Joan of Arc: A History, by Helen Castor

Rachel Moss praises an elegant account that sets a charismatic Maid of Orleans in political context

September 25, 2014

A saint is like a star. A star and a saint shine forever”, concluded Josephine Poole in her 1998 children’s book Joan of Arc. She was undoubtedly echoing the words of Pope Pius X, who 90 years earlier had described the soon-to-be beatified Joan as “a new star destined to be the glory not only of France but of the universal Church as well”. As Helen Castor writes in this illuminating new biography, in the history of 15th-century France the woman known as the Maid of Orleans “shines brighter than that of any other figure”. But although stars may be brilliant, celestial bodies have no agency: their function is to shine, not to want or to think. The motivations and desires of the historic Joan – peasant girl, French woman and 15th-century human being – have been cast into shadow by the blinding light cast by Joan, warrior-saint.

The latter Joan, according to the popular mythology that has seen her immortalised in song, wartime propaganda posters and even the packaging for an American brand of butter beans, was implacable in pursuit of her mission, unshakeable in her faith, untouchable in her virginal purity. She is a worthy patron saint of France, a country that on Joan’s canonisation in 1920 badly needed a heroine. The Joan of traditional narratives had a life trajectory like a shooting star: brief, brilliant and destined for a fiery demise. Yet the Joan of contemporary records seems to have had no desire to be a martyr; she was frightened of the prospect of death by fire, and let down by the heavenly voices who had promised she would be saved from the flames. The destiny Joan believed in was rather different from the one that would be written for her in the decades and centuries after her death.

The Joan of traditional narratives had a life trajectory like a shooting star: brief, brilliant and destined for a fiery demise

This is the problem with treating a historic figure as a star, after all. Not only does the light of their reputation obscure our perception of the real human being behind that fame, but also, as Castor notes, the “vast gravitational pull” of their stardom distorts our reading of history. We shape the narrative to fit the hero’s expected journey. Most accounts of Joan’s life follow a similar pattern, beginning with the quiet of the French countryside interrupted by heavenly visions given to a simple teenage girl, who then goes to the disinherited dauphin Charles and convinces him that God has given her a mission to expel the English and see him crowned as the rightful King of France. She lops off her hair, straps on armour and boldly leads the French to victory on the battlefield, before being captured and martyred by her English foes. There is an intimate appeal to this type of approach, to beginning Joan’s journey with her in the small village of Domrémy and then following her to court to battlefield to interrogation chamber to the pyre. As Joan is one of the most documented people of her time, it makes sense that many readers have come to understand the last years of the messy stretch of battles, assassinations and negotiations known as the Hundred Years War by following in her footsteps.

Castor takes a different approach, and in her book we do not meet Joan until a third of the way through. The first 80-odd pages of Joan of Arc: A History plunge the reader into the aftermath of Agincourt. For the English, this glorious victory by a heavily outnumbered army was simple proof that God supported Henry V’s claim to the throne of France. For the French, matters were more complicated, and Castor masterfully sketches the personal and political rivalries that resulted in the formation of Burgundian and Armagnac factions that soon erupted into open and bloody conflict. This was a time, Castor stresses, that all of France was obsessed with the vexed question of why God had given victory to the English. Defeat was clearly a punishment: but for whose sins? Amid this turmoil, the girl who called herself Joan the Maid (the appellation d’Arc came later; the peasant Jeanne was too humble for a surname) was hardly the first or only visionary who claimed God had given her the key to peace: but she was compelling enough to win the patronage of Anjou’s powerful dowager duchess, Yolande of Aragon, who brought her to the attention of Charles, the dauphin who would be king.

While Castor’s narrative strategy here is not groundbreaking (Nancy Goldstone’s 2012 work The Maid and the Queen features a long opening section on Yolande’s role in French politics and Joan’s ascendancy), the execution is superb, condensing 13 complicated years into three lively chapters that capture both the bloody brutality and the delicate diplomacy of medieval French politics.

The second section of the book follows the course of Joan’s short career as prophet and military leader, and then her trial and execution, set very firmly in the political context of war between England and France. The final 50 pages cover the aftermath of Joan’s death: the defeat of the English, the ascendancy of Charles VII of France, and the rehabilitation of the Maid’s reputation, which transformed her death at the stake from just punishment for heresy to martyrdom for God and for the freedom of France.

God is mentioned a good deal in this book, and Castor thankfully does not attempt to explain away Joan’s visions, as other historians have done, by diagnosing her with a range of psychological or physiological disorders. For a story that cannot escape reference to the divine, however, Castor’s account is surprisingly free of context about late medieval piety that would render explicable not only a sophisticated court’s willingness to believe Joan, but also what cultural contexts might have nurtured the faith of a very young woman to manifest itself in such a way in the first place. While Castor does make a good account of the theological examinations of Joan’s testimonies, we get little sense of religious practice outside the rarefied atmosphere of medieval academia, and the reader may be left with significant questions about the broader social context of Joan’s life. In this respect, too, I was disappointed to find so little here about Joan in her position as a low-status woman. Castor takes it as read that her gender and her birth made her vulnerable to being discredited at best and abused at worst, but as this book is aimed at a wide audience, it seems a missed opportunity to not take advantage of a rich body of scholarship on medieval womanhood to contextualise the reaction of Joan’s contemporaries to both her body and her message.

