Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

Cover of Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

Cover of Joan of Arc by Helen Castor.

Helen Castor's Joan of Arc is more of a history of Joan's times, and the portion of the Hundred Years' War in which she played a leading role, than a biography.  The subtitle, A History, is very appropriate.  Castor begins her book in 1415 with the victory of the English under Henry V over the French at the Battle of Agincourt, an event which will be familiar to everyone who has seen Shakespeare's Henry V or one of its film adaptations.  This battle, which to the French was a catastrophic defeat, set the stage for the part of the war in which Joan was involved.

Not only had the French suffered a string of defeats, of which Agincourt was the most famous, but they were divided among themselves, between Burgundians and Armagnacs.  This came about through a complicated series of events, which Castor details in the first section of her book, before Joan arrives on the scene.  Joan herself does not actually appear until about a third of the way through the book.  A series of tragedies took place, on both sides of the war, in the few years following Agincourt.  The French king, Charles VI, suffered from a mental illness that made him unable to rule.  At first his oldest son, the Dauphin Louis, ruled in his place, but Louis and his younger brother died within a short time of each other.  The third son, Charles, was only fifteen at the time, and considered too young to rule.  And so various noblemen and royal relatives struggled with each other for power.

A major figure in the conflict was the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, who was a relative of the King of France, but who owned lands in both France and the Holy Roman Empire, which meant he also owed loyalty to the Emperor.  His relations with his cousin, Charles VI, were strained, and he did not send an army to Agincourt, which might have contributed to the French defeat.  The Duke of Burgundy had powerful enemies at court, including the Count of Armagnac, who lent his name to the rival faction.  Things came to a head when the Duke of Burgundy was murdered by followers of the Dauphin Charles during peace talks between Burgundians and Armagnacs.  As Castor says, it is not known for certain how deeply the Dauphin was involved in the Duke's murder.  Some say he was very deeply involved, while others say he was too young to have known everything that was going on.  Of course, Charles always denied involvement.

Charles' supposed role in the Duke of Burgundy's murder gave his father a reason to disinherit him.  The 1420 treaty at which Henry V's marriage to Charles VI's daughter Catherine was arranged named the son of Henry and Catherine as the heir to both kingdoms, which meant the Dauphin Charles would never rule.  Meanwhile, the new Duke of Burgundy, Philip, was determined to avenge his father, and allied himself openly with the English.  Charles and his Armagnac court were forced into exile in southern France, although a few small areas in the north held out for them.  The English occupiers held Paris, but the seat of their government was Rouen, in Normandy.  They ruled most of northern France, with other areas under the control of their allies the Burgundians.

The crisis escalated in 1422, when Henry V died, followed shortly afterwards by his father-in-law, Charles VI.  That left his infant son, Henry VI, King of England and (at least for the English occupiers) King of France.  Because the new king was so young, the two kingdoms would be ruled by a regent for many years.  This regent was the young king's uncle, John of Bedford, Henry V's younger brother, who sealed his alliance with Philip, the Duke of Burgundy, by marrying Philip's sister.  Meanwhile, the disinherited Dauphin Charles and his supporters, the Armagnacs, were determined to regain the throne for Charles, but they suffered a series of disastrous defeats in the 1420s.  That is, until a warrior maiden appeared on the scene.

Helen Castor does not say very much about Joan's childhood.  I have to say that is my one disappointment with the book.  I decided to read it after finishing a wonderful recent novel about Joan of Arc called Joan by Katherine J. Chen.  Joan's childhood is one of the highlights of that novel, but I wondered how much was true and how much was the author's invention.  Castor's book does not really answer that question, so people who want to know more about Joan's childhood will have to look elsewhere.

Joan makes her first appearance in Castor's book at the age of 17, in 1429, when she arrived at Charles' castle at Chinon, south of the River Loire, and asked him for an army to raise the siege of Orléans.  The city of Orléans, at a strategic point on the River Loire, had been under siege by the English for a long time, and Charles saw little hope of raising the siege.  Castor suggests that Charles' mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, played a leading role in his decision to give her an army.  The novel by Katherine Chen also portrays Yolande as a strong figure, and an early supporter of Joan.  She is a fascinating person, a member of the Anjou dynasty, who called herself Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, and insisted on using those titles, even though the Kingdom of Jerusalem was long gone and Sicily was divided into two kingdoms, only one of which, in mainland Italy based in Naples, was ruled by Yolande's family.  Yolande was convinced that Joan was sent by God, and that her voices and visions of saints were of divine origin.

Before Charles would give Joan an army, she had to undergo a series of tests.  Several theologians questioned her about her voices and visions to make certain they were genuine and that they were angelic, not demonic, in origin, and Joan was examined to make sure she was a virgin because the belief at the time was that only a virgin could be pure enough to have been sent by God.  Joan underwent several such examinations during her short life, including one by the court that was determined to condemn her, and all found that she was a virgin.  After Joan passed the theologians' tests, Charles decided that she was, in fact, sent by God, and decided to give her an army to raise the siege of Orléans.

