The Heart That Refused to Burn Steadfastly Holds Its Secrets Close: Joan of Arc

Kathryn Harrison's longtime fascination with the Catholic Church finds its ultimate expression, and biggest challenge, in this biography of Joan of Arc.

Kathryn Harrison’s fans will not be surprised by her decision to write Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. Harrison has long been preoccupied with religious matters, particularly where they concern women. Nor is she one to turn from daunting subject matter, as 1997’s The Kiss attests. Later writing ruthlessly examines her relationship with a difficult mother who abandoned Judaism for Christian Science before settling on Catholicism.

Harrison followed her mother’s religious meanderings, writing in The Road to Santiago of her conversion to Catholicism at age 12: “At least I’m more Catholic than anything else.” Harrison’s writing life has plumbed this “more Catholic than anything else” in the Penguin Lives St Thèrése of Lisieux, and an aborted religious pilgrimage in The Road to Santiago, while the deeply revealing essays in Seeking Rapture probe beneath, or perhaps above, dailiness to the places where the transcendental occurs. Religion’s solace threads throughThe Mother Knot, a harrowing book-length essay wherein Harrison disinters her mother’s remains, scattering them at sea in what one hopes is a final, healing ritual.

Now Harrison turns her fascination with Catholicism and its female followers to a biography of a woman, really a girl, who continues to feature in the popular imagination. Joan of Arc, or Jehanne D’Arc, was born in January 1412. Whether she was born on 6 January, Ascension Day, or this is part of her mythology is unknown. She was burned at the stake 30 May, 1451.

Born into a prominent family in Domrémy, France, Joan was the third of five children, the first of two girls. Her sister, Catherine, died soon after marriage, possibly in childbirth. Joan’s father, Jacques, was made “Dean” of Domrémy at age 38, at position of power and privilege.

Joan first heard voices the summer of her 13th year. Domrémy villagers, childhood friends, and military companions spoke of Joan’s extreme religious devotion. She often slipped into the woods to pray or, during military campaigns, to solicit God’s wisdom. Before entering battle, she begged her soldiers to confess lest they sustain fatal wounds. Her own need to pray, confess, and spend time within religious sanctuary was profound.

Harrison takes pains to elaborate Catholicism’s role in Joan’s France, for without it she never would have risen to power. Illiteracy notwithstanding, France’s citizenry shared a widespread grounding in Biblical knowledge. So when the teenaged peasant girl calling herself “La Pucelle”, or The Maid, declared herself sent by the Heavenly Father to save France, she anticipated acceptance, even welcome. And a citizenry weakened, starved, and demoralized by the English was only too happy to hail her. Even those displeased by Joan’s pronouncements did not declare her deranged. During her truncated military career and ensuing trial, her Biblical references and allegories were widely understood.

French peasants also knew of a prophecy made by national oracle Marie Robine in 1398: a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine would save France. While Joan never identified herself as that virgin, Harrison notes she was undoubtedly aware of Robine’s vision.

Joan was specific about her voices. Saints Catherine, Margaret, Michael and Gabriel spoke to her. Beyond this, she refused to elaborate. Her reticence outraged her captors, but even being shown the rack failed to move her: “I would rather have you cut my throat than tell you all I know.”

No likeness of Joan exists. A strand of her black hair was discovered in the 19th century, caught in a letter’s wax seal. A doctor who examined Joan in captivity noted her narrow hips. Her ability to borrow men’s clothing suggests possible height. The Duke of Alençon, who shared close quarters in battle, had the opportunity to observe Joan naked. He found her body beautiful, but experienced no lust, a sentiment echoed by fellow soldiers. Joan’s squire, who helped her dress, reported she did not menstruate. Explanations for this range from stress to impoverished diet. Whatever the reason, Joan’s absence of menarche, her virginity, and religious fervor all contributed to a growing legend.

So did her dress. As Joan began heeding her voices’ instructions, working her way to the French Court, Yolande of Aragon, mother-in-law of Dauphin Charles, heir to the French throne, heard of the Maid Joan and arranged for her to meet Duke Charles of Lorraine. It was at this meeting that Joan first donned men’s clothing.

Harrison does a marvelous job describing clothing of the period. The Middle Ages were a time of advances in weaving and fabric dyeing, allowing Joan access to sumptuous new brocades and velvets. Crossdressing was considered a violation of the holy sacraments; for all Joan’s austerities, she loved fine clothing. Harrison writes that Joan met the Duke wearing “shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together and fastened to the said doublet by twenty points, long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantle reaching to the knees, a close-cut cap, tight-fitting boots, and buskins.”

Joan completed the look by chopping off her hair. Women were to expected wear their hair long and unbound, advertising their marriagability. Joan’s combination of menswear and bobbed hair was viewed by many as a grave affront to God and man.

In March 1429, Joan arrived in Chinon, France to meet the Dauphin Charles. How she convinced him of her holy mission is unknown. In April, she was equipped for battle. While more mobile than we might imagine, Joan of Arc’s “white armor”, that is, plain, undecorated armor, was constrictive. She also received training riding warhorses, reportedly displaying unusual athletic skill.

Harrison presents a minutely researched, detailed military history of Joan’s battlefield career. Her military triumphs were as illustrious as they were brief. A charismatic leader, Joan compensated for her illiteracy with a capacious memory. Having God on her side made her fearless, even after sustaining a serious thigh wound.

Once enthroned, the Dauphin Charles set about making truces with the English and Burgundians while weakening the woman responsible for empowering him. Joan, having accomplished her mission, appears to have foundered. Her voices fell silent, leaving her appealing to them. Worse, she had become addicted to the highs of battle, and was adrift without a fight planned.

In Compiègne, she charged directly into the Burgundian Army as French Captain Guillame de Favy, her ostensibly ally, closed the city gates behind her. Joan’s voices had warned repeatedly of her eventual capture and suffering, telling the teenager it was unavoidable. “They said God would aid me.”

In a trial lasting 21 February, 1431 to 29 May, Joan was subjected to rapid-fire questioning, often eight- to 11-hours daily. Joan acquitted herself with courage, answering all that was asked, displaying a remarkable memory. It is said that Joan of Arc’s heart did not catch fire as her body burned at the stake.

Harrison’s efforts to present Joan of Arc as a whole individual are mighty. Yet grasping the essence of a young woman who lived so briefly, so very long ago, is an enormous challenge. That Joan of Arc’s story has been heavily embroidered further impedes any biographer’s task. During her lifetime, Joan was said to be clairvoyant, to have altered the wind’s course in her army’s favor, and to have resuscitated a dead infant long enough for the child’s baptism. The realities behind these stories are impossible to determine.

Harrison rounds out Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by turning to biblical sources, presenting a book-long comparison of Joan’s life to Jesus Christ’s. She looks to other media, quoting extensively from Bertold Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards and mentioning films by Cecil B. DeMille and Otto Preminger, among others. The breadth of her research is commendable, but these outside works fail to illuminate the real Joan. Rather, they illuminate other interpretations of her.

Joan of Arc was singular, remarkable, and perhaps, at this distance, impossible to document. This is not Kathryn Harrison’s fault, of course. Rather, it’s the fault of time passed. It’s also the fault of modern expectations: contemporary readers hunger to know everything. Unfortunately, readers hoping to glean personal details about Joan of Arc in will be disappointed. Those willing to accept available material, presented in Harrison’s signature elegant prose, will finish the book edified if unsatisfied, for the heart that refused to burn steadfastly holds its secrets close.

RATING 7 / 10