The legend of Joan of Arc has always been well known: The Maid of Orléans, poor and uneducated, touched with divine guidance, led the armies of France to key victories over the English, and was burned at the stake by her captors at the tender age of 19. Twenty-five years after her death, she was labeled a martyr and canonized in 1920. That's the story. Simple. Majestic. Powerful. Yet as we recognize the 600th anniversary of her birth this year (the date is unknown as the practice of recording the dates of non-noble births were not in effect in the 15th century), Nancy Goldstone tells us that, up until now, we have only heard half the story. With THE MAID AND THE QUEEN, history is opened to illustrate a connection between Joan and the oft-forgot Queen of Sicily, Yolande of Aragon.
"The intrigues of the history and the miraculous unfolding of the story of Joan make the book seem as gripping as any novel.... Until then, THE MAID AND THE QUEEN stands as a fascinating new take on the legacy and legend of Joan of Arc, and a great introduction to the oft-overlooked Queen of Sicily."
Who is Yolande of Aragon, and just what part did she play in the story of Joan of Arc? Beautiful, ambitious, and educated in the manner of the men of her time, Yolande was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. France was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with England and Burgundy. The throne of France was in upheaval, with Charles VII unable to claim his right due to the occupation by England and the betrayal of his parents (they declared he could not be King as he was the product of an affair by Queen Isabeau). Fearing for his life, Charles fled to the Queen of the Four Kingdoms: Yolande of Aragon. She would provide him protection and a wife, her daughter Marie, and begin to use her political acumen and impressive network of spies to see that her son-in-law could claim his throne. Some of her ploys backfired, such as the assassination of Charles's cousin, but she was soon driven more than ever to find the one who would bolster Charles and turn the tide against the English.
That "one" would turn out to be Joan. Growing up in Domrémy on the farm of her father, situated in the duchy of Bar, Joan had a connection to Yolande. Yolande of Bar, mother of Yolande of Aragon, held the duchy as her ancestral home, and throughout history it was loyal to the king of France. At the time of Joan's youth, Domrémy was on the front lines of conflict, with the loyalists of Burgundy just across the river. Yolande of Aragon had even manipulated to have her uncle, the duke of Bar, select her son, René, as a successor, who would steadfastly hold Bar and Lorraine for Charles. Goldstone thus acknowledges that by the simple nature of the size of the region and by Joan's later requests for men from the duke, there is no way she would not have known who René was, or his connections. And since Yolande was seeking a heroine, one who was touched and who could kindle the fires of valiant combat for her king, the fact that Joan began to hear voices at around age 13 only drew the attention of the Queen and her people --- in particular, René, who set in motion the acts by which she would gain audience to Charles.
THE MAID AND THE QUEEN is divided into three sections: the life of Yolande, the life of Joan, and the wrap-up of the events following the life of Joan, the impact on France, and the final years of Yolande's life. This template serves the story very well. So much of the groundwork for Joan was in place before she was born, and showing the life of Yolande goes a long way to making the case for her involvement in the events to come. Citing medieval sources only written in French as well as Joan's trial documentation, the notion that Yolande pulled the strings that led to the success of France are quite plausible.
Goldstone weaves a remarkable dual biography. The intrigues of the history and the miraculous unfolding of the story of Joan make the book seem as gripping as any novel. Among the great positives is that it moves at an incredibly readable pace. One of the drawbacks to this is that so much more could have been laid out and explained, doubling the book’s size. Perhaps others will follow in her footsteps and take up this line of inquiry. Until then, THE MAID AND THE QUEEN stands as a fascinating new take on the legacy and legend of Joan of Arc, and a great introduction to the oft-overlooked Queen of Sicily.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on March 29, 2012