The battle that followed seemed miraculous to the French.  Joan and her army took only four days to raise the long-lasting siege.  She herself was wounded by an arrow, but she pulled the arrow out and fought on, in spite of being in horrible pain.  The people of Orléans worshiped her, and continued to do so for many years, even after her death.  Castor does an excellent job of writing about the belief, at that time, in divine intervention in war.  Henry V had believed that God had been on his side at Agincourt.  The Armagnac French thought they were suffering from God's disfavor after all their defeats.  The tide began to turn at Orléans, where Joan and Charles believed that God had seen that the Armagnac cause was right, and was now on their side.  Joan's voices and visions were believed to be a sign of that favor.

Orléans led to several more victories for Joan, which culminated in Charles' coronation in Reims as Charles VII.  Reims Cathedral was the place in which the kings of France had been crowned, for many years.  Charles had to be crowned with borrowed regalia, though, because the ancient regalia was at Saint-Denis, near Paris, which still lay in the hands of the English.  Charles' coronation saw Joan at the height of her powers and fame.  But there were those who resented Joan's fame, and she gained several powerful enemies at Charles' court, including the Archbishop of Reims.  Joan wanted to retake Paris from the English, but her enemies, increasingly, had Charles' attention, and he would not give her a large enough army to take Paris.  She was determined to try with the army she had, but the attempt resulted in disaster.  This was the first of a series of defeats for Joan, and her enemies believed, and tried to convince Charles, that she had not been sent by God and that her visions came from the Devil.  They even tried to set up a rival to Joan, a peasant boy named William the Shepherd, who they thought was divinely inspired.

In 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians at Compiègne.  She hoped that Charles would ransom her, but the Burgundians had other ideas.  They sold her to the English, who were determined to have such a powerful enemy put to death as a heretic.  They took her to Rouen, their seat of government in France, for trial.  The story of Joan's trial is compellingly told, and Castor makes the reader really feel for her.  At the same time, Castor mentions some of the problems that Joan's trial presents.  It is because of the transcripts of her trial, and the later, posthumous, trial to clear her name, which took place 25 years later, that we know so much more about Joan's life than about the lives of many other people of her time.  The trials themselves were conducted in French, but the official proceedings were published in a Latin translation, in which many details may have been lost or mistranslated.  Also, the trial to clear Joan's name took place many years later, when the people who knew her may have forgotten many things about her, or only remembered what they wanted to remember.  Each trial had its own biases: the first was determined to condemn her, while the second, which was conducted by the French after they had won the war, was determined to find her not guilty.

It is in the section about Joan's trial that we learn the few details about her childhood that Castor presents.  Joan's village, Domrémy, was in an interesting location in terms of the war: the northeast of France, in a tiny Armagnac area surrounded by Burgundian land, and close to the border with the Holy Roman Empire.  The next village, in fact, was Burgundian.  The area had been raided by the English and Burgundians for many years.  Castor does not express an opinion on the nature of Joan's voices and visions and whether or not they were genuine.  The theologians who questioned her at Charles' request when she first appeared at court insisted the visions came from God, but the theologians on the side of the English, who questioned her at her trial, were determined to show that her visions were either invented, or came from the Devil.  Castor does present an intriguing theory that suggests Joan's voices came from the sound of church bells.  She always heard her voices when the church bells were ringing, and Castor says people do sometimes hear voices when they hear church bells.  But it is impossible to say whether this was the origin of Joan's voices or not, or even if this is what Castor actually believes.

One of the chief accusations against Joan was that she wore men's clothing, which was against an order in the Bible, and so was considered heretical.  The trial, of course, ended in Joan's condemnation.  At first she recanted in order to save her life, and said her visions did not come from God, and that she would go back to wearing women's clothing.  She was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison.  A few days later, she changed her mind and said she'd had her visions again, and put on men's clothing once more.  Castor suggests that the threat of sexual assault by her guards led Joan to wear men's clothing again.  Her relapse into "heresy" was what led to her being condemned to be burned at the stake at the age of 19.

The last two chapters of the book are among the most fascinating.  They cover the end of the war, with the breakup of the English-Burgundian alliance and the triumph of Charles and the Armagnac forces.  Not long after Charles was established in his kingdom, he ordered the trial to clear Joan's name, which was successful, although, sadly, she was not alive to see it.  Her mother and two of her brothers were still alive, and living in Orléans after being ennobled by Charles.  The epilogue discusses her canonization as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920.

I highly recommend this book for what it is: a history of Joan's times.  Readers who are primarily interested in Joan's life will have to look elsewhere.  Also, Castor does not say very much about Joan as a feminist icon, although she does mention Joan's older contemporary, the writer Christine de Pizan, and how her writings in praise of Joan were probably the first works to present her as a feminist icon.  But there are many other books that deal with those aspects of Joan of Arc.  Castor's book is an excellent, and well-written, history of her times.

Joan of Arc is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.