Helen Castor

Joan of Arc: A History

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Joan of Arc: A History Summary

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Joan of Arc: A History (2015), a work of historical nonfiction by Helen Castor, retells Joan of Arc’s story from a historical perspective, in the context of the Hundred Years’ War. Receiving widespread critical praise following its publication, the book received various award nominations. Castor serves as a Fellow at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. Specializing in medieval England, she writes books for both students and general audiences. She is passionate about making history, particularly medieval history, accessible to all readers.

Castor aims to show us how Joan of Arc’s story is both deeply unique and deeply universal. Unlike any other historical figure, Joan of Arc is a hero championed by many vastly different religious and political groups. Castor hopes to shed light on why Joan of Arc speaks to so many people, and why her story endures.

Castor asserts that, unlike most medieval figures, Joan of Arc’s story was clearly and carefully documented, making it much easier for historians to study the girl behind the myth and her accomplishments. Castor examines first-hand accounts left by Joan, her family, her friends, and others who lived during her lifetime, attributing Joan of Arc’s successes to her passion, courage, and conviction, which few have replicated since.

Unlike most books on this historical figure, Joan of Arc begins by examining the political environment in France at the time of Joan of Arc’s birth and childhood. It is impossible, Castor says, to understand the woman without understanding the world she operated in, which is where other historians go wrong. Critics argue that Castor unnecessarily complicates Joan of Arc’s story, but Castor—and many historians—disagree.

Castor begins with a brief overview of the Hundred Years’ War, taking place between 1337 and 1453. Essentially, the warring factions, both the French and the English, are desperately looking for someone, or something, to carry them through to victory—even a girl who claims to hear the voice of God.

Castor focuses primarily on the Battle of Agincourt, or Azincourt as the French know it. The French suffered a catastrophic defeat at English hands in October of 1415. For a moment, it seemed that all hope was lost. