Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid And The Queen book review

*Originally written & posted on March 19th, 2013*

Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid And The Queen recounts in historical detail the role of Medieval queen Yolande of Aragon during the tumultuous Hundred Years War between the French and English. It chronicles events both prior and subsequent to Joan of Arc’s appearance, so that Joan makes a relatively brief appearance in the larger scope of the narrative. Goldstone also posits that a popular story of the time known as The Romance of Melusine culturally, and therefore psychologically, played a role in the French population’s mind which likely—and at least temporarily—helped Joan of Arc’s cause find support.

Firstly, this book is not so much a historical account of Joan of Arc’s story as it is of Yolande of Aragon, itself intertwined in the confusing mess of French and English monarchs and political tensions of the time. As such, the book is doubtless unprecedented in its analysis of Joan of Arc as told in correlation to Yolande of Aragon. Moreover, it should also be noted that while it’s a mere 248 pages, it does not figure as a ‘quick read,’ as it is densely historical, and mostly entails descriptions of successive wars and feuding. The fact that people tended to have similar names may also contribute to occasional character confusion.

As a reader who has known about, and practically grown up surrounded by the story of Joan of Arc, her story is by no means unknown to me. As such, I read the book having more than basic knowledge on the details surrounding Joan of Arc. While it is very possible that Yolande did indeed play a role in Joan of Arc’s life, I did also get the impression that Goldstone may have ‘played-up’ things to support her thesis.

One such instance surrounds Yolande’s presumed role in getting Joan to have an audience with the rightful heir to the French throne, the Dauphin Charles VII. This was an event in which Joan and Yolande never interacted with one another, and which was instead carried out through a number of people who were somehow tied to Yolande. Given the difficulties involved in reaching the Dauphin’s attention, the author is adamant about Yolande’s role in getting ‘the right people’ to bring Joan to the Dauphin, for without this initial meeting, it’s assumed Joan would’ve never gotten her mission off the ground. But whether or not this event actually happened as stated by the author, it’s obviously largely debatable that Joan would’ve still found a way to reach the Dauphin, regardless of Yolande’s ‘assistance’ (especially if one believes in the spiritual angle of Joan’s mission).

Another example involves a rather biased approach to an earlier event involving a dream that Joan’s dad had when Joan was younger. The dream in question involved Joan being taken away by soldiers, and while there are many possible interpretations and triggers for such a dream, the author chooses the explanation which best fits her argument. The author basically dismisses this dream as strictly indicative of a parent’s worried concern (p. 96), as opposed to acknowledging its precognitive possibilities. This highlights a potentially limited understanding of the way dreams can work, and conveniently ignores the fact that a large number of research-backed books on dreams and/or quantum energy will touch upon this issue with surprisingly revealing information. While it’s clear that dream causes, interpretations, etc. is not the author’s focus, it does highlight a certain simplistic approach which conveniently serves to further the author’s agenda.

These are just a couple of examples which give the impression that information is presented in a biased way. Yet, aside from that, just as semi-ambiguous is the author’s stance on Joan of Arc. Goldstone sometimes seems ambivalent—if not inconsistent—regarding her statements on Joan; at times describing her as a pious girl following her voices, other times painting her mission as rather ‘secular’ (pg. 152). While Goldstone’s view of Joan seems to veer towards the positive, the inconsistency still stands out. And while the author’s view of Joan may not matter much in terms of providing facts, in this case it may well underline her penchant for playing-up Yolande’s cause.

There is one final thing which confuses me as well. I can’t figure out why the last image shown at the end of the book is captioned ‘Joan of Arc in her time,’ without specifying that it’s an approximation thereof (since the only image made during Joan’s lifetime is a little ‘cartoon’ drawing made from someone’s imagination at that). As such, that caption is misleading for no one truly knows what she looked like, and could therefore give anyone the idea that it’s an actual portrait made of Joan while she was alive (which is not the case).

Therefore, it is this repetitive mix of biased information combined with what I consider to be a lack of attention to detail—especially crucial in a historical book—that sadly work against the author’s presentation and may, at least on some level, affect her reception with audiences.

