Joan is a most endearing, and at times, unnerving, figure, regardless of whether or not we believe she heard voices (or what kind of voices, or to what purpose); but, for the historian or biographer she can only be described as a loaded subject (being both a political and religious phenomena).
So, when I read that a new study was coming out about her for the 600th anniversary I was not surprised, but the author, Nancy Goldstone, did give me pause, mostly with a quiver of excitement. Would Joan finally have a biographer who could make her improbable, short life the stuff of immediacy, with a palpable authenticity that we have missed despite numerous efforts to give us the "real" Joan?
Just on reputation alone I guessed Goldstone would be up to the challenge, she is one of the truly elite historians, she knows her subjects with a thoroughness that has overwhelmed even me, and I am a fool for mountains of research. It was a surprise, anyway, that in this parallel biography of a Saint and a Queen, Goldstone pursued a macro approach, one of assessment, vision, a summary only possible with historians who do know every last letter, document, writ, who inhale archives as if oxygen itself. From this massive saturation of information they distill an essence.
Goldstone, then, is not doing a straight chronological history, nor a political or social essay, she is stepping back and considering this phenomena, as Joan was seen in her own day, and as we see her after 600 years. There are also chapter ending statements, micro elements, the details or summary statements that pinpoint just when the whole narrative changed, when the dynamics of opinion and history writing coincide, or diverge, and left in the middle, stripped of all sorts of academic-speak, is a quite fine revelation of an era, a political system, a religious architecture that could sustain a young peasant from Domremy with a mission, and the Queen who could see that mission imbued with spiritual authority.
In many ways this was a new to me from Goldstone's earlier efforts, far more accessible to the non-history reader, and I think her best one yet. It took me a couple chapters before I realized what she was doing was not only the best course but an inspired one. One of the "problems" any writer has to address is a Subject for whom we have no surviving documents to reveal their personalities and decisions. Joan, in contrast, had extensive interrogation records that we can still read for ourselves, indeed, every serious biography or study of Joan would include them.
What Goldstone did is quite interesting from the perspective of having that rare Subject for whom we do have their own words but stretching past the almost cement stereotype of what we "see" and hear in those words. Is the Joan of the interrogations the only Joan, the full Joan? She was after all, a prisoner, more or less abandoned by the would-be king that she made an anointed real-king, still perhaps only 18 or 19 years old, completely illiterate, without counsel, and in what can only be described as an adversarial, defensive, vulnerable position. Any one word or phrase that could be used to damn her would be found, through endless sessions and repetitive questioning to catch her out. If we wanted to hear the Joan who was not being interrogated, what would that Joan sound like? Who is that Joan?
This is what I suspect Goldstone wanted to ask as well, and by couching Joan's very brief micro story within the context of the macro picture (court politics, gender politics, religious zealotry and religious hypocrites who lived side by side in Joan's world) she achieves what I have never seen even tried. The means by which she cuts through the "Joan-being-interrogated" persona that we all know too well to the fuller grasp of this odd young woman, is the device of Queen Yolanda of Aragon. Now that lady deserves a biography of her own! Fortunately, for the readers, we do get some measure of this equally resolute, indomitable, highly ethical woman in the process of getting to the essence of Joan of Arc.
What an achievement. For those who are new to Goldstone use this as a springboard to her earlier efforts on the Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe (Eleanor of Aquitaine et al) and the almost encyclopedic study of Joanna I Queen of Naples; these are dense and certainly complex studies, but give them a look, then go back and reread this latest one.
You will see that Goldstone made the right call for this parallel biography. Joan was not the stuff of every day queens and rulers and marriage politics and ambitious, duplicitous courtiers, diplomats and counselors. She was an exception, an oddity, an almost mythical heroine made flesh in her own time; her interrogation statements only serve to accentuate just how bizarre she must have appeared to her own peers. Most of us are gratified when she is rude, cursory, annoyed, disgusted with the pointed, harassing, sometimes inane questioning by her "betters," and with her life in the balance.
Goldstone chose to not retread all that we already know, but reveal how Joan was seen and perhaps used, for both the best reasons (Yolanda) and the worst reasons (Charles VII, Joan's feckless dauphin).
Now, for those who really love diving into a subject, read Goldstone's Maid alongside Juliet Barber's Conquest: the English Kingdom of France 1417-1450 (2009). These are both literary and historical bookends, really; Goldstone tells us about Joan and Yolanda from a French bias (it's true, but I expected that) while Barber is Henry V's perhaps most devoted and adoring recent biographer, and this book on the English "kingdom" (fantasy, actually) in France is by necessity the way Joan's "goddams" saw the war, the world, and by extension, how they saw her. Their writing style is also quite different, with Barber following a more conventional (but not unsympathetic view of Joan, at least) format; it is a nice contrast for Goldstone and I think really allows the Reader to appreciate just how inspired was her decision to rethink how to write about Joan.
And for hardcore readers, I throw in the study by Charles T Wood, Joan of Arc & Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages (1988). This is a volume of academic essays, and certainly too dry for the new reader to history, but, again, for point of comparison to both the English-centric and French-centric views from Barber and Goldstone, Wood's example does highlight what the historian is dealing with in a subject like Joan, and why Nancy Goldstone surpasses all those hurdles with ease.