To imagine what life was like growing up in a French village in the early 15th century, don’t think of A Year in Provence. Think of modern-day Syria.
It was the France of the Hundred Years War with England, a land and a people ravaged by unchecked violence. Catholic belief permeated everyday life, and the French were taught that their travails were a punishment from God. Out of this mélange of catastrophe and faith came the village teenager we know as St. Joan of Arc, to this day her country’s icon.
Hundreds of books have been written about her, but the story remains astounding enough for new interpretations. Kathryn Harrison, the well-known author of novels, memoirs and a previous biography of a saint, has now taken up the challenge with the deeply researched and thoughtful Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured.
Harrison expertly cross-cuts Joan’s life (1412-1431) in its historical context with the remarkable parallels between her story and the life of Jesus and with consideration of the books, plays, movies and paintings she has inspired. Each age invents its own Joan.
But even stripped of fable, Joan was a phenomenon: a peasant girl who pronounced herself the messenger of God, donned men’s clothes and armor, inspired the French king and army to victory, fought beside them and stood up boldly to the quisling court that condemned her to burn. In Harrison’s hands, Joan’s confidence and intelligence come alive.
Whatever we make of Joan’s “Voices”—angels, hallucinations or mental illness—she was utterly convinced of their reality and purity. The French churchmen allied with England who killed her believed the voices were demons, but Harrison shows that Joan’s worst crime in their eyes was her revolutionary audacity in dressing and behaving like a man. Of course, the ultimate victory was hers.