The National Catholic Review

Joan of Arc is a saint of perennial appeal, even in postmodern America. At the level of popular culture, Joan’s unlikely story makes for good reading and viewing, not to mention innumerable hagiographic and literary interpretations. The most recent of the score of films about Joan, Luc Besson’s “The Messenger” (1999), portrays her as a radical, angry zealot alternately buoyed up by gruesome, bloody battle scenes and dejected by diabolical temptations. “Joan of Arcadia” brought her to television in the guise of an American teenager who hears God’s voice in the most unlikely places and people.

The facts of Joan’s short life are the stuff of myth and lore. As a 13-year-old, illiterate farm girl in 15th-century Domrémy, she is called by heavenly voices to dress in military armor, acquire a horse and lead French forces to victory over the English at Orléans. She manages to accomplish this with aplomb and attends the coronation of her “true King,” Charles VII, at Reims in the spring of 1429. Captured a year later by Burgundians and sold into English custody, she is subjected to a lengthy ecclesiastical trial that culminates in her condemnation as a witch and relapsed heretic, and finally is burned at the stake—at the age of 19—in the central square of Rouen. Twenty-five years later, the original verdict is nullified and a retrial finds Joan innocent. The fully reinstated heroine-martyr is canonized and named a patron of France, but not before 1920, after a hiatus of 500 years.

So much for the facts. But how does one really come to know this fascinating historical figure who left no writings, but whose depiction in legend often obfuscates the true and complex personality?

Daniel Hobbins, an author and historian at the University of Texas, chooses to make what he calls the “journey toward Joan” through a new edition of her trial record from the original manuscripts of the Latin text. His careful translation, the first in 50 years, may well become the definitive edition. As the most detailed document of its kind produced in the medieval West, the proceedings at Joan’s trial are a critical and reliable witness to her life, character, visions, culture and motives. Moreover, Hobbins finds that the trial provides an invaluable window to the understanding of Joan as a 15th-century French woman, as well as to “the strange and brutal yet fascinating world that produced her.” In fact, Joan had become an international celebrity by the time her trial took place, from January through May 1431. Many of her supporters or detractors would have had more than a passing interest in the deliberations about the young woman they knew as La Pucelle (the Maid or the Virgin).

While Joan’s interrogation took place in French, it was translated into Latin immediately after the trial, and intended for distribution to a widespread European audience. Hobbins contends that the Latin translation was a conscious act of self-justification on the part of Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, the judge who found Joan guilty of witchcraft and heresy and pronounced her death sentence. Joan’s trial was political as well as religious, and its verdict a foregone conclusion. An Anglo-Burgundian sympathizer, Cauchon needed to prove that Joan’s trial was indeed justified, and he is credited with making it a monument to correct procedure.

One of the strengths of Hobbins’s translation is his familiarity with both French and Latin texts of the trial, as well as substantial secondary documentation and literary history surrounding the Maid of Orléans. In a valuable introductory essay, he leads the reader through the maze of medieval inquisitorial procedures and technicalities that characterized heresy trials like Joan’s, such as the “articles of accusation,” which in this case numbered close to 70 and were later reduced to an even dozen. He addresses thorny questions, like Joan’s “relapse” into belief in her voices and the wearing of men’s clothing.

On the topic of the audible revelations to her from of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, Hobbins admits that they can seem problematic to a modern reader. But he takes pains to situate Joan’s mystical experience, which she was unwilling to deny even at the cost of her life, within the orthodox tradition of Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden and other women visionaries with prophetic messages for secular and religious leaders in medieval Europe.

Hobbins’s own question, “Who was Joan?” is perhaps best answered by letting her speak from her own time rather than in opposition to her time, as Mark Twain did. Joan is both a reflection and a product of a cultural whole: “she is comprehensible only within the terms of reference of that culture.” Her life and career mirror the great trends of late medieval Christianitas. In her trial we recover the interpenetration of church authority and ordinary lay living, and the tension between individual religious experience and clerical claims to divine authority, particularly in the case of women.

Could Joan’s trial record be the basis for a film on “Court TV”? Possibly, given its dramatic finale. But this is not a text that entertains. It demands a great deal of attention and patience with the canonical “legalese” of its dialogues. It enlightens and it teaches, mostly negative lessons about the abuse of authority. There is a contemporary ring to its cultural disparagement of women, the poor and the unlettered devout whom Joan represents. More than anything, however, reading Joan’s trial opens wide a window into the vision and faith of this courageous, mystifying and paradoxical young woman. At the third session of her trial, Joan was asked whether she was in the grace of God. “If I am not, may God place me there; and if I am, may God keep me there. I would be the most miserable person in the world if I was not in the grace of God.”

Through Joan’s own clear voice, we do indeed come to know one of God’s saints, and are challenged by her indomitable spirit, her wisdom and her wit.

Janice Farnham, R.J.M., is an adjunct professor of church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass.