Joan of Arc: A Hagiography.

Joan of Arc by Marguerite Williams. The Religious Tract Society, 1932. 191 pages.

I doubt I’d ever read a book published by The Religious Tract Society before this one. I think I picked it up quickly with a bundle of books (not sure, it’s been on the shelf for a while) for a pittance and thought it was a normal biography, but it’s not. It was written by Marguerite Williams and published in 1932 and the key thing is that Williams believes Joan worked miracles, saw the future, and spoke to God and/or Saints. Having said that, historically, the book seems pretty solid. (well, where I know enough to judge, anyway). It agrees with the most authoritative sources.  Oh, and this one too.

Title page and frontispiece of Joan of Arc by Marguerite Williams.

Title page and frontispiece of Joan of Arc by Marguerite Williams.

The interesting difference from a normal history book is in the interpretation of events, because the reasons for things happening always centre on Joan. Joan felt something should be done, Joan was told to do this or that. Joan is the relevant historical force. There is little of the analysis of historical forces and personalities, the relating of court politics and the dynastic argybargy that fills up so many histories and biographies. But then, should there be? The historical Joan is pretty remarkable, and clearly was an inspirational figure whatever the reason. She did make a difference. Had England not had Churchill to turn to in 1940 Hitler may well have succeeded in his plans; the force of one personality (Hitler’s, Churchill’s) can indeed determine events of enormous significance. So can the lack of a force of personality (Daladier and Chamberlain). In the Age of Faith, if a young women believed herself inspired, and others believed it of her and made their decisions accordingly, then her faith was the determining factor. So, of course, was the early death of Henry V. Indeed, had he not died France may well have been too far under the English heel for even Joan to save it — the to-be Charles VII of France was known as the ‘King of Bourges’ when Joan rallied the French, so parlous was his state. One wonders: how many other ‘almost Joans’ are out there, who seemed inspired but fell at one hurdle or another. There must be a few.

Back to the book; the history of Joan is preceded by a potted history of the Hundred Years Way and followed by an essay on how we see Joan today and what she means to ‘us’ today. The thoughts accompany a description of a sort of pilgrimage through France, past Orleans and Loches, to her town of Domrémy. The tone is pious and modest, the descriptions of key locations rather trite but effective enough.

What we believe shapes the way we see and interpret events — this is no surprise. For me, someone who does not believe in miracles, a book like this has some useful history in it, but is also a little window into a different way of looking at the world, one that seeks explanations that can be traced back to God, and tries to extract the lesson that ‘the good and meek will be rewarded’ from almost any set of events.  Of course, many (most) dedicated historians also interpret events within  some kind of ideological framework.  That is why we have ‘theories of history’, like the ‘great man theory‘.  (Indeed, Joan rather fits into this.)  We have socialist historians and right wing historians, each looking to see their world view vindicated by the flow of events.  Sometimes, though, ideology gets in the way of really grappling with what happened.  Even this book struggles with Joan’s abandonment by Charles VII, the King she had crowned and brought from being the king of Bourges back to within a few victories of being the King of France. In the end, after some contortions, it is explained, essentially, as necessary for her apotheosis and martyrdom. A handy fallback position.

Faith in the power of faith is largely what this book is about.

You have to have faith in something. So I’m told.



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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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