Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint
Someone could wonder if there is any need of another book on Joan of Arc, probably the most known and studied figure in medieval history. The bibliography on the subject is boundless: suffice it to say that in her Joan of Arc in History, Literature and Movies, published in 1990, Nadia Margolis listed over 1500 among sources, books and films. Stephen W. Richey, author of Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint, is well aware of this, but, he writes, there was still something to analyze: how she could achieve such an impressive series of victories in scarcely more than a year, while many experienced French warlords had not been able to. If Kelly DeVries, in his book Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, relates what Joan did in her military career, Richey aims to explain how she could do it.
It is worth noting that the author is a former tank crewman of the U.S. Army, who later graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served out his career in many countries. Contrary to many modern military historians, then, he has a solid military experience on which to base himself to judge which qualities a good general needs to gain his soldiers’ respect and trust. The reader has to keep in mind Richey’s past (and present as well, for he is now a part-time soldier in the Army National Guard) when it comes to how Joan managed to change the course of events. However, first of all the author reviews the literature on Joan, then describes the general situation before her arrival. What she did after appearing on the public stage is common knowledge, but Richey opportunately gives up two chapters to that. The first analyzes how Joan managed to raise French morale, the second focuses on her role as a commander. Right from her arrival to the French camp at Orléans, “the Maid” imposed her strong personality on the soldiers, restoring their fighting spirit, demoralized by defeats and inaction. A telling and compelling speaker, she was always in the front rank of every fight and was wounded more than once. Her strong force of character drew fighting men willing to follow her, even at their own expense if need be. Joan was not a mere inspirational figurehead; indeed, she took part in the councils of war and forced the other commanders to agree with her plans. It was Joan, Richey asserts, who urged the French army, often beaten and disheartened before her arrival, to be aggressive and, eventually, winning.
After a long description of Joan’s campaigns, the book comes to its most original part: how she was able to do what she did. It is clear that she possessed considerable talent for learning quickly what she needed to deal with nobles and warriors of high rank. Without training, she mastered the essential points of military leadership and imposed herself on far more experienced and reputed commanders like Jean, duke of Alençon, and Jean, Bastard of Orléans. “The Maid” also possessed high intelligence under stress, which, as Richey knows very well from his experience as a soldier, is extremely necessary in a military leader. That Joan had a strong and quick mind under appalling conditions is clearly proved by her answers in the trial for heresy. According to Richey, Joan understood very well what nowadays are called the “principles of war”, taught in military academics: objective, offensive, manoeuvre, mass, economy of force, unity of command, surprise, security and simplicity. Here the reader can feel again the author’s personal experience, even though someone could argue that some explanations are perhaps too modern to be applied to XV-century warfare. Joan was particularly good at using words and symbols in order to achieve her goals. With powerful speeches she made clear that God was on the side of the French but they had to earn divine help by their own exertion. In a time marked by intense faith, thanks to Joan’s words the French army began winning and turning the tide. “The Maid” also exploited some archetypes, such the Ideal Androgyne, Knight and Prophet, and some physical symbols, for instance her sword and banner. All this, along with her personal courage and charisma, won the soldiers’ respect and loyalty. How the author must know very well, ‘when a military female has shown herself good enough to be “one of the guys”, and she retains a spirited, cheery, yet compassionate sort of feminine charm, the guys may find the juxtaposition of her masculine and feminine traits all the more endearing’ (110). Such was Joan’s strong impact on thousands of fighting men, which made them see her as a living saint and forced them to feel a chaste, pure love for their angel (that was what they called her, ‘l’Ángélique’). However, Richey explains Joan’s success not only with her qualities, but also with being at the right time at the right moment. Before she burst onto the public stage there had been prophecies about a young girl who would save France, not to speak of the famous examples of women taking part in wars, both in real life and literature, which could have helped men to accept the idea of a girl on horseback and leading soldiers.
Richey’s work is a concise and very interesting work on a figure which, despite thousands of pages devoted to it, seems to have still much to explore, If professional historians can skip over the first chapters, everybody interested in Joan of Arc or military history should read carefully the thorough analysis of how she achieved her victories, which can be extremely useful in order to understand how charisma and personality work on soldiers.