Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

joan of arcMore history than biography…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Helen Castor begins this retelling of the life of Joan the Maid by explaining that, although her story is better documented than most from this period, it isn’t always possible to take the sources at face value. Since her legend was being created while she was still alive, and since so much hung on the idea of which side in the war had the support of God, then an inevitable bias has to be expected in the various accounts of her actions and words. So Castor has set out to put Joan’s story into the context of the times, and to do that she starts fourteen years before Joan appears, taking us back to Agincourt, and then working forward.

This is a fairly short book, actually more history than biography. It’s well-written and therefore easy to read, and Castor explains the various alliances and enmities clearly – having very little previous knowledge of the period, I was able to follow the various shifting loyalties without too much difficulty, and undoubtedly feel better informed about the events and personalities of the time. She describes the background to the feud between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs which split the French resistance to the English claim to the throne. And she shows how the English policy towards any final peace was circumscribed by the infancy of the King (after Henry V’s death), with his regent in France, the Duke of Bedford, feeling unable to reach decisions to which young Henry VI might object when he came to power. (Unfortunately, from my perspective, she also thoroughly explained the Scottish involvement in the war – on the side of the Armagnac French and against the English, of course – which could briefly be summed up as ‘We came, we saw, we got slaughtered’. Oh well, at least we tried…)

Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty
Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty

By taking this approach, by the time of Joan’s arrival on the scene, Castor had built up enough of a picture of the near desperation of the Armagnac faction that it made it slightly less inexplicable why they would have been willing to give credence to this young girl, claiming to have been sent by God to lead an army and ensure the coronation of Charles VII. But only slightly. Though Castor does make clear the importance of religious symbolism and signs at the period, I felt that the crucial point of how exactly Joan got access to the French King remained a little vague. Castor tells us the events – when it happened, who accompanied her, etc., – but left me with no real feeling of why initially any of the important men around the King took her seriously. However, once having rather shimmied past that bit, Castor’s descriptions of Joan’s involvement in the war and subsequent capture and trial are very well told, with the various political pressures on all sides being clearly explained.

So as history the book works well, especially for someone like myself coming new to the period, though I did wonder if it was in depth enough to add much for people with a reasonable existing understanding of the people and events. I didn’t feel it worked quite so well as biography however. Perhaps there isn’t enough information available to make it possible, but I didn’t come away from it feeling that I really understood Joan as a person. There is little about her background prior to her arriving at Charles’ court, and after that, although the events are well described, somehow her personality didn’t seem to come through.

Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer
Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer

There only seem to be two possibilities about Joan – either she actually was God’s emissary on earth or she was mentally ill. Castor rather oddly doesn’t seem to take a view on that. On the one hand, I felt strongly that she was implicitly ruling out the possibility of Joan being visited by angels telling her that God was on France’s side, or more specifically on the side of the Armagnacs. But, on the other hand, she really gave no other interpretation. Not that I’m a great fan of retrospective diagnosis of mental illnesses, but I felt the possibility at least needed to be discussed. The result was that she remained a rather nebulous figure, to me at least.

Helen Castor
Helen Castor

Happily Castor doesn’t end the story with Joan’s death. She continues with the history of the war up to the point where the English were finally driven out of France – she doesn’t delve into it in depth but covers it well enough so that it provides a satisfactory overview. And she also continues Joan’s story after death, with the various reviews of her trial that eventually led to her being declared innocent of heresy. The epilogue tells the final chapter in her story – her canonisation as a saint in 1920.

Overall, I found this an interesting and informative read which, while it perhaps didn’t wholly satisfy me as a biography, worked very well as an introduction to the history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber Ltd.

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36 thoughts on “Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

  1. FIctionFan – As ever, a thorough and well-written review. Like you, I find Joan the Maid to be a rather enigmatic figure, ‘though fascinating. It would indeed be really interesting to know a lot more about her. Still, the history part of the book does sound well-researched and thoughtful (if in places bluntly honest about the involvement of different forces – ahem). Definitely it sounds like something I might enjoy reading.

    • Thank you, Margot! Yes, I found her explanations of the historical background very clear, and suspect it might not be possible to really get at Joan’s personality because all the contemporaneous sources were already mythologising her. It still seems like such a strange story…but fascinating.

  2. Mind you, there’s nothing like Shaw’s St Joan for making her come alive!

    Maybe a century and a country which is (more or less) used to debunking messianic visions AS delusions finds it particularly impossible to go back to a time when it would have been much easier to believe in messianic visions than delusion as the fact. Particularly when I guess such strangeness would most likely have been diagnosed as either god given, or satan’s gift.

    After all, look at the numbers of people who even in THIS day, age and time get swayed by the fervour of strong willed, absolutely convinced people, and surrender to their messages.

    • Oddly, I’ve never seen or read it. I wonder how it compares with the truth – whatever that might be.

      Yes, it was really because she was a nobody that it seemed odd. Had she been a lady of the court I could have seen her getting access more easily – but to turn up from nowhere and demand an army and be given one… and for the soldiers to be willing to follow her – it still all seems unbelievable somehow.

  3. St. Joan was definitely an interesting person – it’s a pity a better portrait of her was not painted. She fascinates me, though.