While this book offers a clear and elegant account of the broader political context of Joan’s life and also gives a sensitive reading of Joan as a determined, charismatic and vulnerable human being, these lacunae may mean that the non-expert reader finds the fast pace of its narrative bewildering. For readers who have some familiarity with medieval history, however, Joan of Arc: A History is an engaging piece of popular scholarship that does not diminish Joan’s star, but instead uses its light to illuminate a remarkable age.

The author

“My parents were academics – linguists – and then became booksellers, so I grew up in a house full of books where words were a subject of fascination,” says Cambridge-born and Leamington Spa-raised historian Helen Castor.

“I suspect my obsession with precision in language (and if you’re saying ‘pedantry’ I can’t hear you) might have something to do with that. Then again, I never learned to ride a bike, which could be a subconscious rejection of my Cambridge background.”

She now lives in London with her husband and son, and admits that they “have shown great forbearance in the face of having Joan of Arc in the house for three years. She can be challenging company.”

As a child, Castor recalls, she “read a lot and always did my homework. I’m practising being more rebellious now – although putting it that way makes it sound like homework again. My parents never pushed but were always utterly supportive – the ideal combination. And I had wonderful, warm and challenging history teachers, Mary Yates and Helen Lenygon; I dedicated my last book to them as the smallest of thank yous.”

Her time as a University of Cambridge undergraduate, Castor recalls, was “a happy one – I loved history and I loved hanging out with my friends. Still do.”

She directed studies in history at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, for eight years, and then traded the academy for writing and broadcasting, although she remains a fellow of the college.

“I miss the good friends among my colleagues of whom I don’t now see enough,” she says, “and the luxury of having the Cambridge University Library on my doorstep. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I couldn’t do without everything I learned from my academic training and experience, but I love the portmanteau career I have now.”

Castor co-presents the BBC Radio 4 series Making History, and in 2012 presented a three-part TV documentary for BBC Four based on her book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth.

Which medium does she prefer? “Radio is much more fleet-footed: lighter on equipment, shorter on prep time - and when recording on location, for example, background noise adds to the soundscape
rather than getting in the way and holding the whole process up. It has a wonderful fluidity and lightness.

“Television is a bigger, more cumbersome enterprise – there’s much more to worry about, including how to eat lunch in a cream silk blouse – but it’s fantastic fun,” Castor observes. “Filming is an intense process and sometimes very stressful, but as a result it can be intensely bonding – and I think I’ve laughed more on shoots, and learned more in a very short space of time, than in any other work I’ve done.”

Turning to the world Joan of Arc inhabited, did the England and France of the day resemble each other more closely than their 21st-century versions?

She replies: “The aristocratic cultures of late medieval France and England had a great deal in common – unsurprisingly, given that the ruling classes of England were Norman French in origin. But by Joan’s lifetime the differences were becoming more pronounced. Decades of war between the two kingdoms had helped to sharpen a sense of national identity on both sides of the Channel, and by the early 15th century English was being used instead of French at the English royal court and in many areas of government. 

When the English did speak French, their accent and pronunciation were increasingly difficult for the French to understand. The French also thought that the English drank and swore a great deal, and that their cooking was terrible. (Plus ça change, clearly.)  But the war that Joan fought wasn’t just a war against the English; it was a civil war within France, in which many French men and women were prepared to recognise the king of England as their own rightful monarch. Then, as now, states weren’t immutable, and with just a few different turns in the war – without Joan, for example – the shape of the two kingdoms might have changed significantly.”

One might expect that, so many centuries later, there is little residual guilt in England about perfidious Albion’s role in Joan’s death – but do the French still hold a grudge? And would Castor expect her book to be read in France with a keen eye for national bias?

Castor says: “When occupied Rouen was bombed by the Allies in the Second World War, the Vichy regime responded with a poster of Joan kneeling amid the burning rubble of the city in which she died, under the caption ‘Murderers always return to the scene of their crime’. 

“I don’t think the French have forgotten the role of the English in her death – although from the moment the civil war ended, a great deal of effort did go into forgetting the fact that her trial (if not her eventual execution) was conducted by her French opponents, not her English ones. It’s a symptom of Joan’s extraordinary capacity to be all things to all people that she’s been co-opted by so many causes across national boundaries – there are wonderful photographs of suffragettes marching through London in the early 20th century led by a fully armed ‘Joan’ on a white charger – while at the same time remaining a French national heroine par excellence. 

She concludes: “I don’t think I or any British writer embarking on her story could expect anything less than a keen eye from the other side of the Channel.”

Asked if readers of history and fiction (not to mention television viewers, theatregoers and cinema buffs) will ever tire of the Tudors, Castor responds: “Short answer? No. The stories are too good, the characters too big, and Holbein’s portraits too perceptive. It would be like getting tired of Shakespeare or the Bible.”

And as readers continue to enjoy the gift of compelling histories such as Castor’s, what gift would she ask for, were a good fairy to offer her anything she did not now possess?

“First, I’d ask the good fairy to remove my unsurpassed talent for creating an essay crisis, whatever I happen to be writing. I suspect most of the other things I’d like to be able to do (play the guitar, speak Italian properly, maybe even ride a bike) I should just get on with.

“But what I’d really love – if the good fairy is prepared to flex her muscles – would be to know how it feels to be a great actor. I spend so much time trying to inhabit historical characters in writing; it would be fascinating to do the same in person.”

Karen Shook

Joan of Arc: A History

By Helen Castor
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £20.00
ISBN 97805712846
Published 2 October 2014

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