Regardless of the extent of Yolande’s role in Joan of Arc’s life, what’s fascinating is that it doesn’t make Joan’s story and mission any less true and/or factual. Perhaps it’s just a question of the angle one chooses to approach it from, and Goldstone has provided the previously unexplored case from Yolande’s vantage point. A recommended read for Medieval history and Joan of Arc buffs; even if just to explore another view of said events. However, those seeking books more focused on Joan of Arc herself are recommended works by renown Medievalist Régine Pernoud.

Joan of Arc and Luc Besson’s The Messenger

I finally watched Luc Besson’s The Messenger and my reaction to it is rather mixed. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

For a long time, I mostly wasn’t interested in seeing it since I’d heard it portrayed a kind of ‘unhinged’ Joan of Arc. I figured it was another way to disrespect her and her message, and by extension anyone who may believe “in these things” and/or be a person of faith. And while I’m glad to see that that’s not the vibe I got from the film, neither do I feel that it’s a particularly great representation of Joan.

The movie basically takes the angle that in the midst of Joan’s quiet childhood as a French peasant girl, the supposed divine voices she heard were not the only cause of motivation to free France from English rule: the death-rape of her sister by the English was another. As the movie progresses, we see an increasingly moody, rather bloodthirsty Joan (played by Milla Jovovich) whose main focus is winning battles and kicking the English out. Through the devil’s appearance in the film (played by Dustin Hoffman), we find her questioning herself during her trial about her claims that she never killed anyone, didn’t enjoy inflicting pain, and even the nature of God’s ‘signs’ to her. It concludes with Joan confessing—to the devil—the ‘true nature’ of her motives, abruptly followed by her fiery demise.

Ultimately, the ending is what cemented my opinion of the film. I didn’t like that, based on the way scenes were set-up, it looked/felt as though the burning at the stake was Joan’s punishment for all her wrongful motives. Perhaps this works for those who like to think of God as revengeful and angry, and taking it out on His children whenever He wants, because they did wrong, etc.—but I don’t share that view. And anyway if that’s the view people want to take, then also pray tell why the same thing didn’t happen to the largely corrupt royal family, who basically used Joan of Arc for as long as they needed her—up until Charles VII’s coronation—and proceeded to ignore her pleas thereafter. Clearly, burning at the stake is a horrible way to die no matter how you look at it, but it’s also true that one’s spiritual views will also affect their perception of these events (if not everything in life in general).

Everything else in the film—her occasionally fiery temper, her doubts, her relentless ways—all made sense in different contexts and can likely be explained in the light of her experiences, no matter how eccentric they may seem. But the view that she may have had doubts about her voices and motives is not supported by historical records, so that’s just one of the many areas where Besson’s creative mind is at work. (For example, Joan of Arc showed remarkable endurance during her trials and could often refer back to specific questions that had already been asked of her, much to the puzzlement and frustration of her accusers.)

Aside from depicting a different view of Joan, it also surprisingly delivered a more sympathetic version of the English-siding bishop Pierre Cauchon. I wonder why? Was Besson’s goal to portray everyone in almost an opposite way from the way they’ve traditionally been known? Records show that Cauchon had no problem tampering with evidence to fit his cause against Joan, so I don’t particularly understand this portrayal. True, I’m indeed focused on the truth—something which I’d assume any historian as well as person of faith should be concerned about—and perhaps the movie merely serves to entertain. But even so, the end result is the same: it’s a dark, depressing view of life through war, politics, people, and God. There are no heroes.

As much as I’m a fan of Joan of Arc—my Belgian childhood was filled with her story—I’ve chosen to stick to books about her as opposed to watching movies on her. In fact, I’ve yet to find a *really* good movie and I’m not sure that I’ll ever see one that truly ‘hits the nail on the head.’

Aside from providing an alternate view of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson’s The Messenger also briefly touches on the role of Yolande of Aragon in the story of the maid; an angle which has recently been taken by Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc.