Few historical figures are quite so famous as Joan of Arc, the teenage peasant girl who drove the English from Orleans and became a legend. What’s less widely known is the context that made her such a phenomenon—and that’s what Helen Castor tries to remedy with Joan of Arc: A History.

Castor is a historian whose previous works include She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. A friend who works for the book’s American editor passed me her latest book, which devotes pages and pages to laying out the politics of 15th century France, the long conflict over the crown, and the theology of the late Middle Ages. She goes deep on French female mystics and court politics and introduces the personalities who were sometimes swept along by Joan and sometimes drove her fate. Which sounds dry, but in fact it’s a page-turner—despite the fact that we all know how it turned out for Joan.

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I got a chance to chat with Castor about how she structured the book and why she thinks Joan has endured through the century as a symbol. Here’s a trimmed-down version of our conversation.

Joan doesn’t appear until fairly late in the book. Tell me about why you chose to tell the story of her life in this particular way.

It is, I know, one of the most striking things about the beginning of the book, and I think I probably caused my editor and my agent a few conniptions in the process.

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But that, to me, was a hugely important part of the project that I was setting out on. Because this, to me, was not a biography. This couldn’t be a biography if it was to achieve the things that I really hoped it might achieve, which centered around putting Joan back into her own world as a living, breathing human being. And the difficulty with that is, if we try and start at the beginning of Joan’s life and write a biography in the normal sense—first of all, we don’t even really know when she was born. We do have an educated guess, but we just don’t have the sources that would allow us to reconstruct her life as it unfolded. What we have is sources that retrospectively tell us about her childhood and her growing up. But they tell us about that from the perspective twenty-five years after or during the trial that led to her death, the transcripts of the judicial processes to which she was subjected. This is information that comes out when it is already clear what she’s achieved.

So in a sense, everything that we know from those sources is filled with hindsight of one kind or another and with—contamination is a dramatic word, but it’s all shaped by the judicial processes that the information emerges through. The way I thought of it was telling the story forward, not backward. Not with hindsight, not from the perspective of those trials at the end of her life and after the end of her life. But instead to tell the story of the war that had been raging in France for twenty years before she appeared in the historical record, if you like, and then to be able to see quite how shocking, quite how extraordinary her appearance was. And to try to understand how it came about. Because obviously, if you’re seeing it backward, there’s an inevitability to this iconic figure becoming something important. Otherwise why are we looking at her in a field in Domrémy in the first place? But I wanted to see the world into which she erupted, as a different way of understanding how that happened.

Set that context for people. Because I think everybody knows Joan’s name, but people are less familiar with that.

I think you’re exactly right—everyone knows the name, but very few people could tell you really in any detail what the war was that she was fighting in. I think people have a sense that she was fighting to defend France against the English, and that is certainly how she articulated her mission and her vision. It was to kick the English out of France and to crown her king as the undisputed king of the kingdom of France that should be rightfully his.

Now partly, that’s right. The English had invaded France. Henry V, the famous warrior king of England, had invaded France to claim the crown of France as his. But the bit we don’t know about now is the fact that he did that at a time when France was already fighting itself. France was divided in a bitter and brutal civil war that had been going on for a whole number of years before Henry V ever set foot in France. And what then happened is that one side in that civil war, a faction known as the Burgundians because they were led by the Duke of Burgundy, allied themselves with the English and recognized the king of England as the rightful king of France. So Joan’s side, Joan’s king that she was trying to get crowned and for whom she was fighting, wasn’t the king of France who was recognized by all the French people. He was the king according to the other faction, the Armagnacs, as they were called after a former leader of the faction. So when Joan talks about the kingdom of France and the French defeating the English, she’s using terms that a great number of her countrymen and women would not have accepted, because there were a great number of loyal Frenchmen and women who were loyal at this stage to a different king, to the English king of France.

So it’s very complex, very bloody, and by the time Joan appears, has become really a war of attrition that has been going on for so long that both sides—Henry V is by now dead and Joan’s king, the Dauphin as he’s often called, is desperately looking for a military leader who can save him, because he’s not really a soldier. Though he can order fine suits of armor for himself, he can’t really lead his soldiers into battle. And he’s been looking for a military savior for some years, and it’s that context into which Joan absolutely erupts.

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Henry’s faction believes just as much as the Dauphin’s that God is on their side. There are these two competing claims and they’re equally confident (and not just in a rhetorical modern way) that they have the superior divine claim. Explain what’s going on with that.

That is such a good point to make, and it’s another reason why I wanted to start the book in the way that I did. Because I think that we, from a modern perspective, might tend to assume that part of Joan’s power in this whole situation was that she intervened in a war and brought God to play in the war for the first time. But actually that is to misunderstand the medieval mindset. This was an age when everyone believed that God’s will was at work in the world and could be seen through the events that unfolded and never more so than in the context of war. That God could choose to whom to give victory and on whom to inflict defeat.

