Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department


Book Review

Nash-Marshall, Siobhan. Joan of Arc. New York: Crossroad Pub., 1999.

Throughout history, women have been traditionally subordinated to men, inferior, and denied all power of authority. In the fifteenth century, Joan of Arc became an extraordinary women who not only acted independently, but also became a source of authority, a type of woman who brought out fears in men. Joan, unlike the majority of peasant women, has been known to defy every tradition of the world of women. The book Joan of Arc, by Siobhan Nash-Marshall, not only provides a spiritual biography of the life of Joan, but also includes questioning about the circumstances of the life and death of Joan of Arc that seemed to have puzzled people for centuries. Directed towards a popular or professional audience, the purpose is to give insights into the complexity of the events in Joan's life, and the many unexplainable details surrounding her trial and execution. The theme of this book centers around Joan's spiritual life, and assumes that her death had been a planned plot. This plot, according to the book, was an intentional effort to see that Joan had suffered a painful public death, and that this death had been made to look as if it was an act of God's will. As a reader of this book, it is clear that the author mainly points to the contradictions of Joan's death, but it also offers various critical questions to think about concerning Joan's life, as well some philosophical views.

This book pointed clearly to the fact that Joan's death was a planned plot. The author questions the church's condemnation of Joan. While the simple answer was offered, that Joan was found to be a heretic by the Inquisition, the author offers various oppositions to this answer. First of all, the author questions the fact that Joan had received the sacraments on the day of her execution, only after being withheld from them up until that day. Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvis and the chief Inquisitor at Joan's trial, had told the Dominican monk with Joan to "give her everything she asks" (163). The author points to the fact that Joan was about to be excommunicated, or cut off from the church, yet she was allowed to receive the sacraments. This was one contradiction. What also seemed very unusual to the author was the fact that Joan "had already received the church's sanction" (144). The author points clearly to what Houppeville, a priest of Rouen, had made clear in her trial. That was the fact that Joan had already been declared a good Catholic at the hearing at Poitiers before she had begun her quest.

Another very suspicious event that had occurred during Joan's death used to back up this argument was Joan's changing into men's clothes three days after she had sworn not to. This incident resulted in the declaration that Joan was a relapsed heretic. The author not only points to the physical impossibility of this occurring, but also questions how Joan obtained these clothes. All of the evidence supports the claim that this change could not have been done on Joan's will alone.

The author also points to how Joan had been held in an English prison with male guards, rather than in a convent where those normally declared heretics had been sent. It also had been common practice to have guards of the same sex. The author also claims that Joan had known she should have been sent to a church prison. Once at St. Ouen, the cemetary where Joan had been burnt, the document Joan had signed also brings up conroversy. This abjuration Joan had signed should have lessened her sentence to life imprisonment. Since Joan could not read or write, someone else had read to her what it had said. While witnesses claimed the abjuration had been quite short, the one on record is rather long. This is another contradiction to the events surrounding Joan's death.

Overall, the author backs up her argument with logical reasoning, and many valid points that obviously contradict events surrounding Joan's trial. The author had used approximately six of the documents of Joan's Rouen trial and her rehabilitation trial as her primary sources. The secondary sources she had used consist of classical biographies of Joan, recent biographies, along with some novels, critiques, and readings of Joan's life and personality. The author had also used vivid pictures that portray the image of Joan, and included a chronology of Joan's life at the end of the book.

The author of this book doed succeed in her aims to get across the facts and speculations about Joan's life and death. There are numerous positive aspects of the book that the reader may learn from. First of all, the story of Joan is told with detail in the book while questioning various contradictions and suspicions about the situation. What makes it effective is that the author openly states the fact that Joan is very controversial and that many aspects are not agreed upon. For example, the end of the first chapter devotes itself to discussing the lack of consensus about Joan. It states that in "all concerning Joan, her significance, or her role in history" (23), contains a variety of disagreement. The author goes on to explain this by showing that some minimize her significance, and yet others, like the contemporary feminists, think that she actively worked for a feminist cause.

Also, the book offered insights into the debates about Joan. The very last chapter of the book shows this. The author points out views of history and philosophy that seem to question certain aspects of Joan. Thus, it deals with the role of divine intervention in Joan's quest. The author provides the reader with the aspect of Joan's quest claiming that "God wanted France to be a nation," and this "implies that nationhood itself can be sacred" (169). In other words, the author is conveying the fact that if this is true, it would mean that God plays a role in planning human history and therefore favors certain groups of people and nations over others, which certainly does not seem true.

Overall, the book is written rather well as a biography that certainly can attract a reader. For the most part, it is an exciting book because it not only tells the story, but also analyzes different aspects of the situations in Joan's life. It includes logical explanations from many sources of every aspect of her life and personality, and is pretty comprehensive in its arguments, without being overly bias. The author offers her arguments and logically backs them up while exploring the opinions and attitudes of others openly.

This book contributes to the field by offering another viewpoint, or an addition to someone else's, about Joan's life. The author does include and take into account opposite viewpoints, and does so in a respectful way. The views in this book mostly coincide with those who perceive Joan as a true spiritual exemplary, who bravely defied her traditions to rise up to authority and lead the French to unity. It agrees with those others who see her life as extremely noteworthy.

In conclusion, this book can offer any reader not only a life story of Joan of Arc, but also can bring out many questions and debates that surround her. As with other controversial people, it tries to show that Joan of Arc had been betrayed, which therefore brought about her death. It also strongly supports this claim. It logically approaches the discrepancies of the matter and attempts to show the readers that Joan's downfall had indeed been planned. The book is overall quite effective in getting this point of view across and is fairly clear in its objectives. It can provide a reader a firm viewpoint into one of the many questionable aspects about the life and death of Joan of Arc.

 


ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bellitto, Christopher M. "Book Reviews: Ancient and Medieval." Review of Joan of Arc: Her Story, by Regine Pernoud. Catholic Historical Review, October 1999, 620.
This review is very useful in informing readers what the book is about. Bellitto recommends it for the general public or for use in the classroom. The review gives insight into the three parts of the book. The first is about Joan's life, the second offers character portraits, and the third considers contentious issues. Bellitto praises the book for giving a clear story with both detailed accounts of the characters and key controversies.

O'Connell, Kathy. "She who Battles." Review on Joan of Arc, by Mary Gordon. America, June 2000, 32.
O'Connell, a freelance writer and critic, analyzes Gordon's book as it tries to explain the appeal of Joan. It informs readers that the book addresses the contradictions that surround Joan rather than giving a detailed story of Joan's life. O'Connell praises Gordon for her sharp observations made in the book, especially the ones dealing with Joan's sainthood.

"Galli, Mark. "Biography." Review on Joan of Arc: A Spiritual Biography, by Siobhan Nash-Marshall. Christianity Today, March 2000, 92.
This review is rather poor and does not give much information about the book or a critical analysis of it. Galli praises the spriritual biography of the book but fails to tell why. He does not offer any kind of information as to who the book apeals to and lacks in showing why he enjoyed the book.

 


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