Larissa Taylor’s vivid biography of Joan of Arc The Virgin Warrior was published in 2009 to critical acclaim. In this fascinating article, Taylor discusses how she came to be enthralled by Joan of Arc, and describes how her book’s success led to a number of exciting collaborations, including a documentary with the million-selling historical novelist Ken Follet. Journeying across France with Follett, Taylor explains how, even 600 years after Joan of Arc’s death, the story of the teenaged French peasant girl who struck terror into the hearts of the English continues to live on.
Article and photographs by Larissa Taylor
Until the late 1990s, Joan of Arc never interested me because she seemed such an anomaly, but then a large number of films, good, bad and awful, made me take a second look. Leelee Sobieski’s performance as Joan particularly intrigued me, making me want to understand more about the historical (as opposed to the legendary and saintly) Joan.
I found to my surprise that there was an enormous body of primary source evidence for Joan’s short life and death, more so – as it turns out appropriately – than for most medieval kings. As a result, I began teaching a senior research seminar at Colby College in 2000. With the help of my research assistant, we translated all the primary sources that had not yet been translated so that my students could come to their own conclusions and help me see Joan through their perspectives.
To my surprise, the more I learned about Joan, the less I understood her. Did she really hear voices from God? That is the traditional religious explanation, but as a historian I had to dig deeper. What made a sixteen-year-old peasant girl first leave her family with an evolving mission to save ‘France,’ an entity almost no one at the time believed in? Why did increasing numbers of men believe in her, at a time when the ‘French’ cause in the Hundred Years War seemed increasingly desperate? Had God really come to the rescue of a country brought so low that only divine assistance could change the course of history? Even theologians at the time wrestled with the issue of why God should pick sides, although at her trial Joan was adamant that God was on the side of France.
Finally, after Heather McCallum, my editor at Yale London, asked me to consider writing a book, I began to unravel the strands of the almost overwhelming and often contradictory original sources. While no one will ever know what was in Joan’s heart, we can reconstruct a court in exile, where the disinherited dauphin Charles (VII) had little hope of regaining his lands from the English.
Then along came Joan. The charming story of the peasant girl with a vision from God soon gave way to a more complex picture of dynastic intrigue, factions at court, and a power behind the throne, another strong woman. Yolande of Aragon, ‘Queen of Four Kingdoms,’ the king’s mother-in-law, had raised Charles after his mother had been forced to disinherit him by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. While few at court had any objectives except self-enrichment and promotion, Yolande, known for her secrecy and network of spies, almost certainly paved the way for the young peasant girl’s acceptance. When Joan was finally given leave to proceed to Chinon to see Charles, it was only after the Duke of Lorraine had given the go ahead. I do not believe in coincidences, especially when they strain credulity. The Duke had raised Yolande’s son, René of Anjou, who was in residence when Joan appeared at the duke’s court not far from Domremy.
When Joan first appeared at Chinon, it was not to the large crowd of spectators amidst whom hid a disguised dauphin. Instead, like all of Yolande’s doings, it was a private meeting with Charles and a few counselors, undoubtedly to see whether Joan could play the figurehead they needed. They could not be sure, so they sent her to Poitiers for a three-week examination by theologians and canon lawyers, whose verdict was that she seemed a good Catholic girl and Charles had nothing to lose by using her.
So (in my view) Yolande went to work, in secrecy, having Joan trained in the art of war (at which she excelled by all accounts), having armor, banners, and standards made, and old prophecies recast and new ones circulated. The figurehead was now ready, and Joan dictated a letter to the English – that was not sent for a month – telling them to get out of France or she would create a greater mêlée than had ever been seen and have them all killed. The stage was set – and I believe it was indeed a stage with Joan as its lead actor. Or so Yolande thought.
The girl Yolande helped create turned out to be so much stronger, more willful and bold than she could ever have imagined. Joan proved to be an individual with her own ideas and strategies, one whom soldiers followed eagerly as one English stronghold in the Loire fell after another and Joan led the king to his coronation at Reims against the wishes of the king’s male counselors.
But Joan’s strength was also her greatest weakness. She did not take orders well, and she always believed she was right. When by September 1429 even Yolande decided to pursue peace with Burgundy, Joan was left out in the cold – or sent on fool’s tasks. She did not take this well, and after her more or less forced confinement in the castle of one of the king’s counselors at Sully-sur-Loire in what I call the winter of Joan’s discontent (March 1430), she set off on her own, writing to towns that had surrendered to the king that if he would not defend them she would. The rest is history.
That story, continued with her captivity and trial performance, is what I have tried to convey in The Virgin Warrior. It is the story of raw talent, street smarts, and a real girl who performed miracles. I believe, however, that those miracles were not divine but the result of Joan’s force of character – with the help of another powerful woman.