And so one of the reasons that I started the book in the way that I did was that I wanted to start at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, which in the English-speaking world, thanks to Shakespeare in huge part, is seen as this dramatic, heroic English victory of Henry V and the happy few against the great might of France. Now, that’s a narrative that’s very easy for the English to internalize. God is on their side and therefore God has given victory to them. But what I wanted to do was to tell it from the other side, which in the English-speaking world we don’t often do. That is, to experience it as the French did, as an appalling and unforeseeable defeat. Because the French thought of themselves as God’s chosen people by the late Middle Ages. They saw Paris as the successor to Jerusalem as the center of the kingdom to whom God was giving special favor. So the idea that they should be defeated by this little ragtag band of English soldiers was a profound existential blow as well as a military one, and it had to be explained in some way. It couldn’t possibly be that God was actually on the English side. It must instead be that the French were in some sense being punished for their sins. So this is a worldview that permeates absolutely everything and it’s a worldview that helps us understand what happened when Joan did finally arrive. It wasn’t a question of a bunch of cynical politicians and soldiers being sideswiped by the idea of God. It was a bunch of sometimes cynical politicians and soldiers, but who knew that God was at work all around them and that God could choose to work in very mysterious ways and if he wanted, he could work a miracle.

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So that is the world, in which heaven and hell are real places, in which God and the devil are at work in unseen ways all around and sometimes intervene more directly than that.

So basically they’re all sitting around in this court, waiting for their miracle, and Joan walks in.

Although they have to be very careful. Joan appears having had to make several attempts at getting out of her home region. She was from the far east of France, from a little Armagnac region that was surrounded by Burgundian-held territory. And of course the idea that a 17-year-old girl should be sent by God on a military mission took some persuading. It wasn’t that the idea that God might speak to an individual directly was completely strange. There had been a whole series of mystics and visionaries across Europe in the 14th and early 15th century, but much closer to home there had been a handful of women in France in the late 14th and early 15th century who claimed to have messages from God. So there’s nothing inherently unbelievable about that possibility.

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What was different about what Joan was saying was that she was saying that God was commanding her not only to convey information to her king, but also to take up arms. She wanted the Dauphin to give her troops, to put her at the head of his army. That was a challenging thought and a deeply unusual one. In any case, the Dauphin had to be really careful. Because while it was clear that God might speak to an individual and might send a message through even a 17-year-old peasant girl, so might the devil. So the million-franc question was, had Joan been sent from heaven or had she been sent from hell? Because if she’d been sent from hell, then she might lead the Dauphin and his cause into disaster and oblivion. Whereas, if she’d been sent from heaven, perhaps the miracle was on its way.

So the first thing that had to happen when Joan arrived at the Dauphin’s court, was that she had to be tested. She had to be interrogated, she had to be investigated to see if she really was what she said she was. And this was a job that was given, first of all, to some fine, upstanding matrons of the court, who had to inspect her to make sure she was a virgin. Because of course if she was an unmarried teenage girl, she really had to be a virgin, because if she was not, then she’d already been suborned by the devil and the case could be closed. But once it had been checked that she was the virgin that she claimed to be and ought to be, then she was handed over the best theologians the Dauphin could muster to see if they could work out whether her message did actually come from God or not.

The interesting thing was, they couldn’t make up their minds. The theologians essentially said, well, she seems to be pious, she seems to be virtuous, we can’t fault her personal bearing. But we can’t be sure that her message comes from God. What they recommended was she should be put to the test, a practical test, and there was a practical test conveniently ready to hand, because the town of Orléans had been under siege by the English for months. And the suggestion arose that she should be sent to Orléans with some soldiers to see what she could do. And that’s how Joan of Arc got her army.

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What does it mean to the nobles in this court that she’s a woman? How do they read that fact?

It was a profound challenge to everything they thought they knew about the world they lived in. Women did not fight. God had ordained the world to work in particular ways, and one of those ways was that men were to lead, men were to rule, men were to fight. and women were not to do those things. Women were to stay at home and bear children and support their menfolk. So the idea that such a young woman—any woman—but such a young woman step forward and say that God had sent her to fight was profoundly destabilizing. It could only really work in the context of the miraculous. Because god could choose to work a miracle through any vessel he liked and if he were going to work a miracle, then perhaps a teenage peasant girl was a particularly miraculous way to do it.

So in a sense, the challenge that she represented challenged those soldiers, those noblemen, the Dauphin and the politicians around him to believe in her miraculousness. Because there was no other way that her intervention could be explained, unless it was a trap sent by the devil. This was so not a normal state of affairs.

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And she wasn’t only a girl—she was a girl dressed as a boy. Which adds another of challenge, because the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament says that a woman dressed as a man is an abomination unto the lord. It is an absolute overturning of what God meant for his creation, the proper ordering of the world. So Joan in every sense challenged expectations, assumptions, about what was normal and normally right. But that was in a sense part of her power, part of her charisma, once it had been decided to give her a chance.

And of course meanwhile the Anglo-French and the Burgundians are watching and saying: “Look at this teenage whore; they’ve completely lost it.” Right?

