Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Book Review

Mary Gordon. Joan of Arc

     This work is noteworthy in that the author places more emphasis on Joan of Arc’s character than on her accomplishments. Or, more accurately, the text discusses how her personality style and reasoning influenced both those accomplishments and her contemporaries’ reactions to her. Gordon recognizes that, just like anybody else, Joan possessed a complex mind with many contradictory characteristics.

     Gordon’s description of the events in Joan’s short military career is less than clear-cut. She does cover the facts somewhat chronologically, but breaks this pattern often for the sake of characterization (i.e., according to which characteristic is revealed in which incident). Gordon apparently wrote the book for readers whom are already familiar with Joan’s military career.

     Chapter 1 relates Joan’s earliest experience with the Hundred Years’ War, from which it is not hard to understand her eventual hatred of the Burgundians (the French who sided with the English): When she was thirteen, a group of them burned and plundered her family’s church in Domremy. Gordon also describes the conditions in France at that time

--peasants starved while the king lived extravagantly, indifferent to the suffering of his people. The Church was just as corrupt, led by a series of less-than-ideal Popes. A rise in anticlericalism—the forerunners of Protestantism—swept Europe in response to this corruption. Gordon believes that the Church’s fear of being overthrown was reflected in Joan’s prosecutor’s attitude toward her during the trial, since above all she represented the primacy of the individual conscience over the authority of the Church.

     Chapter 1 also defends Joan’s belief in the reality of her "voices." Citing one critic’s opinion that the voices merely symbolized "common sense," Gordon points out that the voices had urged Joan into endeavors which could not have been common sense: risking her life in battle, crowning a king. She also denies that the purported voices necessarily reveal mental illness, as the present psychiatric definition of "mental illness" indicates that a significant impairment in everyday functioning would accompany the voices. Joan’s voices rather spurred her on to super ordinary feats.

     Chapters 2-4 outline Joan’s crowning of and relationship with King Charles, as well as her various battles. Her insistence on being the one to crown the king at Rheims, Gordon asserts, is evidence that Joan understood the power of symbolism. She was chosen by God to crown Charles king; therefore, God Himself wanted Charles on the throne. Joan’s reference to herself as "The Maid" is another example of her use of symbolism—this is a grandiose term with transcendent overtones.

     Of all the inconsistencies in Joan’s character, her audacity, her boastfulness, her bravado is referred to most often. Her impatience with her fellow commanders, her contempt for her enemies, her utter assurance that she was in the right, indeed "sent by God," her "playful" responses to her judges at the trial—Gordon presents many colorful examples of Joan’s refusal to be dominated by men, even as she unquestioningly obeyed her voices.

     Gordon juxtaposes the standard stereotype of a soldier with one aspect of Joan’s character that poignantly reveals her integral innocence: she wept for the victims of war. Joan also expressed a typically adolescent level of understanding. Gordon notes that one particular letter that she sent to the English high command, in addition to being "extravagant to the point of delusion," is also naïve in its presumption that her enemies will immediately bow to her will upon reading it. Similarly, Joan seems to have had a child-like understanding of her own mortality. Following her capture, she tried to escape by leaping out the window of a castle; apparently, Gordon notes, she believed she could take risks and never be hurt by them.

     Chapter 5 recounts the course of Joan’s trial, led by Pierre Cauchon, up until her burning as a heretic. Her behavior, and her responses to her judges’ questions during the trial indicate, as Gordon demonstrates, the intricacies of Joan’s psychology. She agreed to answer their questions "according to her own faith." She refused to recognize that she had once ordered her men into battle on a feast day—Gordon suggests that she reveled in her successes, but eschewed responsibility for her failures or oversights. As a soldier, it was upon her honor under the chivalric code, not to attempt escape; when questioned about this following her leap from the castle window, she retorted that it was any prisoner’s right to escape.

     Most damning of all to Joan’s case, Gordon stated, was her statement that although she disobeyed her voices by jumping, she had been saved from serious injury or death by their forgiveness. This presumption—that an individual could receive absolution directly, without the intervention of the Church—was a concept that threatened the authority of the Church, Gordon explains; it was the primary reason that Joan was branded a heretic.

     Gordon spends a good part of Chapter 5 discussing the significance of Joan’s transvestism. She hypothesizes that dressing as a man was Joan’s way of symbolically taking on male power. She believes that Joan’s reluctance to shed male clothes reveals a fear of the vulnerability of being a woman, as well as a fear of losing her virginity.

     Joan’s virginity is the topic of Chapter 6. It seems rather incongruous and confusing to discuss this particular aspect of Joan’s life here, after her death at the end of the previous chapter. Nevertheless, the chapter better explains some of Joan’s reasoning behind having sworn lifelong virginity.  Simply put, Gordon writes, sustaining her virginity was the only way a woman in those days could obtain autonomy. A loss of her virginity equaled marriage, which meant control by a man. Eternal chastity, on the other hand, meant not only autonomy, but also actually the respect of men for the appearance of pious selflessness this state lent her. A curious sign of this respect, that Gordon cites, is that throughout the course of her imprisonment, none of Joan’s guards ever raped her. Gordon concludes that her virginity gave her an aura of inviolability even her enemies could not deny.

     Chapters 7 and 8 detail some literary and film accounts of Joan’s life, and the process of her canonization, respectively. Chapter 7 is more or less worthless to anyone who is not already familiar with the artists to whom Gordon refers. Chapter 8 is more relevant, describing the Church’s analysis of Joan’s life in judging whether or not she was deserving of sainthood. Gordon makes a point of mentioning, however, that Joan’s official canonization in 1920 might have been the Church’s way of influencing public sympathy in its favor—just as once it used her to reassert its authority.

     Overall, Gordon’s Joan of Arc is a very informative work that effectively humanizes Joan by analyzing her personality. Gordon provides alternately poignant and questionable examples of Joan’s behavior that reveal both her often-contradictory beliefs, and allow the reader to empathize with her dilemmas.  Still, the lack of strict chronology can be confusing, and the book seems primarily aimed at readers who have read at least several other works on the topic.

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Written by Dawn Drumin, 2000 December 5
Last Revision: 2000 December 6
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