Churchill is a master stylist who writes forcefully and clearly. The story of Joan is narrated with high suspense and moves quickly with hardly a pause. The author’s prose is replete with simple, action verbs yet is not without vivid images and well-turned phrases. Churchill is a storyteller who can make history come alive for young readers. His book is not a social, political, or military analysis of this facet of the Hundred Years’ War. Rather, it relates a tale that is intended to incite wonder.
The reader is not told why Joan of Arc is fighting the English and the Burgundians. Because this biography of Joan is taken from Churchill’s A History of the English-speaking Peoples, the course of the Hundred Years’ War before the appearance of Joan is omitted and she is discussed only for her role in the expulsion of the British from France. Churchill presents Joan as a French patriot and a courageous leader. Even more so, he portrays her as a universal type, who can be understood and admired outside any specific time and space. From this perspective, Churchill’s picture of Joan can stand on its own as a self-contained episode in this period of English history.
Churchill does not present his heroine as a foe of the English, but rather as a formidable resistance leader who might have appeared at any time in history. He is not biased in favor of a nationalistic viewpoint. Yet Churchill views Joan more as a national figure than as...
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As in many popular biographies of Joan of Arc, Churchill exaggerates her importance in the French history of the Hundred Years’ War. Few modern historians believe, as Churchill apparently does, that Joan’s military victories immediately turned the tide in favor of the French. Furthermore, Churchill seems unfamiliar with the trial records, which in fact do not reveal a defendant abandoned by her voices, as he suggests. This is not to suggest, however, that Joan’s place in French history was unimportant. The trial records themselves reveal much about the period; indeed, these manuscripts make Joan the best-documented person of the fifteenth century.
In the immediate context of the Hundred Years’ War, Joan contributed to the royal cause by persuading the dauphin that he was the rightful monarch, bolstering the confidence of the French, and checking the English advances into southern France. Indirectly, Joan’s actions induced Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy, to switch sides and ally with the French in 1435. Within five years, the French were defeating the English on all fronts. From a larger perspective, the episode of Joan of Arc transcends these specific events. She quickly became a legend and a symbol of sanctity, nationalism, courage, resistance to oppression, justice, and feminine heroism. The tale of Joan of Arc has been integrated into the historical mythology of France. In the Catholic tradition, Joan is the saint who obeyed only God and the saints. In the national tradition, she is the loyal daughter of France who sacrifices her life in her devotion to her country.
Churchill was not a specialist in this period of English or French history, and his ignorance of current scholarship is understandable. While his view of his subject can be naïve and simplistic, Joan of Arc is popular biography at its best. The inimitable Churchill has a knack for re-creating historical personalities for readers in their early teens, making his subjects exciting. This book should stimulate readers to search out further information on Joan of Arc and on late medieval European history.