    People always like to claim that God is on their side. It’s a dangerous assumption at best unless God clearly indicates that he is on peoples sides. Either way, with St. Joan continues to be a mystery in many ways.

  4. . From about 1000 to !500 AD, France was swept by one divinely inspired movement after another (as, indeed, was much of mainland Europe). What makes Joan unusual is that she was female, that she was given an army and that she caught the public imagination enough to be remembered Lots of “miracle workers”, “prophets” etc., made it to court, but Joan must have been something special, since she didn’t suffer the usual fate which was to be treated as part of the entertainment. I’ll look out for this one – I haven’t read any French history for a while.

    • Yes, that was what I felt she glossed over a bit – why she got taken seriously at that first stage. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it – but it was really you I was thinking about when I said that I wasn’t sure if it would add much for people who already know about that period. I had the feeling it might be a bit ‘entry level’, but I might be being unfair.

  5. Stellar review! Poor Joan…I think you’re picking on her. She was successful for a bit. Maybe the devil was speaking to her? It is an interest to consider how exactly she did get before the king…I bet it was all propaganda from the day! I mean, the English would feel horrible if they had a girl beat them, so that’s what the French did! Nah, that doesn’t sound right either…

    Why do you suppose she had to wait so long to become a saint?

    • Yay! A stellar! It’s been ages… *grins*

      Yes, I should have mentioned that possibility since that was what the English claimed. Actually, oddly enough I’d find that easier to believe than that God would take one side or another, where neither side was more evil than the other. But, poor girl, I suspect she was just ill. I have to admit I enjoyed reading about the English being beaten by a girl myself, especially after what they did to the Scots… *waves Scottish flag*

      Apparently, she was kind of forgotten about for centuries – or at least only remembered as a historical figure rather than a religious one – until some bishop or other started campaigning for her to be made a saint in the 19th century. And from then it took about fifty years…

      • You know, maybe Zez was talking with her. That’s a possibility, for sure. But…how’d she do that with the army? It was a lie, I tell you!

        *laughs* Now, if Vin Diesel was leading the English, they would have fetched Joan straightaway.

        • Yes, that sounds more likely – and I’m delighted to know that Zez was supporting the French rather than the English. I don’t know – somehow I just can’t believe that loads of experienced soldiers were willing to follow a 17-year-old girl who’d never fought. But they did…

          Excuse me, sir, but the English were the baddies!! So Vin would have had to practice a French accent…

            • So they say but… French soldiers giving up drinking? Nah, not possible!!

              Have I ever mentioned that I love men with French accents? Does Schwarzy speak French? *prepares to swoon*

            • *laughs* Now, now…it’s probably like the professor giving up muffins.

              You do?! What a lovely contradiction you are… *laughs more* No, I bet not. He can only squeak like a loon.

            • *laughs* I hope you don’t eat as many muffins as Frenchmen drink wine…

              Haha! Am I? I think I like that! Oh, you’re always so mean about my Schwarzy! One day, if you’re good, I may tell you the story about FF, the French policemen and the picnic…

            • Get Ruber to bake you a batch…

              Well, OK…despite how unlikely this sounds it is a truthfully true story… To celebrate my 21st birthday (the first one!) my friend and I went to Paris for the weekend. On the Saturday night, as one does when one is 21 and in Paris, we imbibed rather freely of the old vin rouge, and perhaps a couple of bieres might have snuck in there too. So when my pal suggested, at 2 am, that we should go see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, it seemed like a jolliferous idea. Unbeknownst to us, some protest group had been trying to put out the Eternal Flame that burns there, so when we trotted up in the middle of the night, we were gobsmacked when two gendarmes (policemen) leapt out from hiding and accosted us. Fortunately they soon realised we were just a couple of tipsy tourists and moved into usual Frenchman mode – ie flirt with all women on principle. As it happens, they were young, attractive and wearing dinky little uniforms complete with guns… so we flirted right back. Not easy, given that they spoke no English, my pal spoke no French and I was far from fluent! But I got landed with interpreting. I had just explained that it was my birthday when one of the gendarmes said something, and I said “I think he just asked if we were hungry” to which my pal, never at a loss, said “Well, say yes, and see what happens!” So I did… and one of them went off to talk on his radio…and then nothing seemed to happen… but by that time they were showing us their guns so we kind of forgot about it…

              …until 15 minutes later, a police van drew up and out popped another 4 gendarmes, complete with picnic! Including wine! Which we all shared underneath the Arc de Triomphe at 3am, and then they let us go up the inside of the Arc and see the night-time views of Paris. Such fun!

            • *chuckles* Yes, France is a great place to have adventures! Sadly, the combination of language difficulties and copious wine supplies means I’m not sure if I ever knew what kind of guns – but handguns rather than sub-machine guns!

            • D’you know, I was thinking about that while I was telling the story – no, I don’t think we could have had a camera with us (pre-cameras-on-phones days) – I don’t think I’ve got any pics of that break at all. But that’s good – it means I can remember them as gorgeous without any evidence to the contrary…! *daydreams*

    • I’m the same Rebecca – that’s why I started reading history a few years back, and discovered how much more readbale history books are now than back when I was at school or uni. This is a good, well written one, and shorter than most of them!

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