Friday, November 14, 2014

Joan of Arc by Hilaire Belloc

And I'm back, from a very pleasant week in New Zealand attending the wedding of two dear friends.

Today I want to review a book that I stumbled across at a second-hand shop here in my little corner of rural Australia. I'm continually surprised by what I find stashed behind a stack of Barbara Cartlands or peeking forlornly out from around the copy of Michael Crichton's Prey (every opportunity shop in every country I've ever been in has at least one copy of Michael Crichton's Prey in it). Augustine's Confessions? A beautiful hardback Pilgrim's Progress? Or look--a hagiography of Joan of Arc by Hilaire Belloc!

Belloc is a name I want on my shelf, so I bring him home, and when I open the book up, the first sentence just about takes my breath away:
Five hundred years ago, and more, there was in France an old mad King whose wife was a German harlot, mocking him.
From this epic opening, in the same sweeping, poetic tone, Belloc takes us through the strange story of the young peasant girl who somehow broke the power of the English in France. The book is short, and often paints in broad brush-strokes, but it's obviously meant to be a hagiography--an account of the life of a saint, full of gentle insistence that Joan really was who she claimed to be. Not that there was no dispute during her own lifetime:
Joan received Richemont, loving his manner and his soldiership. For he had said: "Joan, they say you would repel me. Now whether you are from God or the Devil I know not. But if from God I fear nothing, for He knows my heart is loyal; but if from the Devil, then I fear you not at all."
I don't know that I would say exactly the same thing, myself, but this seems a reasonable summary of the options, and either way, Providence had a hand in the disposition of that young woman's life. One day I'd like to read a transcript of Joan's trials, the one in which she was condemned and the later, posthumous trial in which she was exonerated, to attempt to sift through exactly what it was that she claimed to have experienced. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, it would be difficult to believe in the good intentions of any spirits that persuaded anyone to give them worship or to break the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22:5. A little cursory research shows that Christian consensus, from Thomas Aquinas to Matthew Henry, has allowed cross-dressing "to befriend a lawful escape or concealment", in Henry's words, and there have been claims that when not in battle, camp, or prison--thereby needing the protection which men's clothes gave from injury or rape--Joan wore female garments.

What is the truth about Joan of Arc? I don't know yet, and I'd like to study her a little more, but I wonder if after all this time we ever will know. Meanwhile, whether true or false, she stands as an enigma, proof of God's willingness to use the strangest of means to accomplish His purposes in history.

Hilaire Belloc tells his story well, in a simple but elegant style that meshes well with the courtly and courteous tone of the history itself. The author of Europe and the Faith and several other books of history (as well as the hilarious Cautionary Tales for Children), he did know his stuff. For a more skeptical account of Joan's life, I must recommend Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but as a hagiography, Belloc's book is uniquely well-written and engaging.

Find Joan of Arc on Amazon or The Book Depository.


Alison's Wonderland Recipes said...

Have you read Mark Twain's Joan of Arc book? If so, what did you think? I started reading it a while back, but only got a few chapters in before life got crazy. I should get back to reading it soon! I hear he researched it for years and considered it his best work, which makes me super curious about it.

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Anonymous said...

I am pleased to be introduced to a good life of Joan of Arc. I recommend Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. While it is not perfect as far as a modern retelling of a saint's life is concerned (I prefer A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt), I was very pleased with the way Shaw portrays Joan. In the play, she is a warrior not a distressed virgin. Shaw wrote Saint Joan a few years after she was canonized. Underpinning the whole work is the question "How does a condemned heretic become a saint?" Bishop Cauchon and the Inquisitor are depicted not as monsters but as men we can understand. The 15th century tension between Church and State and between Feudalism and Absolute Monarchy really comes through in the play. I will shamelessly insert the url to my reflection post on the book:

I own Mark Twain's Joan of Arc but I have yet to read it. Evidently, he considered it his greatest work. Twain researched her life for twelve years and spent two years writing the book. I hope to read it soon.