Although I’ve traveled to many wonderful and exotic locations for my research and teaching, never did I imagine that my life would ever feel remotely glamorous. I only realized as I was preparing to write my Presidential Address for the American Catholic Historical Association in Chicago on January 7, 2012 that it would be 600 years and one day after the birth of Joan of Arc (according to the only source that provides an exact date). So while I had flirted with giving my talk on my new research on Avignon at the time of the plague, I immediately changed plans and decided to address the subject of Joan of Arc’s complex relationship with the Church and churchmen from her own day to time of her canonization in 1920 (since published in the April edition of the Catholic Historical Review). I argue that Joan’s relationship with churchmen in her own time and since is much more complex than the simplistic view that the “church burned Joan and 500 years later made her a saint.” It was an English-controlled church court with a mandate to find her guilty that convicted and executed Joan in 1431; it was a somewhat reluctant church that made her a saint centuries later. I assumed that would be the beginning of the end of my active involvement with Joan.
Happily I was wrong. In March I was contacted by Katie Goodland, professor of English at the City University of New York and dramaturge for Bedlam Theatre’s off-Broadway production of Saint Joan. She had read Virgin Warrior and asked if I would be interested in addressing the audience before one of the performances. I flew to New York on March 29 and saw this amazing production of George Bernard Shaw’s play.
Eric Tucker, director and one of only four actors taking on Shaw’s three-hour play, transformed a small upper story theatre into a scene of high drama. Andrus Nichols played the bold and sassy girl who believed in herself and in France even when those around her lacked will. Ted Lewis and Tom O’Keefe rounded out the cast, playing multiple characters. The New York Times critic described the play as a “rare and rich treat to see a group of performers stretch the classics as far as possible and not one inch further.” The following night, on March 30, I got to take the stage before the performance and answer questions about Joan.
It turned out that was the beginning of an adventurous half year. I was first contacted by Annick van Wijk, director of Ivo, the ‘unauthorized biography’ of an ape who in four different zoos formed relationships with his human caregivers. We spoke at some length about Joan of Arc for a documentary she and Tilman Remme would be filming with Ken Follett. I later spoke with Tilman, director of numerous acclaimed historical documentaries and he asked if I could come to France in late April to film with Ken Follett. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, since I had fallen in love with history through historical novels, including Pillars of the Earth.
The two-part documentary, one on medieval women, featuring Joan, Hildegard of Bingen and Marguerite Porete, and the other on the plague, will accompany a British Channel 4 and German SAT mini-series of Follet’s World Without End. The cameras were quite intimidating even though the British, Dutch and German directors and crew were incredibly supportive and encouraging, especially in the drenching rains that accompanied filming in Rouen and Chinon.
The first stop was at the remaining keep of the Château de Bouvreuil in Rouen where Joan was taken to see the instruments of torture. Later, at a café we talked more informally as we awaited Ken Follett’s arrival. Walking through the gardens of Saint-Ouen abbey, I showed Ken where Joan recanted less than a week before her execution, then we walked the route of her execution through the streets of old Rouen to the Vieux Marché, where she was executed at age nineteen on May 30, 1431.
We paused before the overly modernistic new church of Jeanne d’Arc and the large cross that marks the exact spot where she died. I pointed out the ruins of Saint-Sauveur, the church from which she asked the local Dominicans to bring a crucifix she could see even as the flames engulfed her.
That afternoon we left for Chinon, where Joan’s career began. Since Ken Follett’s books feature strong medieval women, challenging popular perceptions, the English and German directors asked me pointedly about the other famous woman in Joan’s life, Yolande. Ken and I walked through the ruins of the room where Joan supposedly identified the disguised dauphin Charles — except that it was not the first time she had met Charles. It was only after she ‘passed’ various tests that she was brought back and presented to the court in the famous but glorified scene portrayed in most books and films. As the rain continued, we needed several breaks to touch up makeup and try to warm up on a very cold day. Ken was then interviewed and walked through the Tour de Boissy and Tour de Coudray, where Joan was lodged when at Chinon. We then broke for a delicious lunch at the castle restaurant.
My final day I was interviewed in the Tour de Boissy, prompted by several questions asked by Tilman Remme. Although I saw the basic script in advance, they asked me to answer spontaneously. One of the most challenging aspects of filming for a non-actor is the number of takes, as I tried each time to remember what I said the time before. It turns out that doesn’t matter, as the scenes they choose are spliced to form the documentary.
I don’t know if the rest of Joan’s 600th birthday year will bring more opportunities, but I’ve had the time of my life. And I hope I have helped bring to life the peasant girl who really lived, the one who through sheer force of will (with a little help from her friends) helped change the tide of the Hundred Years War.
Larissa Juliet Taylor is Professor of History at Colby College and President Emerita of the American Catholic Historical Association. Besides The Virgin Warrior, she is author of the award-winning Soldiers of Christ: Preaching in Late Medieval and Reformation France; Heresy and Orthodoxy in Sixteenth-Century Paris; and editor of The Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage and Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early Modern Period.
The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc by Larissa Taylor is out now from Yale University Press.
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