Joan of Arc: A History review – a new window on to a strange chapter in French history

Helen Castor’s attempt to put Joan of Arc in context impresses, even if its subject remains elusive

On 8 May 1429, a 17-year-old French peasant girl sat facing the English army north of Orléans. She was on horseback, in full armour, her hair shorn like a boy’s, and she was the unlikely commander of several thousand men. Around her, the French soldiers were eager to advance but she restrained them. For an hour the armies paused, immobile, outfacing each other in a battle of nerves. Then the English turned in retreat, leaving Joan and her troops in command of the city.

This was the culmination of a miraculous four-day battle in which Joan had effortlessly lifted a six-month siege imposed on Orléans by the usurping English. Driven from her home by heavenly voices, this adolescent, illiterate girl had succeeded in persuading France’s disinherited heir, the Dauphin Charles, to believe that she had been sent by God to save France from its English yoke. Soon she would lead him triumphantly through one English stronghold after another to Reims, where she would preside over his coronation as King Charles VII. A year later, Joan was taken prisoner by the English and burned at the stake as a heretic. Now she is Saint Joan of Arc and has her own national holiday in France.

In telling Joan’s story, Helen Castor has decided to make Joan herself present for only a third of the narrative action. This is a surprising choice but it’s a responsible one because it allows us to see how this bizarre episode was possible, transposing Joan’s story from fairytale to history.

Castor begins her account in 1415 with the battle of Agincourt, when Henry V of England won the decisive victory against the French that eventually led King Charles VI of France to take the unlikely step of disinheriting his own son and naming an English monarch as his heir. She takes us through the 14 long and bloody years of pointless battle that followed, leaving France riven between the competing but hardly compelling claims of the seven-year-old King Henry VI of England and the puny, cowardly Dauphin, known to the French as Charles the ill-advised. Increasingly, Charles’s supporters were too busy murdering one another to focus on the English. While attempting to defend Orléans during the original English siege, they lost a battle for an English provisions train with a French-to-English death toll of 400 to four.

It was into this world that Joan arrived. Charles was now desperate enough that he would have listened to almost anyone. Hoping for a miracle, he was prepared to believe that his courageous visitor was heaven-sent. Having scrupulously investigated both the spiritual credentials and the physical virginity of the girl who titled herself Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maiden), he provided her with an army and some hasty military training.

Charles’s desperate confidence paid off. Despite her piety, Joan turned out to be decidedly bellicose. “The King of Heaven orders and commands you, through me… to abandon your strongholds and go back to your country,” she informed the “men of England who have no right in this kingdom of France. If not, I will make a war cry that will be remembered for ever.” This is just what she did, urging on her soldiers even when severely wounded herself, undeterred by the corpses piling up around her or the anxiety of Charles’s military strategists.

Where did this extraordinary self-confidence come from, if not from St Catherine and St Margaret as Joan claimed? This is a question that Castor leaves unanswered, avoiding in-depth psychological analysis of her heroine in a book that is more a military history of France than a biography of the woman variously described in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 as “France’s saint”, a witch and a “high-minded strumpet”.

We empathise with France rather than with Joan and sometimes I was left wishing that Castor would speculate more freely about the motivation of the woman she memorably describes as “a roaring girl”. Castor writes about the battles with astonishing beauty, making the complicated politics of the time unusually exciting and imbuing history with page-turning momentum. It must have been tempting to extend the same novelistic reach to her heroine.

But despite the surfeit of third-person accounts of Joan there is a paucity of first-person evidence, so Castor is perhaps right to leave it to the novelists, playwrights and film-makers to try out Joan’s own point of view. Certainly her book will help us make more sense of the strange world portrayed by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, or Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. It offers both a new window on to that strange moment when France was ruled by an English child king and a reminder that the compelling story of Jeanne la Pucelle occupies only 13 months in an atrophying 100-year war.

Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury).

Joan of Arc: A History is published by Faber (£20). Click here to buy it for £16


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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