Suzannah said...

Alison, I've never read Mark Twain's book. I'd probably have a hard time trusting the man, actually, especially after A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT ;). I have similar feelings toward George Bernard Shaw, whose MAN AND SUPERMAN it took me about a month and copious doses of CS Lewis to get over!

Thanks so much for the link to Exploring Classics (Fariba?). I have read the GBS play SAINT JOAN, but it's been a few years and all I remember is how surprised I was at the work's charm--I actually liked Joan, which is more than I can say for most of Shaw's characters. It'd be interesting to read it again sometime, maybe after I'm more familiar with the history.

So many odd people have been so fascinated by this woman. And have had such conflicting opinions on her.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Mark Twain's Joan of Arc is an excellent book, a solid respectable (and respectful)novel, very different from his awful 'Connecticut Yankee' book. Highly recommended. Its an odd book coming from Twain, in fact, considering his own religious views.

I used to think of Joan of Arc as a bizarre enigma, a complete anomaly in the canon of saints. Now, however, after having read more Scripture and more lives of the saints, I have come to realize that she in fact shares many similarities with many other saints, like the simple, uneducated Brother Andre of Montreal (d. 1937), or some of the saints associated with the Crusades, as well as the great figures of the Bible like that marvelous woman Judith.

Lady Bibliophile said...

Fascinating review! I just read an account of Joan of Arc a friend wrote from John of Bedford's perspective, making him out not to be a heartless monster killing innocent girls, but a thoughtful politician caught between extremities. Beyond that, my acquaintance with her life is nil--though she did come up with a pretty amazing speech in her trial according to good old Wikipedia.

As to the cross-dressing, that doesn't give me pause for second thought. But her claim of hearing the voices from God makes me want to research more, just to know what her rationale was.

*Adds this book to to-read list.*

Kim Marsh said...

I have seen at very close quarters the havoc that claims of "hearing voices" can cause in a person's life and that of their family and friends. At first glance Joan's experience would seem to be of a different nature. However given that in C15th France one of the greatest dangers to the security and livelihood of a peasant girl was the wanton destruction caused by both French armies and especially the English one can see how these acute and chronic fears may have manifested themselves in Joan. The nobility on both sides probably hated her as they would be afraid of her causing another Jacquerie.
So as to the nature of her voices who can now tell. Reading Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium has hugely influenced my ideas on Joan as has seeing the vehemence with which those who experience these phenomena protest there reality. Incidentally my family'own parish saw a mini social /religious rebellion led by a man claiming to be Jesus Christ as late as the C19th.
Sincerely Kim Marsh

Suzannah said...

Joseph, thanks for the recommendation. So both Shaw and Twain treated Joan respectfully--incredible!

Schuyler! Isn't that the problem with history at such a long distance--the identity of heroes and villains can be muddled or downright swapped. Just look at what happened to Richard III. One really does have to read a variety of viewpoints.

Kim, as a believer myself, I often find it easier to accept a supernatural explanation for certain happenings; the rationalist/materialist explanation strikes me as unnecessarily complicated--we are to believe that an otherwise cool and sober young woman was somehow mentally unhinged? Yet, being a believer, I believe it's also possible, with enough information, to "test the spirits" as it says in the Bible. We're warned that Satan can appear as an angel of light. It also makes sense that people may see angels when none are, indeed, present. But I don't rule out the possibility that angels of light do, in fact, exist. Which of the three was it in Joan's case? I don't know, but I know the importance of not making a snap decision.

Kim Marsh said...

Neither do I automatically rule out divine intervention. But given the secular nature of Joan's acts,as one of the other commentators remarks,this does make her an anomaly. The lack of a previous history of mental illness and the retaining of coherence does not unfortunately preclude that illness being there. Nor am I unwilling to deny sacred intervention on principle but we now have a different ( possibly incorrect) way of viewing and describing the world compared to the C15th. As we have both remarked previously who can now tell.
Sincerely Kim


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