Monday, July 20, 2015

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

In Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, Kathryn Harrison takes on a rather formidable character in the western imagination.  We all think we know something about Joan of Arc, either from graphic art, or more commonly, movies, but as Harrison shows, the story of her life has far more complexities than any popular rendition can provide.

Harrison is both charmed and cursed in her study of Joan.  Unlike many other mythical figures, there happens to be a great deal of contemporary documents related to her, mainly from her trail for heresy.  Every word she and her inquisitors uttered was transcribed.  Also, over twenty years after her execution, yet another trial took place to exonerate her; there, those who  knew her as a little girl, a divine messenger, and a warrior --- of all ---testified and their words were transcribed.

Yet both sources have serious flaws.  The first trial was made under duress; Joan was kept in appalling conditions, with little food or water, and subject to hostile questions repeatedly asked. Under these trying circumstances, Joan often changed her answers.  The second trial occurred twenty-years after her execution, when the cult of Joan of Arc was on the rise.  She was already becoming the national symbol of a resurgent France, and fading memories were influenced by this growing luster.

Despite this, Harrison does an excellent job of steering through the primary source material, always patient with the documents, always critical of their veracity as she uses them to develop a coherent narrative of one of the most important women of all time.  In the end, her book weaves deftly about these various threads, because both the history and the legend of Joan of Arc are key to understanding who she was, what she accomplished, and her six-hundred year legacy.

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