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.