Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Spanish Imposition

As I wrestle myself into place with this Joan of Arc book, I find that it's not as engaging as I really wish it was. I've never gotten much into biographies, because as stories, even when the person has a really interesting life, they don't read well. Because they're real people and their lives are full of real historical events, the details are often overwhelming and, sadly, slow-moving.

Take Joan. This book is brief and to the point. It's clearly not intended as an exhaustive historical account, but rather as a more basic account with a great deal of analysis, specifically from a religious (and Joan-apologist) viewpoint. So I imagine there's a lot of detail being left out, yet it still, at times, reads like an impenetrable list of French towns that, say, Joan wrote to, or castles where she was held. The bones of a good story are there, but the telling is an account. For someone who reads so much nonfiction, I really am demanding of a story.

Some interesting things about the Joan book:

1) The book is almost exactly divided in half, the first half being what she did--hearing voices, leading the army, getting Charles crowned--and the second half being the trial and how she came to be (warning: spoiler) executed. I'm not there yet, but we've already handed her over to the British, just over halfway through. I think this makes sense from the author's analytical viewpoint--he wants to talk about how she and others saw her experience of God, and what it meant in context. In battle, it's simple--she had faith, she led others, she won battles. With her enemies, when she is being examined carefully by the Church, is where his real interest lays. Her actions interest him less than their motivation and fallout.

2) I feel like I'm learning more about the internal lives of those around her than about that of Joan herself. I'm learning a lot about Charles--his personality, his politics, and why he might have left Joan to his enemies when he could easily have saved her. I've learned about some of her enemies (the jealous bishop she ousted from one of the towns she freed, the man who captured her on the battlefield and was forced by the king's indifference to turn her over to the British when they offered money for her) and her friends (hothead La Hire, the close friends she always called "My Duke"), but nothing about her. He gives accounts of her battlefield behavior--bold, fearless, careless of herself but sensitive to the suffering of others--and reproduces letters she sent to various people and towns, but there is so much less speculation on her personal thoughts or possible motivations than there is about other characters. Again, I think this is because the whole book is an argument about how religion influenced her internal life, and so he has to construct his arguments about her internal life carefully and cannot be casual with them.

3) The book spends a good deal of time debunking myths and misconceptions (according to the author) that must exist in the minds of people who know something about Joan of Arc--some of them, just in the mind of her contemporary accusers. (Aside: don't you find the word contemporary challenging? How are you supposed to know if I mean contemporary with me or contemporary with her? For the record, here I mean "contemporary with Joan.") For example, he explains that her dressing as a man for battle was not an example of trying to hide her sex, nor did any of her compatriots interpret it as such--she was openly female. You just can't go into battle in the clothes that women wore, nor ride on long trips. So this should not be interpreted as disobedience to the religious dictate that women should not dress as men, because that was clearly intended to mean that they should not live as men, in men's clothes impersonating men. I have no context to tell if this is correct, but he makes it very clear. He also makes it clear that she was not just a figurehead but an active leader in strategy and execution of military plans, and that it was not weird or asexual of her to have taken a personal vow of chastity without entering a religious order, since this was a relatively common way for a young person to devote him- or herself wholly to a task in the name of God. Again, I have no context for these explanations of the author--I can only assume he's giving me accurate historical information.

4) Interesting tidbit: the author tells me that we know more about Joan than we do about any other historical person before her. This is because, for some reason, the transcripts from her trial have survived in great detail, and are supplemented by a great deal of primary source material. I get the impression that, because they had a weak case and she was well-loved, the British really fought hard to put on a good-looking show of condemning her. But this means that there are historical records of things like interviews with her childhood neighbors, people who knew her at all points in her life, sworn testimony from The Maid herself, her friends and her enemies. Really, what other historical figure before, say, 200 years ago has surviving interviews with childhood neighbors? She might as well be on the 11 o'clock news.

I wish I did find the biography more interesting, because there's so much interesting stuff here. She was wounded in battle several times, but refused to retreat, fighting into the night and charging back the next morning, against the advice of other, more experienced generals. When captured, she tears out the floorboards in her room, descends into the room of the sleeping gate-guards below her, and steals the key, almost effecting a getaway. Later, under closer guard, on hearing that she will be turned over to the English, she jumped from her 70-foot high window--not to kill herself, but hoping to get away. She was only bruised, but the escape failed. She later made it clear that she did this out of fear, but was acting against her voices.

So all I'm saying is, there's a great story here. I'm sorry I'm not reading it.

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