Exactly. If you know that God is on your side and your enemies produce this teenage girl striding around in armor with soldiers, the only explanation is that she’s a whore, she must be sexually promiscuous because she’s not doing what modest, Godfearing women are supposed to be doing. She might be a witch. Whatever way you slice it, she is not virtuous, not reputable, and they begin by being extremely abuse and disparaging of her. But of course when she gets to Orléans and once the fighting starts, something quite unexpected happens.

And I imagine that was probably a great interpretive challenge for the English.

Well, yes. It’s very interesting, looking at what happens at Orléans. Because when Joan arrived, late April 1429, with the troops that the Dauphin had given her, Orléans in a sense could stand as a part for the whole of the war. Because the English besiegers and the Armagnac French within the town had come to a standstill. The English didn’t have enough troops to push the siege to a successful conclusion, but the Armagnac french didn’t have enough resources to drive them away.

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So this siege has been going on for months. And what Joan seems to have brought to this situation is utter, utter belief and conviction and a charisma that was able to communicate that conviction. There are contemporary accounts of her when she arrived in Orléans and was able to slip into The town through the English cordon, of being greeted as though she were an angel from God. The townspeople were so desperate for salvation that they crowded around her, believing that the miracle was about to happen. Joan of course also believed that the miracle was about to happen. And her strategy—many historians have talked of her remarkable military brain and talked as though she were a subtle strategist. I can’t see that at all. It just seems to me that wherever she fights, she has one strategy, which is attack, now, in the name of God. But that was exactly what was needed at Orléans in 1429 to galvanize the Armagnac cause, to feel suddenly some belief that they could perhaps win, that they were about to make a difference. And the more the Armagnac soldiers began to believe, the more the English soldiers trying to defend their position against them began to falter and began to wonder whether God was really intervening. And in the end, it took only four days of fighting for Joan and the Armagnac troops to drive the English away from Orléans after a siege that had been going on for seven months.

But eventually, the English and their French allies capture Joan and their interpretation of Joan as this unnatural wins out temporarily. She’s killed and it seems like the story of Joan is over. But in the long run, the Dauphin triumphs, her name is cleared, and ultimately she’s made a saint hundreds of years later. Why do you think she’s still such an icon? Your book lays out very clearly why she was such a bolt from the blue in her own time and why she made a difference, but people who have no idea that the king of England once held half of France know her name.

It is a remarkable phenomenon. and it’s not straightforwardly easy to answer. Part of the answer must be that there is a continuity of historical recognition there. She was, in her own time, what we would call a celebrity. She was such an extraordinary figure that news of her arrival and what she did spread across Europe like wildfire, and there are records of Italian merchants in Bruges writing back home to talk about her, people in Constantinople asking about her. And there were places which never let her memory go. One of those is Orléans, which commemorated her victory, her great intervention on their behalf, every year from 1429 onwards. And there’s also Domrémy, her birthplace, which already in the 16th century was getting visitors to see the house in which she grew up.

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But of course that doesn’t explain the level of historical stardom that you’re describing. I think there’s a coming-together of two things. One is her image. It’s such a resonant and yet unique image—this young peasant girl in armor with a shining banner looking up to heaven. There is no one else, really, who we could put next to her as having done something so unexpected with such remarkable results. And the iconography, almost, of that image means that she has been able to be figured in a remarkable number of different ways. She can be a nationalist hero to the French in the 19th century. She can be a heroine to the suffragettes in the early 20th century. She can the soul of France for both sides in the Second World War—the collaborationist Vichy regime and the resistance under de Gaulle tried to appropriate her, just as the right and the left try and appropriate her now. She is such a powerful icon.

And then you put that together with her words, the fact that the transcripts from 1431, from the trial that condemned her to death, recorded her words in enormous detail, because the French prosecutors under English authority who were trying her for heresy, thought that her words would stand as a historical testament to how wrong she was, how gravely in error she was. Instead of which, down the centuries have echoed the words of a young, uneducated girl standing up to scores of highly trained theologians and doing so for days and weeks and months before being killed in such a brutal, a way that grabs your imagination with its horror.

So if you put together her image, her words, and her death, you have a very, very powerful mixture. That really comes together in the late 19th century and early 20th century with the campaign to have her made a saint. Which is a very, very complicated one, because she was put to death under the authority of the Catholic Church, and I think I’m right in saying that she’s the only Catholic saint to have been killed by a judgment of the Catholic Church. So she can’t because a saint as a martyr. You can make people a martyr if they’ve been killed by pagans or protestants. Instead she is canonized as a holy virgin who displayed the virtues to a heroic degree.

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So she’s always complicated. She’s never simple. And yet at the same time, that means with this extraordinary image that she has, she can be figured in as many different ways as you want her to be. She almost becomes a sort of empty vessel who can be filled with meaning of whatever kind we want. That’s not a very clear or simple answer, but she’s not a very clear or simple phenomenon, in a way. She’s very powerful, but endlessly changeable, endlessly protean, and endlessly difficult to pin down—at the same time as we all recognize her image. It’s a remarkable combination.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

Photo by Chris Gibbions.