Friday, August 28, 2015

My review of THE MAID AND THE QUEEN by Nancy Goldstone

Finally! For years I've been waiting for a book about Joan of Arc that tells the history without relapsing into religious ecstasy. Goldstone delivers this and so much more in this historical account of France's turning point during the 100 Years War. I bought this book not knowing who the Queen was, her important role in Charles VII's life, or her association with Joan. I was surprised to learn that the story of Yolande of Aragon puts this formidable woman on a par with Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet I never heard of her.

This is a book about how Joan of Arc, aided by sympathetic members of Charles' party—mainly Yolande—invigorated the French people and its King to push back against the English. Joan's role is firmly established, but there are so many other events crowding the end of the war that her tragic martyrdom is not the end of the story. "It would be gratifying to be able to confirm...that, if not quite the catalyst for a precipitous surrender, Joan's execution at least marked the moral turning point in the conflict, the moment at which the native French population, repulsed by the deed, turned against the occupation and began the slow process of throwing off the yoke of the invaders. And yet the sad truth is that Joan's death had absolutely no effect upon the war, or the politics of the period..." In fact, the war dragged on for another twenty years, and much of the effort to turn the tables on the English came from the historically unacknowledged Yolande.

Charles, the future King, was the youngest son of mad king Charles VI and an unscrupulous Isabeau of Bavaria in war-torn France. He was a nervous, neglected child whose prospects were not particularly glittering and was sent away to be raised by his future mother-in-law in peaceful and beautiful Provence. Yolande's court was enlightened and brilliant, and the future king became totally attached to the Queen of Sicily. She was a formidable, efficient ruler and her support was instrumental in keeping Charles on the right path. It was eventually through Yolande's influence that Joan of Arc managed an interview with "the Dauphin" as she called him. Also, when Charles' natural timidity held him back from committing his military forces, Yolanda often returned to take control and push matters forward. In the end, she helped forge the diplomatic ties between France and Burgundy that finally dislodged the English from their French territories.

One might ask why Charles and Yolande did not work harder to redeem Joan from her captors. Yes, by that time she had already outlived her usefulness and seemed to be in the way more often than not. There was no doubt that the common people still looked up to her, but "she was during this period kept at arm's length and regarded as a nuisance and a potential liability by those in power at court." All along her military astuteness was questionable, and even at the siege of Orleans the French commanders ignored her advice and won the day despite her objections. By the time she was captured, Joan had taken it upon herself to lead a practically suicidal mission at Compiegne, and no one in charge paid much attention to her. When she was taken, one train of thought was "Because Joan claimed to have appeared by the order of God, to interfere in her fate would have been akin to questioning a divine imperative." I can see that as a solid medieval sentiment. But more to the point, the King wouldn't have thought she was in danger. Joan had been ennobled a few months previously, and the terms of her captivity were "dictated by the time-honored rules of chivalry." She would be held for ransom, it was supposed, and given honorable imprisonment. They never thought that Joan would be ransomed by the enemy of France, the Duke of Burgundy! And Burgundy was determined to prove that Joan was a witch and anyone following her advice was dishonored. Including, of course, Charles VII.

This period of history was incredibly complex, with murders and treason, political agendas and a long cast of characters. The author does an admirable job keeping everything straight. I had no trouble following events, and the writing was smooth and enjoyable; there were even times I felt a little excitement, as though in the midst of a novel. I suspect it was difficult presenting a mystical saint as a straightforward historical figure, but Goldstone smoothly sidestepped religious issues and gave us a credible explanation of events. She had a couple of theories of her own that tied things together: she is convinced that Yolande made a connection between Joan and the "Romance of Melusine", famous in its time, which is why she supported the Maid; the author attributed the vehemence of Joan's trial and later rehabilitation to a conflict between factions in the University of Paris faculty. I thought these theories a little bit of a stretch, but they didn't stop me from enjoying the book. I would highly recommend it to students of the Middle Ages.

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