The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone
I don’t know much about Joan of Arc, which is a bit odd—usually, give me a historic Frenchwoman who can handle a sword and I’m weak at the knees. (Julie D’Aubigny, anyone?) My biggest memory concerning Joan of Arc is a mock trial from my European history class in high school, where I was the head of the defense. Needless to say, given my hideous debating skills, she burned at the stake a second time. But when I saw Laura Miller’s review of The Maid and the Queen, I was intrigued enough to put it on my list, and it turned out to be one of the rare new books just lying on the shelves at the library. Go figure.
The Maid and the Queen, subtitled “The Secret History of Joan of Arc”, relates the familiar story of Joan of Arc—the French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years War, was divinely inspired to aid the true king of France, Charles VII—in the context of the criminally obscure Yolande of Aragon, Charles VII’s mother-in-law and Queen of Sicily. It is in this context, Goldstone argues, that Joan’s story makes perfect sense, as Yolande used her to inspire her son-in-law to move forward in the war. The true story of Joan of Arc, then, is the story of Yolande of Aragon, and the lengths she went to secure the future of her children—and grandchildren.
While it covers Joan’s story admirably, The Maid and the Queen is quite clearly intended as a rebuttal to treatments of Joan as miraculous and self-contained. It begins with Yolande’s childhood, continues with an attempt to make clear the very messy Hundreds Year War, and ends with the rehabilitation of Joan’s image, as ordered by Charles VII. Yolande may seem like a shadowy figure at first, but Goldstone finds primary evidence showing how respected and trusted Yolande was. At one point, Goldstone quotes a biographer of one of her sons after she’s contacted by bishops for martial aid, which he finds to be “expressing a confidence in her abilities second only to God” (220). At the beginning, Goldstone notes how obvious it may seem, after reading her book, that Yolande was in charge here, and fends off any questions about how she could have been ignored for six hundred years by pointing out that the best historical camouflage is to be born a woman.
And Goldstone places Joan firmly in the context of Yolande’s attempts to end the Hundred Years War and secure the place of her descendants. A motif that runs through the novel is The Romance of Melusine, a specific version of the Melusine myth written as political allegory—Goldstone argues that, when Charles VII fell into spiritual despair, Yolande, familiar with the romance, saw Joan as a Melusine-esque figure to re-inspire her son. As nicely pat as that is, I think it’s the weakest part of Goldstone’s otherwise solid argument, and, accordingly, it’s not a cornerstone. But Goldstone is at her best when she continues to contextualize Joan outside of Yolande. The portion of the book covering her trial, her death, and its aftermath, is fascinating, because it places her trial not only firmly in the context of the Hundred Years War and her symbolic power, but also the theological academic squabbling of the University of Paris. It’s rare I read a piece of historical nonfiction that has a joke that makes me laugh out loud, but The Maid and the Queen’s got one. And it also forces us to realize how little Joan actually mattered to the people she fought for after her trial; her death, while viewed as cruel in the eyes of Charles VII’s supporters, wasn’t a catalyst for anything in the war, beyond increasing expenses to a critical degree. No matter how much power Joan may have briefly wielded, it was mostly symbolic.
Goldstone’s writing style is efficient and friendly; there are a few personal touches here and there, like her accessible footnotes, but otherwise, it doesn’t stand out. I had a hard time getting through this, personally, but I think it’s because I have a difficult enough time imagining clear-cut wars in my head, let alone the mess that is the Hundred Years War. This is clearly a personal issue with me when it comes to military history, rather than something inherent to the book, so your mileage will vary. But if you like history, especially history that brings to light a previously underappreciated woman, it’s worth a shot.
Bottom line: The Maid and the Queen puts the familiar story of Joan of Arc in the context of the previously obscure Yolande of Aragon, Charles VII’s mother-in-law and, Goldstone argues, the architect of Joan’s importance to the throne. The story is fascinating and the writing is efficient, but I personally have trouble mapping out wars in my head, so it took me a bit to get through. Worth a shot.
I rented this book from the public library.