“How foolish were all those lesser men who have risked death to fight a war so easily forgotten by the great.”
There is no quote that perhaps sums up the reader’s emotions after devouring historian Helen Castor’s newest bloody book, Joan of Arc: A History, which tackles the popular saint’s role in the Hundred Years’ War. Castor’s account is filled with gruesome murders, even more gruesome accidents, and layers of intrigue that make Game of Thrones look like child’s play.
Joan of Arc has long been a troublesome figure for historians. Existing documentation of her life and her trial for heresy is unreliable in many ways. There is the issue of language, as her French was translated into a lawyer’s Latin. Then there are the contradictions between her heresy trial in 1431 at Rouen in English Normandy, and her retrial in 1456 after her death once the Armagnac king had seized most of France.
Despite those challenges, what is so enjoyable about Castor’s book is that she unfolds Joan’s story in a largely straightforward, albeit skeptical, manner, but places it within two larger framing devices.
The first is that of religion and the fervent belief in divine intervention in the world of man. Many today may scoff when politicians claim God told them to run, but in the 15th century people believed that God really did determine who ruled. The second frame contrasts Joan’s simplistic mindset (just attack every city opposing you) against the incredibly chaotic system of political allegiances, honor codes, and dynastic entanglements besetting Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.
The book begins with the Battle of Agincourt, the 1415 English victory against greater French odds. The battle largely sets the agenda for the story prior to Joan’s arrival on the scene—bloody events in which the French usually wound up embarrassing themselves.
Agincourt mattered greatly, Castor claims, because for the English, “their king’s claim to the throne of France … had been utterly, gloriously vindicated by his astonishing victory.” Castor splendidly demonstrates that contrary to our contemporary assumption that this was a legitimate French struggle against English usurpers, many at that time felt differently. Much of the French population under English control, most notably Paris, supported the English claim to the throne.
Belief in divine will was not unique to the English. Charles VII, the French dauphin (heir apparent), was in La Rochelle in 1422 when the great hall of the palace collapsed. “Amid the choking dust and splintered debris,” writes Castor, “many died and more were badly hurt—but, apart from a few scratches, the dauphin was miraculously unharmed.” As this coincided with news of his father’s death, “the divine purpose for which he had been saved became clear.”
Into this world colored by such talk of providence came Joan, a peasant girl who fed right into one of these divine interpretations, and directly opposing the other. While women claiming visions from God may seem odd today, Joan was far from unique in that regard. Just a few decades earlier, for instance, a French woman named Ermine became notorious for her visions of angels and demons. In fact, once Joan herself achieved what we can only call stardom, she found herself swatting away other would-be female visionaries.
What made Joan unique, in Castor’s eyes, is that she tied her visions directly to the idea of Charles’s divine right to rule, and her holy mission involved her in military action. Unpacking Joan’s story, Castor straddles two points of view. The first is that Joan was a singular figure who accomplished remarkable things for a peasant girl. She survived intense scrutiny physically (a queen and a duchess both examined her to see if she was still a virgin) and mentally (by going before the eminent theologians of France, twice). She did in fact achieve success on the battlefield, most notably with the lifting of the siege on Orléans.
Castor writes sympathetically of how Joan must have endured the constant threat of sexual violence. And she notes that in the end, as Joan burned alive, she was heard to call out Christ’s name, and “her lips moved in restless, ceaseless prayer.”
However, Castor also notes that success seems to have gone to Joan’s head. The peasant girl came to enjoy the finer things, including fur cloaks and wine. She was dismissive of others like her, and had little subtlety as a military strategist. And despite her orders from God, she did lose—at Paris, La Charité, and Compiègne, where she was captured.
Ironically, Castor seems more enamored with the other women who made their mark on this era. It was Yolande of Aragon, mother-in-law of Charles VII, who recognized the role Joan could play and financed her army, Yolande who set up Charles’s court in Bourges after he escaped from Paris, and Yolande who cagily capitalized on English squabbling to lure disaffected nobility to her son-in-law’s side. Castor also singles out Anne of Burgundy, sister of one of the era’s more wily players, Philip the Good, and wife of the Duke of Bedford, who oversaw English operations in France. It was Anne who largely kept the Duke of Burgundy on the English side, and in Castor’s view Anne’s early death was a major factor in the undoing of allegiances that had held the English kingdom together.
If the book is a whirlwind of names and alliances, it is never dull, thanks to Castor’s knack for weaving in salacious bits, usually involving a particularly unfortunate death. There is, for instance, the chilling murder of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, on a bridge during a parley. The earl of Salisbury had the fatal misfortune of surveying Orléans from a watchtower when it was struck by a cannonball. When he was found, “he was still breathing; but, where one side of his face had been, there was only a gaping, bloody hole. He died eight days later.”
Then there is the genuinely weird stuff: Henry V sent a rider 60 miles to obtain the foreskin of Jesus Christ, which would protect Henry’s wife in childbirth.
Nevertheless, the major players and the countless other men and women who fought or starved or died during this bloody time have not enjoyed anything like the fame that clung to Joan down through the centuries. Due in large part to the city she saved, Orléans, and to the industry of a nobleman (Gilles de Rais, later hanged for sexually assaulting and murdering more than 100 children) who was obsessed with her story, Joan’s legend thrived. Her heresy trial conducted under an English crown would be reopened under a French one, and then thrown out. In the end, her story was just too appealing to too many people to be ignored. It may have taken five hundred years, but eventually, inevitably, the same Catholic Church that branded her a heretic made her one of its more recognizable saints in 1920.