Joan of Arc: A History, by Helen Castor

It's telling that noted scholar Helen Castor subtitled this book "A History," instead of "A Biography." The text is broken into three parts: an explanation of the historical context into which Joan arrived, the events of her meteoric rise to power and her equally quick descent, and the aftermath - both for Joan personally and for England and France politically. So most of the book isn't even technically about Joan, which is Castor's point. Too many studies of Joan focus on what she was or might have been, making her either a hero or a devil. There is not enough scholarly work done on placing her firmly in her own period and acknowledging the circumstances that made her 15 minutes of fame (so to speak) even possible.

By the mid-Fifteenth Century, England and France had been at war for years. Not, like, the few years of WWI or II, but firmly in the middle of a conflict that lasted well over a century. The French king was weak and his son even weaker, while England's ruler was virile and the nobles surrounding him militarily brilliant. When Joan first appeared on the scene, her country had been ravaged by King Henry's forces for decades, and they were very clearly winning. Half of France paid homage to Henry's young son, the other half to King Charles. She came to Charles' court dressed as a boy and spoke with utmost confidence about the message from God that told her she would route the English and drive them out of France and see King Charles anointed as the blessed ruler of all France. Some hesitation met this pronouncement, but after relieving the beleaguered town of Orleans from months of siege, she was given her army. Victory followed victory, until her saints seemed to desert her and she was captured by the English, imprisoned, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. When King Charles (spoiler alert!) finally did regain his crown, it still took several years to begin the process of rehabilitating Joan's memory, and twenty-five to declare that she had been wrongfully executed. In 1920, Joan was granted sainthood.

I'm a medieval history nerd, so I enjoyed this reexamination of a popular figure, but did find the writing to be a bit rote. Dates follow more dates, battles follow more battles, the names are basically interchangeable (even for someone who studied medieval French literature), and each battle is accompanied by the same "clash of steel, screaming of horses." It's hard to make history like this read as well as fiction. It's a good read for a layperson interested in Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War, but probably a little dull for others.

Buy it!


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