The New York Times Book Review: Joan of Arc: A History,’ by Helen Castor

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host — infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. For the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view), with the emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.

These women — and they’re almost always women — become the public’s playthings in perpetuity. Stripped of truth, deprived of personhood, they can be claimed and used by anyone for any purpose. Exhibit A is Joan of Arc, simultaneously canonized by Pope Benedict XV and the women’s suffrage movement; sometime mascot of 19th-century French republicans, 20th-century Vichy France and the 21st-century National Front. She has over a dozen operas and several dozen movies to her name. And she’s the single thread that unites a bewilderingly diverse crowd of playwrights, writers, philosophers, poets and novelists, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Robert Southey, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West and Bertolt Brecht.

No wonder the British historian Helen Castor begins her highly satisfying biography of Joan of Arc by stating the obvious: “In the firmament of history,” the Maid of Orléans is a “massive star” whose “light shines brighter than that of any other figure of her time and place.” Indeed, Castor insists, Joan’s star still shines. But what a travesty if all people can see is the reflected vainglory of their own desires.

Castor’s corrective approach to the problem of Joan’s fame is to turn the mirror outward, changing the point of view from Joan herself to the times in which she lived. Follow her too closely, Castor argues, and “it can seem, unnervingly, as though Joan’s star might collapse into a black hole.” To those who think they know her story, this statement might seem unnerving. But Castor doesn’t mean the facts are wrong or need revising.

Joan was born to a moderately prosperous tenant farming family around 1412. In February 1429, against all the odds, she persuaded Charles VII to allow her to lead an army to relieve the city of Orléans from its seven-month-long siege by the English. Over the next few months, she enjoyed a series of spectacular victories. Galvanized by her presence on the battlefield, the French took back their cities and towns from the English (and their French allies) one after another, beginning with Orléans. Charles was crowned king on July 17 in the cathedral at Reims with Joan standing proudly beside him. But then, on Sept. 8, the Joan juggernaut came to a grinding halt before the gates of Paris.

The following May, she was captured by pro-English French forces at Compiègne. The last phase of her life began in November 1430 when she was sold to the English for 10,000 francs. They wanted her for the simple reason that killing her would not be enough to undermine Charles VII’s claim to the throne: They had to destroy her reputation and any hint of divine legitimacy she had conferred on him.

The interrogation and show trial by handpicked French clerics lasted until May 1431. Central to the charge of heresy was her transgressive behavior against medieval gender roles, particularly with regard to her wearing of men’s clothes. After the sentence was announced, she was paraded through Rouen before being burned with slow deliberation in front of thousands of spectators.

For sheer drama, the story of Joan of Arc needs no embellishment, but without proper context its meaning is easily twisted. Castor’s great coup is in framing this biography within not just one but two contexts. The first, explaining the culture and politics that created the opportunity for a militaristic maid, takes up roughly a third of the book, leaving Joan herself to appear on Page 89. By working forward from the early decades of the Hundred Years’ War, as the Anglo-French struggle for the French throne is called, Castor is able to demonstrate the varying degrees of gravitational force exerted by contingency, expediency, sectarianism and nationalism on the people who determined Joan’s fate.

The siege of Orléans was the turning point. After more than 90 years of bloodshed, treachery and civil strife, Joan’s demonstrable promise that she could deliver France back to the French seemed to show that God was on their side. But what did that mean if the population was divided between two factions, the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, each with its own vision of dynastic power and national boundaries? Castor argues that those who opposed Joan believed they had a moral cause, from the Roman Catholic Church, which shuddered at her claim of individual conscience over blind obedience, to the bourgeois citizens of Paris, who felt more affinity with the commercial cities of Flanders than with the southern provinces ruled by the Armagnacs.

All this is entirely convincing and gripping, but what makes Castor’s biography notable is the other context she subtly weaves through the narrative. Related with little fanfare or highlighting, it puts the women back into the story. The only time Joan’s life became truly an all-male affair was during the orgy of misogyny that passed as her trial. Contrary to the sword-and-crucifix chronicles of the Middle Ages, there was more to the Hundred Years’ War than the blood spilled on the battlefield. The women were there too. And Castor focuses on two whose actions were crucial: Isabeau, the mother of Charles VII, and Yolande, Duchess of Anjou, his mother-in-law. Yolande, Castor observes, “had what Armagnac France needed . . . the insight to perceive God’s plan that France should be reunited under Charles’s kingship, and to comprehend how it might be brought about.” That plan involved both helping Joan to reach Charles and upholding her claim to be the handmaiden of God. After Joan’s death, Yolande used her formidable talent for deal-making to shore up Armagnac support. In Castor’s words, “a queen’s gambit was already in play.”

Earlier this year, the city of Rouen opened a new museum dedicated to Joan of Arc, intended in part to rescue her image from the myths that have surrounded it. Castor’s book is another important way of returning Joan’s “star” to the realm where it belongs, the human one.


A History

By Helen Castor

Illustrated. 328 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

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