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Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' by Moya Longstaffe

Joan of Arc depicted by Albert Lynch in Figaro magazine, 1903. The epitome of the received Joan image; anyone would recognise this figure, despite the fact that no portrait from life of the Maid exists. (Author's collection, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

The facts of Joan of Arc’s life are (and always have been) well known, established beyond dispute. Her life and death are fully documented from childhood to her very public execution in Rouen. Both in the chronicles of the time and above all in the verbatim proceedings of the two trials. The first of which (1431, Rouen) condemned her and the second (1452-56, essentially appeal proceedings, with hearings held in Rouen, Domrémy, Orleans and Paris) which annulled the verdict of Rouen. I devote three chapters of the book specifically to the first trial and examine the second trial in the final chapter (there are twenty-one chapters in total).

What challenges our understanding is the transformation of this quiet, obedient and pious child into the young girl who, overcoming all opposition and barriers, determinedly made her way to the king and persuaded him to let her lead an army to lift the siege of Orleans and next, again despite all opposition, led him through hostile territory to his coronation at Rheims. What was the nature of her inspiration? What did she tell the king in that first famous interview that left him radiant with joy? I can only present the evidence and leave the reader to ponder it. Throughout her trial, Joan stubbornly refused to divulge the secret she had revealed to Charles VII.

A more imperious Joan. 'Joan of Arc imprisoned in Rouen' by Pierre Henri Revoil, 1819. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the Isaacson-Draper Foundation, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

No startling new facts about Joan are likely to be unearthed. We would like to have a contemporary portrait, but none has come down to us, although one at least did exist and she mentions it during her trial.  One important document is missing: the proceedings of the commission which examined her at Poitiers. Before she was allowed to set out for Orleans. The panel, numbering about twenty members, was composed of several bishops and senior clergy, mostly qualified in law or theology. No-one knows what happened to this document, we only have a summary of the findings. Quicherat, the editor of the five great volumes of the two trials (1841-1849), writes, Posterity will forever mourn the loss of the minutes of Poitiers, the finest document, I have no hesitation in saying, that we could ever possess on Joan of Arc, since that immortal young woman showed herself there in all her freshness and inspiration, full of gaiety, vigour, enthusiasm, replying spontaneously to unbiased judges that she was sure to win over”. A copy must have been sent to Rome, but so far all searches in the Vatican archives have yielded nothing.

A 1905 photograph of the keep of Rouen Castle, which is now known as the Tower of Joan of Arc. This tower, with walls four metres thick, is the only remaining part of the castle of Rouen, dismantled in 1591. Joan was imprisoned in one of the other six towers, but was taken here and threatened with the instruments of torture on 9 May 1431. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

The social, political and military history of the quarrel between France and England from the turn of the fifteenth century until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 is of course presented and examined in all its complexity. In France that covers the reigns of Charles VI and Charles VII, in England that of Henry IV and Henry V, ending during the reign of the unfortunate Henry VI. In Burgundy it covers the reigns of the devious Duke John the Fearless and that of his son, Philip the Good, the magnificent Duke of the Western World, with his three wives (not all at the same time!), twenty-four mistresses and eighteen illegitimate offspring,

Above all, I wanted to bring to life Joan, as we hear her describe her childhood and adolescence and her career in her own words, recorded in the minutes of the first trial, and as we meet her again in the testimony of childhood friends, neighbours, comrades–in-arms, and various persons who had observed her or played a more active role during the Rouen trial. The second trial is a very important source of evidence, often unfairly overlooked or decried (pace George Bernard Shaw, that wicked old tease). But of course, we can understand her properly only in her time and it was equally important to bring to life the people of France. From the nobles at court and in the army to the terrible distress of the poor ordinary inhabitants of besieged towns, of the countryside and villages, suffering all the ills of war, from famine to the utter destruction of homes and fields and the rampaging of mercenaries on the loose.  I hope that the overall picture I have painted is full and fair.

Moya Longstaffe's book Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' is available for purchase now.