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Review - The Virgin Warrior - Joan of Arc

Review of 'The Virgin Warrior - The Life and Death of Joan of Arc' by Larissa Juliet Taylor (Yale University Press) - for Tribune Magazine - subscribe here.

Joan of Arc is one of those figures about whom it cannot be said that little is known. Not only has she been mythologised from Shakespeare to Shaw and onwards, the process of turning her into an icon begun in her own lifetime, mainly by herself. Joan was certainly a pivotal figure in my own childhood – like many Catholic girls she was singled out as patron saint upon my confirmation. Most Saturdays, when I went to church for choir practise, I would stop at her statue and light a candle at her stone feet. I have long since turned my back on Joan and indeed, on religion itself. Yet I still went to see the 2007 play at the National Theatre with the marvellously powerful Anne Marie Duff in the starring role. It seems as if there is just no escaping Joan of Arc - the girl who victoriously led the French to battle against the English in 1429. A recent trip to Paris again confronted me with her ubiquity – Go into any French art institution and there will be at least an etching here and a drawing there. There are so many books on her that it seems ludicrous that we have yet another, this time by Larissa Juliet Taylor. However, Taylor succeeds in presenting Joan differently – as a girl, first and foremost, and not simply as a saint in the making that many previous biographers/hagiographers have done. Taylor also shines a spotlight on the role played by Yolande of Aragon, the female elder who helped Joan take centre stage and who pulled many strings at court, setting in motion the process of turning Joan into an icon. Yet, as Taylor tells us, Joan was far from being the saint and religious fanatic than many others of her time, many being far more radical. Moreover, faced with her life as presented by Taylor, Joan as a girl, it is challenging to continue to hold onto any of the modern or contemporary theories that she was mad, anorexic or both. However, Joan’s eating habits, or eating disorders, were a subject for comment even then. Louis de Coutes, a page later assigned to her, remarked how ‘frequently she would eat only a morsel of bread the whole day; it was astonishing how little she ate’. There have even been suggestions that she was psychotic, or a witch (perhaps they are synonymous). Yet Joan was no odd-ball in her own time. Taylor takes great care in emphasising that Joan did not partake in the fasting undertaken by other religious women. Indeed, whilst at court, the same page said ‘when she was in her lodgings, she ate only two meals a day’, yet there would be masses of medieval women who were lucky to get two meals a day and who would not have been considered in the same light. The psychological disorder claims could also give lie to Joan’s consistent belief and desire to go into battle against the English. There was simply no room for doubt, which, however, could be said to be a sign of some psychological disorder. And, of course, there is Joan as feminist icon, taking up a man’s role in leading the French into battle, which would be astonishing even in the twenty-first century. Yet this was a woman who seems to have held contempt for other women, although perhaps this was just loose women. Her soldiers had enthusiastic followers of the female form follow them, in the hope of earning from their lust. Yet Joan, it is claimed, would charge after the women with her sword in attack mode, with many theorists no doubt finding it telling that Joan used the ultimate phallic symbol of power with which to chase these poor girls away. But Joan also told the soldiers that if they wanted to sleep with the women, then they must wed them first. Based on all of this many would say that Joan was an insufferable, violent prude. Yet whatever theories are ascribed to this girl, and that is really what she was, they are just our own modern preoccupations with projecting our own current biases and preoccupations onto her.
Joan may not always be listened to by theorists in our time, but what is clear is that she was certainly listened to in her own, no doubt helped by her ‘sharp wit and self-confidence’. What we are left with, then, is a girl who had that rare thing, absolute certainty in her own power, unconstrained and heedless of the limitations that were put her way. Perhaps there will come a time when books on Joan will cease investigating her, and focus on the psychology of those in power who actually listened to a fourteen year old girl who heard voices. This account, however, is a clear, concise and illuminating one, that goes some way to presenting Joan in a much more human light, not as odd as many women of her time desperate to find a way out of convention. It certainly renewed my interest in a girl who was once an unbearably constant icon.

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