Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Joan of Arc

by: Mary Gordon


   Joan of Arc is one the most distinguished women in history, not only for her miracles but also for her mysterious ways.  Joan is looked at in many different ways, including a peasant girl who could not read or write; a heroine who led the French Army and at times was successful; and lastly, as a saint for the miracles that she performed.  Mary Gordon brings all these aspects of Joan's life into one work titled Joan of Arc.  In this book, Gordon examines Joan's life by looking at the time in which she lived first, then continuing to her life in the French army, and her triumphs and defeats, Joan's trial and death, and lastly her sainthood.  Gordon is a professor of English at Barnard College and is the best-selling author of five novels, three collections of short stories, and a memoir.

     Mary Gordon sets the stage for her book by describing the state of life during the time of Joan of Arcís life.  She briefly writes about the condition that the state was in due to the Hundred Years War, and also the circumstance of the Church.  Gordon then speaks about Joan herself.  Joan of Arc was a peasant girl who was brought up at a very harsh time in European history, the Hundred Years War.  Joan led a very normal life for a young girl of her stature.  When Joan was seventeen years old she began to hear voices instructing her to preserve her virginity and also to go to Rheims to crown the dauphin king, Charles. 

As Joan receives her army, Gordon begins to get very descriptive.  Gordon stresses the importance of the Battle of Orleans and the success in which Joan secured for the French.  As Joan moves on to Rheims, her devotion to the voices she hears is obvious.  Charles resists her attempt to get him crowned however, Joan tells the duke, "It is time to go to the gentle king Charles to put him on his road to his coronation" (Gordon 2000).  After the coronation, her armies began to fail and Joan was captured by the English and abandoned by her followers.  After eight months in prison Joan was put to trial as a heretic.  Despite the consequences Joan would face, she refused to reject the voices that had led her to the successful coronation of Charles.  Joan was executed by the secular arm of the English government, although her trial was ecclesiastical (Gordon 2000).  Joan was burned to death in the town square of Rouen.  In 1869, nearly three hundred and fifty years after her death, the canonization of Joan began, and she was declared a saint in 1920.

Gordon writes about Joan in a very detailed manner in that every aspect of her career was examined and understood.  Gordon portrays Joan of Arc as a human being instead of a historical figure.  She shares with the audience a descriptive account of Joanís most significant accomplishments as well as Joanís hardships she faced by being a women in power.  She questions some of Joanís choices she makes, which shows that she is not biased into believing that Joan was perfect.  For example, Gordon (2000) writes that "her mission to crown the king having been completed, it was time for her to go home to Domremy.  Had she followed this impulse, she would have experienced only success and might have died in bed, a logical legend."  She also gives a realistic point of view to the relationships that Joan had.  For example, Joan and Charles had different goals and this often caused tension between them.  Gordon also brings in other popular sources into her work including Vita Sackville-West, Edward Lucie-Smith, and Marina Warner.  Gordon also devotes a section of her book to discuss movies made about Joan, such as Otto Premingerís Joan of Arc, and Victor Flemingís 1948 version of Joan of Arc. 

There are many reviews of this book, all of which are positive.  "Gordon conjures up the mind-set of the period in a way that makes this legendary tale credible to us today" (Cunneen 2000).  In this sense, Gordon uses the first chapter of her book to review the situation in Europe during the time of Joanís life.  This sets the stage for what is to come instead of throwing the audience into the middle of the Hundred Year War. 

Gordon also portrays Joan her whole life, first as a peasant girl to a teenage girl who was determined to follow the voices from God and perform miracles.  Michele Roberts (2000) writes that she has produced a sympathetic and personally inflected account that emphasizes her heroineís youth, her shining sincerity, her cockiness and her capacity for making mistakes.  Gordon does not hesitate to criticize Joan for the mistakes that she made nor does she oversimplify the triumphs in which Joan earned.  Gordon is very fair in the way she writes about Joan.  She does not stress only the good aspects of Joanís career and not only the Joanís faults.  She integrates both ends of Joanís life into one work.

Cunneen (2000) also writes that Gordon brings us into the tale by asking and answering the questions we all might raise.  Gordon writes in a very mature manner, assuming that most have a common knowledge about Joan.  She avoids the irrelevant details of Joanís life, such as her childhood, in order to make room for the important aspects of her life, such as her adolescent years.  Gordon does not bore the audience with repetitive facts, but instead intrigues the audience with a unique point of view on the life of this heroine. 

This book is very useful in investigating the life a girl who was burned at the stake for following the voices she heard because of her strong faith in God.  She was very successful at times and also failed at times.  In this work, Gordon portrays both of these aspects of Joanís life.  She gives much detail to the important parts of Joanís life and steers clear of repetitive facts about her.  She is very clear in the writing and focus on all aspects of Joanís career, not just her achievements.  This book is very informative about the life of a peasant girl who rose above many hardships and died in honor of her faith.  This book is recommended to anyone looking to expand his or her knowledge of Joan of Arc.

Annotated Bibliography


Cunneen, Sally. Joan of Arc. Christian Century. 24 May 2000. Vol 117 Issue 17. p 61

This book review is very positive towards Gordonís work.  This review mainly contains a summary of the book with very few comments on the substance or make up of the book.  When Cunneen does refer to Gordon, she quotes the book.  This article is a good source if looking for a mild review and a large summary.

Roberts, Michele. Joan of Arc. New Statesman. 8 may 2000. Vol 129 issue 4485. p 50

This book review contains a very short summary of the book being reviewed.  It concentrates solely on Gordonís portrayal of Joan of Arc, and the sources she used.  It also explores the time period at which the book was written about.  This review also contain comments about other books on Joan.  This source is useful in comparing Gordonís book with other books on Joan.  



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Written by Karen Woods, November 2000
Last Revision: 2000 December 6

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