Book Festival: Joan of Arc’s mad, mad world

Dr. Preston Russell excavates nuggets of truth and debunks the rest.

Retired Savannah physician Preston Russell applies his diagnostic skills to Joan of Arc’s mental capacities in his new book, Lights of Madness.
Retired Savannah physician Preston Russell applies his diagnostic skills to Joan of Arc’s mental capacities in his new book, Lights of Madness.

SHE MAY have heard mysterious voices and charged her way like a banshee onto the battlefield, but Joan of Arc wasn't necessarily a nut job.

At least that’s the position of Lights of Madness, the latest book from local author and historian Dr. Preston Russell. Using the original transcripts of the trial against the 19 year-old French maiden, Russell recounts what actually occurred in that courtroom back in 1431 before she was burned at the stake as a cross-dressing heretic.

This sets the stage for a rollicking analysis of almost 600 more years of judgment about Joan: Though posthumously exonerated by Pope Callixtus III 25 years later and canonized as a saint in 1920, theories abound that mental illness or compulsive lying were responsible for the hallucinations that inspired the plucky virgin to take back Paris.

Russell collates all of them, excavating nuggets of truth and debunking the rest. Most intriguing is the examination of Joan’s supposed schizophrenia from a modern clinical perspective.

A former physician as well as an accomplished painter, Dr. Russell became interested in Joan of Arc after he and his wife, Barbara, visited her birthplace. Noticing the lack of scientific inquiry into her famous “voices,” he spent six years researching Lights of Madness, and the result may the most comprehensive evaluation yet.

Joan of Arc has been dead for almost 600 years! How can there possibly be anything new to say about her?

Preston Russell: It's true, Joan of Arc is such a staple. At least three books a year come out about her—there are 12,000 in France alone! And they're all pretty much the same book. I wanted to do something different.

I didn't want to be radical and just invent things, but I wanted to go sideways and show how she got to be a world icon. I also wanted to examine her life from a psychiatric analysis of voices, looking at Freudian and Jungian models as well as brain research.

What inspired you to go back to the actual transcript of her trial?

Preston Russell: There were actually two trials; the first before her execution in 1431. It was a very political trial, conducted by the church with theologians chosen by a French party that were all in bed with England. Today there survive five transcripts of the first trial—three are written in Latin, two are in French. One is in the Vatican, another is in the British Museum...the whole thing is available in book format and on the internet. You can read everything she said.

The second trial came 15 years after Joan was executed. She had pretty cleared the way for Charles VII to become the king of France, and he wanted to clear her name with “a trial of reclamation.” That transcript survived, too.

I realized that other than her legend, her story was recorded just like any other trial—and we love trials, don’t we? So you get to see exactly what happened in the trial of someone who was executed in 1431. The book’s first couple of chapters are verbatim—it’s just as accurate as watching the O.J. Simpson trial.

How has the history held up?

Preston Russell: You know, people think she was burned at the stake and instantly became an icon. But that wasn't the case at all. You have to fast-forward through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when French scholar Jules Michelet got curious and tracked down these records. He translated the trial records from the Latin; before that, no one knew about them, even though they knew about the legend of Joan of Arc.

If you’re familiar with Chaucer and Middle English, this is sort of written in “Middle French.” It came out to the world, and subsequently within a generation she was reclaimed by people like Mark Twain—who used to say his book about Joan of Arc was his best work—and the French writer Anatole France, who brought her out of legend into the realm of “this really happened.”

So how did her legend survive all those years?

Preston Russell: Word of mouth, I suppose. Like the legend of Paul Revere's ride.

Of course there are plenty of paintings, too, but there are no from-life images of Joan Arc. There are doodles from some Burgundian guy who drew what he'd about her in real time, but that's a caricature.

What was so compelling about her that she was able to wield so much influence?

Preston Russell: Well, that's the real miracle of Joan of Arc, isn't it? How could a 17 year-old appear out of the boondocks and make a bunch of middle-aged military guys do what she said? That's the mystery—you can take the theories of God out of it, that she was crazy, all of it, but still, how did that happen?

But it’s there. In her first trial, she says that when Archangel Michel came to her and told her to save France, she despaired because she didn’t know how to ride a horse and didn’t know anything about warfare. Then—voila!— five years later she has this uncanny ability to look a town and devise a military strategy.

Why explore her madness from a clinical perspective?

Preston Russell: It's my one contribution that other books about Joan of Arc don't go into. I examine every medical opinion from the 1800s on and show that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is totally inaccurate.

Everyone knows the word schizophrenia, that it’s associated with hallucinations and hearing voices. But I trained in psychiatry for a period, and schizophrenics are pretty helpless people. There’s no way she was schizophrenic. We now know a lot more about brain science and mental illness, and it just doesn’t fit.

In 1990, one writer even put Joan of Arc through the hoops of the DSM, the main diagnostic manual of psychiatry, and put her up against the symptoms of schizophrenia, applying the modern methods, and she didn’t have it.

Not bad for a teenage girl, huh? Do you think she’ll ever be forgotten?

Preston Russell: No. Certainly not in France, but probably not by the world, ever.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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