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Monday, March 20, 2017

“The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc”, by Nancy Goldstone

320 pages, Penguin Books, ISBN-13: 978-0143122821

After having endured Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison (see my review from February 7th, 2017), one would be excused for having been put off by another biography of the Maid of Orleans…but not I, especially a biography by Nancy Goldstone, who is becoming one of my favorite historians. In The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc, Goldstone has produced a dual biography of Joan and of the woman who made her career possible: Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily (not to mention a claimant and titular queen regnant of Aragon, the titular queen consort of Naples, Duchess of Anjou, Countess of Provence, and regent of Provence during the minority of her son, she was a daughter of John I of Aragon and his wife Yolande of Bar, who was the daughter of Robert I, Duke of Bar and Marie of Valois…oh, and mother-in-law to King Charles VII of France). 15th Century France was a land in turmoil, riven by conflict with England and by internecine strife within its borders, France by the late 1420s was on the verge of final defeat…when at that moment a French peasant girl appeared out of nowhere and convinced the uncrowned King of France to allow her to lead his armies. Winning victory after victory, Joan revived the French fighting spirit that enabled the kingdom to eventually defeat the English and put an end to the long running civil wars, even though she herself was captured and executed only a year or so after her first battle. That’s the story that has come down to us over the centuries. The story of Joan of Arc has passed from history into legend, in the process losing many of the details that made her so fascinating.

Goldstone shows that the story is true, but reveals unexpected dimensions behind it that eliminate some of the more fantastical elements but maintain and enhance the drama. In short: Goldstone provides an original (at least to me) and convincing argument explaining just how and why Yolande was able to grease Joan’s path into court (I won’t belabor the details; buy the book). Yolande of Aragon is revealed by Goldstone to have been one of the prime movers behind the career of Joan and the development of France during the 15th Century. Her long and active life amidst the extraordinarily complex dynastic politics of the period makes for fascinating reading. Goldstone makes the point that while women seemed to live life off stage, they nevertheless often played important roles through their influence on the men who were their sons, husbands, and fathers. Yolande’s career definitely proves the point, as does the better known but shorter one of Joan of Arc, but Goldstone’s ability to tell a dramatic story will ensure that her life, as well as those of the other women in this story, will no longer go unnoticed. As to Joan’s impact on the subsequent course of the war, opinions range from “move on nothing to see here” to “all hail the Maid ‘cause she stopped the French slide and put some oomph into the French” (and, at least, never lost). Goldstone holds that Joan’s tragic and unjust death had no effect on the war in that it failed to provide a moral turning point one might expect. French court politics remained far too poisoned to let the army do its job.

While “non-fiction historical work” and “joy to read” do not usually appear in the same sentence, both terms are appropriate for The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc. The focus on the life of Yolande of Aragon gives perspective to the historical elements of this book, a context in which to understand the times. Instead of feeling like long lists of dates, names and battles, the story-telling makes the history easy to grasp and to remember. Additionally, Goldstone gives respect to the possibility of divine intervention, without making the work a religious argument. Finally, Goldstone shows how Joan was able, by her example, to teach the French that the thing could beat the hated English. After Joan, they kept the French in the game, bleeding England’s finances, until, once the political situation was resolved, they got the job done.

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