejudiced history of Joan's life. Gies, co-author of many books of medieval history, provides the reader with an unbiased account of the life of Joan that offers factual foundation of the events of Joan's life, her trial, and her execution. Gies attempts to provide the reader with the most accurate, fair analysis of Joan of Arc. She also provides the reader with an analysis of the different viewpoints that have been attributed to Joan over the past five centuries. As a reader, it was quite obvious that Gies is trying to give a very accurate, detailed story of Joan, without any assumptions of the truth. She does a very good job of providing a thorough, factual, unbiased account of Joan of Arc, offering the reader the reality of Joan.

As an effective examination of Joan of Arc in history, Gies does what many others who write about Joan have not. She has not used any personal viewpoints or theories to describe or assume any conclusions about the life of Joan. She does not try to persuade the reader to accept her view, but provides facts which enable the reader to also critically analyze the life of Joan of Arc. The work of Gies is effective as a factual biography due to the sources that she has used. Gies even describes to the readers those sources that she has used in the first chapter of the book. The primary sources include the records of her trial and rehabilitation, chronicles, fiscal accounts, letters, and legal and political documents. Gies goes even further to point out the shortcomings of these sources which she has taken into account. She informs the reader that the trial and rehabilitation records are both written in the third person, and some are quite incomplete.Gies speaks specifically about "the witnesses whose statements it records were testifying to events that happened a quarter of a century ago," creating the problem that "their memories are sometimes confused and often conflicting" (4). Gies then continues to inform the reader that she has filled in any gaps of information by using secondary sources from contemporary chronicles, letters, and documents. She also points out that "each chronicle has its viewpoint and often its prejudice" (5). In pointing this out to the reader, Gies is able to show her purpose of putting forth the most authentic, truthful facts about Joan. Along with the primary and secondary sources, this book also provides the reader with a few maps and various illustrations of such things as Joan's birthplace, a sketch of Joan, one of her letters, and an illustration of her execution.

What Gies has accomplished is not very easy, that is, she proves to be analytical but also dispassionate throughout this book. In this detailed account, she analyzes many of the controversies surrounding Joan, logically and critically looks at the events of her life, and examines her trial fairly. For example, Gies notes the extensive examinations and analysis of Joan's voices. She offers the readers three interpretations for Joan's voices. She states that they may have been "supernatural manifestations, that they were illusions, or that she saw and heard real people" (26). She then provides Catholic biographers acceptance of Joan's revelations from God as well as those who are skeptical and felt that Joan's voices were caused by neurosis, hysteria, or physical illness. After pointing out the various interpretations of these voices, Gies concludes that "no really convincing scientific interpretation has been advanced" (28). In doing this Gies shows that she is not trying to assume things that can not be proven, and thus is looking only towards providing the reader with the reality. In discussing the voices, Gies states that "whatever the source of Joan's voices and her belief in them, it conferred on her a strength of resolution possessed by few, women or men" (28). Throughout the book, Gies takes events and beliefs, as she has done with the voices, presents the different explanations, and shows logically and rationally only the conclusions that are truthful concerning Joan's life. Her explicit use of details, her numerous excerpts from the sources, and her knowledge of medieval history come together for an authentic, logical analyization of Joan's life.

Frances Gies does an excellent job of providing information on Joan in a factual unbiased way. What makes this book unique is that Gies not only brings in so many viewpoints and prejudices of others, but she successfully discredits inauthentic information and is able to tell the story of Joan without a personal point of view. Throughout the book, Gies uses records of first hand accounts to provide the reader with information and allows them to create their own views on the topic.

Another very positive aspect of this book is the way that Gies devotes the last chapter to provide the reader with the evolution of the treatment of Joan over the past five and a half centuries. "Opinion about Joan has a history of its own, spanning the centuries between her death and the present day" (240). In this section she shows how different treatments of Joan have evolved over time. Gies discusses the providential views of the French chronicles, the skeptical views of the Burgundian chronicles, and the Bourgeois, who viewed Joan in more hostile terms. She also analyzes the more contemporary historians and writers and how Joan came to be seen in terms of patriotism, poetry, and religion. She discusses many works related to Joan such as Shakespeare's Henry VI, Chapelain's poem La Pucelle, Quicherat's history of Joan, and Mark Twain's fictional biography of Joan, just to name a few. In doing this she shows the many interpretations, explanations, and absurdities that surround this controversial figure. She shows how over the centuries Joan has been seen as a virgin, a patriot, a military hero, a legend, a historical figure, a liberator, and a saint.

Gies also shows her knowledge of history to explain to the reader certain events throughout this book. Her knowledge of medieval history was quite useful in explaining certain things. One specific example arises in the chapter about Joan's trial. Gies explains how the trial came at the beginning of the era of the witchcraft trials. She continues to explain the trial of Joan as a witchcraft trial because of the fact that there was only a small distinction between witchcraft and heresy. She explains that since witchcraft was a form of devil worship it was therefore heresy. She also provides a contrast between the typical medieval trial and the one Joan received. She explains to the reader the fact that medieval justice was normally quick and based on summary, while Joan's trial was exhaustive and lasted at least three months. Thus, her knowledge of this time period helped to explain and clarify many of the facts within the book.

Overall, what Gies has accomplished in this book, the authentic story of Joan of Arc is quite noteworthy. It is very hard to be unbiased and not to take a certain viewpoint on such a controversial topic. Gies proved to touch upon many of the controversies surrounding Joan. She discussed the interpretations of Joan's visions, her sexuality, and her trial as they developed throughout her life.

This book contributes to the many works about Joan by providing a very detailed, factual history of the life of Joan of Arc. It critically analyzes the events that occurred in an unbiased way, while also taking into account many various viewpoints.

In conclusion, this book efffectively accomplishes its purpose in providing an authentic biography of Joan. Although this book might require some previous knowledge of the subject matter and needs to be read extremely carefully, Gies does an exceptional job with using the sources and providing a critical biography of one of the most famous women in history. It portrays Joan's unique story, depicting her and her life in a realistic way. This book is very useful for anyone interested in a detailed story of Joan, and provides readers with an analysis of the many interpretations about Joan from her death until today.

 


ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hoffman, Richard C. Review of Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, by Frances Gies. Library Journal, March 1981, 1402.
Hoffman, a history professor at York University, applaudes Gies for her biography of Joan of Arc. He states that she displays her secondary scholarship and her critical understanding of the sources in the story of Joan's career, her death, and the literary and ideological treatment of Joan since her death. Overall, he deems the book valuable and recommends it for both public and college libraries. This review, although rather short, provides a moderated amount of information about this book and does inform the reader of its success.

Review of Joan, Maid of Orleans, by Henri Guilleman. New Yorker, May 1973, 147.
This review praises Guilleman for attempting to write a more factual story of Joan of Arc. It states that Guilleman went to the original sources including municipal records, church records, and the records of her trial and rehabilitation to create a story about Joan. He portrayed Joan as a confident mystic and military powress, while at the same time provided criticisms of earlier writers of Joan. This review also informs the reader that this book includes illustrations. Overall this review gives a general idea of what to expect from the book but does not provide much detail.


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Written by Tricia Tait, 2000 December 5
Last Revision: 2000 December 6
Copyright MM Prof.
Pavlac's Women's History Site
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