To Orléans and Beyond: Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid and the Queen

ImageGoldstone, Nancy. The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2012.

My last post covered a book about the people intensely concerned with bringing an end to the Second World War. This post addresses a book about those involved in bringing an end to a much longer confrontation: the Hundred Years War between England and France. The Maid and the Queen’s subtitle The Secret History of Joan of Arc is in some ways something of a misrepresentation; the history is not so much secret as perhaps unacknowledged. Further, the really interesting aspects of the book are concerned not so much with Joan herself but with the woman whose instrument, to a certain extent, Joan was, Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily, Countess of Provence, and mother-in-law to the Dauphin of France who was crowned king because of Joan’s exertions.

ImageGoldstone describes Yolande of Aragon as “perhaps the most astute politician of her age” (xvii) and goes on to say “that there is no more effective camouflage in history than to have been born a woman” (xviii). A further camouflage may also be created by the aura created over the centuries around the idea of The Maid of Orleans, who was canonized in 1920. Joan the miracle working saint obscures not only Jean D’Arc the peasant from Domrémy but also Yolande. We are possibly so fascinated by the character, motives, and psychology of Joan that we fail to see her within the larger context of European politics in the fifteenth century.

ImageGoldstone is indeed interested in Joan’s character, motives, and psychology, but she sees these as very much manipulated both positively and negatively by the situation in Europe as a whole. While, particularly, I suspect, if we are of English or French heritage, we see Joan as an amazing intervener in the conflict between the two nations, we tend to forget the other dynastic and political issues that surrounded the conflict. Relationships among the French, English and Burgundians, for example, the role and influence of the Holy Roman Empire, the competing claims to the kingdom of Sicily: they created a political situation Europe where not only the English and French were concerned about who ruled where. Then, too, we need a sense of the influence and politics of Catholicism even in those pre-Reformation times. It may well be hard for those of us used to secular societies where freedom of belief is enshrined as a cornerstone of our states to appreciate fully just how important and political a concern was who believed what. Goldstone asserts that Joan “did not, as so many believe, become who she was despite having been born in provincial, out-of-the-way Domrémy, but because of it” (89).

ImageIn order to develop this context, Goldstone divides the book into three sections: Before Joan, Joan of Arc, and After Joan. The first and last sections take four chapters each; the central part, six. Goldstone also reproduces contemporary illustrations as well as including a family tree of the royal house of France, detailed notes, and a Selected Bibliography; we can, therefore, infer that her conclusions are drawn from detailed and comprehensive research.

ImageWhat The Maid and the Queen reveals quite convincingly is that Joan, despite her individuality and her strengths, became on the one hand a victim of ecclesiastic, academic, and political realpolitik and on the other the product of a world view that accepted the concept of a divine providence that could not be questioned. Goldstone shares with George Bernard Shaw in his 1924 play Saint Joan a concern with how Joan did and did not fit in her society even as she was a product of it. Shaw calls her a “proto-protestant” (Preface to Saint Joan);1  moreover, in his insistence that the Epilogue dealing with Joan’s sainthood be performed, he draws our attention to the construction of the mythos of Joan. Goldstone and Shaw both show how the political situation not only made Joan in many ways a necessity but also, when she had achieved what she did, necessitated first her removal and then her subsequent rehabilitation by both Church and State.

ImageUnconstrained by the demands and time constraints of realist drama, Goldstone’s work allows her to go further into her investigation than Shaw’s play allows him, and at times, when one is able to put aside the idea of Joan the martyr, Joan the saint to be, the Queen overshadows the Maid. Certainly, her story is much longer and her political reach much wider than Joan’s. If you’ll allow me to fall into a chess metaphor for a moment, what Goldstone reveals is just how much of the Queen’s pawn Joan was.

ImageFurther, at the heart of Goldstone’s work is her understanding of how literature and politics connected in the fifteenth century. One of the threads Goldstone sees running through the events that led up to the crowing of the Dauphin and the ultimate wresting of the crown of France from the English Henry VI is the importance of the Romance of Melusine by Jean of Arras. This romance took the well known legend of the fairy Melusine and made it into “political allegory” (Stephen G. Nichols qtd. Goldstone 14). Goldstone suggests that Yolande of Aragon saw the Dauphin Charles’ situation as analogous to that of Raymondin the hero of the romance and found in Joan the Melusine she needed to restore Charles to his rightful position (73).

ImageGoldstone ends her book reiterating “how the role Yolande of Aragon played in the defeat of the English and the preservation of the French monarchy has been consistently ignored by historians” (248) despite Charles VII’s own acknowledgement of that role, and recognising that it was Joan’s “willingness to fight for what she believed against seemingly insurmountable odds that has secured her place in history as an iconic figure” (249). When I finished the book, what remained with me was the whole question of to what extent have women, unless they have achieved iconic status in some way, tended to be somewhat obscured by history unless they have been queens regnant such England’s Elizabeth I, for example, and, of course, if you consider the various portraits of her and what we know of her, she actually collaborated in the building of her own mythical persona as Gloriana.

ImageAll in all, The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc is a satisfying and thought-provoking work.

 

 

1I can’t give the exact page reference here; my copy of the play is on my bookshelf, and I’m not “at home” at present.

 

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