BOOK REVIEWS: Legends, Myths and the Cult of Joan of Arc; Joan of Arc, Maid, Myth and History by Timothy Wilson-Smith. Sutton Publishing, Pounds 20

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Andrew Martin

She heard voices and dressed in men's clothes but the French believed that the teenage girl from Orleans would deliver them from the clutches of the English.

For a few brief months in 15th century, Joan was at the head of the French army as they tried to repel the invaders but that brief period of history has spawned a thousand myths and legends.

But who was the girl who persuaded the French to believe in her and follow her into battle?

Timothy Wilson-Smith's book gives a detailed version of the events leading up to Joan being burnt at the stake in May of 1431 and those events give a fascinating glimpse into the fears and beliefs of the time.

It also shows how complex the European political situation was at the time - after all this is at the period in history when it took the Hundred Year War between England and France to bring even a semblance of order to the chaos of who reigned exactly where.

The early pages surrounding Joan's life and the leading part she played in the battle to wrest France from England's grasp are necessary to set the scene.

But it is in the evaluation of the impact that the Maid of Orleans had during the following years and down through the centuries that Wilson-Smith's book begins to gather pace.

Wilson-Smith, a historian and assistant master at Eton for 36 years, relates how, even today, people are fascinated by this teenage woman who persuaded her king to believe that she could lead her nation to victory.

In the retrial of 1452-6, she was vindicated, but it took almost 500 years after an English soldier declared "we have burnt a saint" for the Catholic Church to conclude that she was indeed one.

Almost 600 years after Joan's death, she is still a symbol invoked in France to illustrate a united front or when a public figure or political party wishes to show their cause is a just one. …