Book Review: Lights of Madness

Lights of Madness: In Search of Joan of ArcLights of Madness: In Search of Joan of Arc by Preston Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As fascinating historical figures go, Joan of Arc ranks up there among the most inscrutable and the most tragic. Convinced that she was hearing the voice of God and a few saints, Joan of Arc took off to take back France from the English, and reinstate Charles VII to the throne. While she enjoyed early success, and even had the British on the run, she was eventually captured at Compeigne and burned at the stake in 1431 after a lengthy and far from fair trial. Eventually, Charles VII was successfully reinstated, he initiated a trial of reclamation to clear her verdict of heresy, and centuries later Joan was decared a saint in the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc has been examined from many different perspectives and millieus. She has been the subject of theater, feminist essays, religious festivals, and medical models. Author Preston Russell begins with a blow-by-blow of her trial, and delves a little deeper into her religious motivations (which given the times were also intertwined with her political motivations) and continues with a literature review of her evolving persona and concludes with some medical theories regarding her mental health state, particularly captivating to the author as he is himself a physician.

Like everyone else, a medieval teenage girl leading armies because of voices in her head fascinates me. The fact that there is no Joan of Arc disorder or real medical explanation further bolsters her religious acumen, and I enjoy pundits trying to explain the unexplainable. I found Lights of Madness to be a really thorough and well researched book, and I loved the references to the source material. That being said, it read more like a thesis than a book, and I think it could benefit from some reorganization, or at least clearer sections and author interjections. In fact, I think that rather than just an introduction from the author on how he discovered and was enthralled with the subject, the book would benefit from his description of exactly how he went about finding everything in each section - religious, medical, literature, etc. I know it’s scientifically trendy to pretend to be objective, but everyone comes from somewhere and has reasons to be pulled toward different subjects, and, for me, that helps my own evaluation and conclusions. The author’s personal story is just as important as Joan’s, and just as it was critical to describe how Shaw and Shakespeare treated her story differently, he needs to add his to the pile.

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