France, Joan of Arc; Continent: Europe

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone

  • Joan of Arc was in the right place at the right time, but it was because she was put: the story of who put her there and how is something George R.R. Martin could have imagined
  • 296 pages (249 pages without the handy royal family tree, Acknowledgements, Notes, etc.)

The combined power of two women influenced the outcome of the Hundred Years War between France and England. One was meant to draw attention, glow as a brilliant rallying point for the French Royal Army. The other was artfully Machiavellian in her politics, but died a good twenty-seven years before Machiavelli was even born.

Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily, enjoyed an exceptional education not often provided to women, even other intelligent women of her rank. Her astuteness earned respect from vassals and peers alike. She shared rule with her husband, Louis II; in fact, she ruled much of their lands in his stead while he fought to exert his hereditary rights to Naples (then a separate kingdom). Meanwhile, Yolande fostered Charles VII of France while the boy was engaged to her daughter Marie.

The Setup for the Hundred Years War

Charles VII was not the firstborn and inherited the throne because his elder brothers did not survive their father, Charles the Mad. By then, young Charles had grown very attached to Yolande and thought of her as a parent — his own mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, was busy manipulating politics in the French court and rumored to be similarly “busy” with her brother-in-law, so she ignored the boy. It was common knowledge at court that when when Charles VI (aka “Charles the Mad”) came out of one of his psychotic episodes, he believed anything told to him by the first person he saw. There was tremendous jockeying to be that first individual.

Among those in a position to get Charles the Mad’s ear periodically were French nobility who stood to gain if the English not only gained some territory, but managed to replace Charles on his legitimate throne with that of the English king, Henry VI. Henry’s claim was shakier, but he was wealthier than Charles. Author Nancy Goldstone outlines how the power grabs associated with his father’s mental illness set Charles VII up for years of fighting to claim French rule and allowed an English royal to make a grab for the French throne.

Putting Charles on his throne was going to be an ugly fight. While Charles VII was a reasonably clever boy who had been given a good education by his foster mother, he wasn’t really military material. Most critically, he lacked confidence in his right to rule (after all, his mother was awfully fond of his uncle, and the right to rule France came from his legitimacy as Charles the Mad’s son). Yolande had excellent connections among Europe’s nobility, a shrewd mind, and a willingness to liquidate her considerable assets to put her son-in-law on the throne of France, but how to supply that confidence?

Enter Joan of Arc

Curiously, about that time, a prophecy attributed to a seer named Marie of Avignon began circulating in the region of France where Yolande was countess. It showed up in Charles’ court one day, and no one seems to have verified it with this particular mystic before taking it at face value. Its first claim, that France would be ruined by a woman (which contemporary Frenchmen would have taken to mean Charles’ mother, Isabeau of Bavaria), and then would be saved by a virgin woman from Lorraine (where one of Yolande’s son’s was duke). Author Nancy Goldstone pointedly observes that this prophecy is the only one of Marie of Avignon’s predictions not to appear in the book where she recorded each of her prophecies.

This message to Charles VII stirred the French countryside. Plenty of people in those days interpreted dreams or read signs for their neighbors. According to Goldstone’s way of thinking, put out the call in the French countryside for an exceptionally religious, virgin girl loyal to Charles the Dauphin, and someone matching the description was bound to show up at court. Whether you are as cynical as Goldstone about the origin of this particular prophecy, Joan of Arc started hearing voices about the time it began to circulate, so it seems to have sparked history.

Joan did come from within Lorraine, a region still loyal to Charles VII in no small part because his brother-in-law was the duke. Her charisma and wisdom beyond that commonly attributed to her age and station made her a sensation. Supposedly, she was able to win Charles’ trust by knowing a secret he had not disclosed to anyone. Goldstone speculates here that it might have been fear of his parentage.

Final Thoughts

Of course, Goldstone goes on to detail the rise of Joan’s fame as a heroine to the French Royalists (supporters of Charles), and she describes Joan’s trial and execution. Goldstone treats Joan sympathetically but practically. The author may have a skepticism about the divinity assigned to her subject, but she treats the girl’s part of story with sensitivity. If you are looking for a strong female character, though, keep your eye on Yolande of Aragon. Goldstone makes a brilliant case for the Queen of Sicily as the more interesting of the two women, and I’m inclined to agree.

What gave this book its real value to me was the richly detailed and fascinating context for Joan of Arc’s life. One might more accurately describe the Hundred Years War as the book’s topic rather than Joan of Arc herself, although certainly she had a significant role. Don’t be disappointed, though: the politics of Western Europe during that age make for a dramatic narrative, certainly one more sweeping in scope than a typical biography. What makes this book lively reading isn’t just the worthy characters, but also Goldstone’s pacing and choice of details to include. Footnotes are limited, and her story hangs together even if you don’t do a lot of reading about this period. Share this book and its title figures with someone who complains that there are no interesting women in Medieval history.

Photo: Yolande of Aragon with future king of France Charles VII, c. 1430. Artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia.org

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3 thoughts on “France, Joan of Arc; Continent: Europe

  1. Pingback: Women, Medieval; Continent: Europe | History Reading Challenge

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