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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lights of Madness: Was Joan of Arc Sane?

 Lights of Madness by physician Preston Russell has the goal of determining whether Joan of Arc was insane.  He lays out all the evidence and all the theories about her in his book.  I thought that he was taking an approach to Joan of Arc that I hadn't seen before, and decided to review it for The Bookplex.



This book includes an account of Joan of Arc’s life mainly relying on the transcripts of her trial.  There are numerous endnotes.  I have no complaints about Russell’s accuracy, but it would have been enormously convenient for readers if these notes had been hyperlinked within the text in the electronic version.  I have seen this user friendly feature in textbooks.  I think it should be standard in any digitized book that has endnotes or a glossary.   

Sometimes the trial transcripts were eye opening for me.   I have read numerous books about Joan of Arc, but I had never seen that she "gave hard clouts to camp followers" with the flat of her sword.  This testimony means to me that Joan was judgmental toward other women who may or may not have been prostitutes.  Some camp followers were the impoverished dependents of soldiers who had no homes to which they could return.  So when I read about those clouts, I made a note that Saint Francis has just gone up a notch in my estimation and Joan of Arc has gone down a notch.   Joan may have been trying to prove her piety.  Those clouts were a rebuke to women who were sinners, or so she supposed without having heard their stories.  

There is also a section dealing with portrayals of Joan of Arc since her death.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the background for Mark Twain's book on Joan.  Russell tells us how Mark Twain's interest in Joan was inspired. A fragment of a page from a life of Joan of Arc blew into  Samuel Clemens' hand when he was a teenager long before he took the Mark Twain pen name. I noticed this because of my interest in Afro-Brazilian religion. Oya, the Yoruban spirit of the wind, has many faces.  In Brazil some consider one of them to be Joan of Arc. In Haitian Voodoo, Joan of Arc is often associated with Erzulie Dantor in her revolutionary role.  Perhaps if Russell had known that Joan had been syncretized in the African diaspora, he might have included it in his history of Joan's portrayal since her death.

The aspect of this biographical study that I found most useful was Russell’s discussion of all the attempts to diagnose Joan of Arc.  As a physician, his views on this topic seemed authoritative.  I also very much appreciated Russell’s perspective on the the medicalization of spiritual figures.   Those who search for an appropriate diagnosis for this particular saint definitely need to read the trial transcripts thoroughly as Preston Russell has evidently done.

The cover and internal illustrations enhance the experience of reading Lights of Madness, so that it seems less dry and academic.

Although there were a handful of typographical errors, I found the book very readable.  I would recommend it to any reader who wants an in depth exploration of Joan of Arc’s life and a thoughtful evaluation of her psychology based on the extensive evidence available.  


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