🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
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…)
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.
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.
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.