The movies usually portray Joan of Arc as a sort of winsome and willing martyr, a pious peasant girl directed by God to saddle up and go off to fight for France. Joan divinely inspired the troops, perhaps bringing out their paternal instincts, and, in one of those stories where there’s no surprise ending, passively accepted her inevitable death.
But that’s not the Joan of Arc that historian Larissa Taylor revives in her new book, The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc. Taylor’s Joan may have been divinely inspired (historian Taylor declines to weigh in on that), but she also was politically savvy beyond her years and station, a fearless warrior (at a time when battle wasn’t for the faint of heart or stomach), intellectually adroit, and so dangerously charismatic that her English foes decided they’d be better off with her not just dead but incinerated.
And all of this before she was 18. “She believed she could do anything,” Taylor said. “She believed, as time went on, more and more that she had the right answers, not the others. She had faced up to other people and won.”
It’s an extraordinary story by any account, made more riveting by Taylor’s meticulous and voluminous research, which traces Joan’s unprecedented climb to celebrity and sainthood at a time when most peasant girls never left their home village. Yet young Joan, with her scandalous boy’s haircut and clothes, her at-first preposterous prophecies, her audacious defiance of King Charles VII, and her remarkable command of language (despite the fact that she was illiterate), shaped the course of European history singlehandedly.
Or did she?
Taylor argues that Joan was headstrong at a time when girls were supposed to be subservient and, while devout, was willing to lie to escape from her oppressive household and a looming arranged marriage. Saying she heard voices directing her, she made her way to a local nobleman who was intrigued enough to show her around.
Over a period of months, Joan was quizzed on theology, underwent gynecological exams (she had to be pure of body), and was closely observed as she hobnobbed with the royals. “I think this was a series of tests to see if she could actually be frightening to the English and inspire the French, and I think she passed with flying colors,” Taylor said.
In fact, she argues, there was a sub rosa political strategy pushing Joan’s emergence as a leader of the French forces. “And I don’t think it takes away from Joan,” Taylor said, “because I think she proved to be much more than they ever could have intended.”
Joan would go on to lead the French to victory in a series of battles, fearlessly carrying her distinctive gold banner. She rallied the troops when they faltered and, wounded by an arrow, hauled herself back onto her horse (no small feat with 50 pounds of armor) and resumed the fight. Taylor, examining the historical record, noted a three-month gap between her first meeting with the royals and the military campaign that Joan led. She argues that Joan, who as a peasant would never have ridden a horse before, was secretly trained in the arts of warfare.
But if Joan was shaped by Charles’s supporters, she wasn’t controlled. “Her motto was ‘Go boldly,’” Taylor said. “She would push when they didn’t necessarily want to.” Joan said God had told her to push the English out of France, and when Charles opted for negotiation, his charismatic girl warrior went rogue. Deprived of adequate men and arms, Joan eventually was captured by Burgundians and handed over to their English allies, who subjected her to a year-long imprisonment and show trial.
There is no evidence that Charles, perhaps wanting his subjects to forget he’d been restored to the throne by a peasant girl, ever lifted a hand to save her.
Joan’s grisly execution (she was burned alive before a crowd of 800) was widely reported at the time, as were the proceedings at her trial. Taylor, with the help of researcher Sam Boss ’08 (the “right-hand man” she credits with helping make the book happen), pored over primary documents. Taylor also traveled the route of Joan’s life, from Domremy, the small village where she was raised, to Rouen, where she died. “You get a feel for things by doing it that way,” she said. “You can’t just sit in an archive or a library.”
The book already has been widely praised, but Taylor, who is a Catholic, said she expects some hate mail. “People don’t like you messing with their [image of] Joan,” she said. “But the picture of her as a warrior, a soldier, a leader—that’s the picture that’s foremost in my mind. Wanting to fight until the end.”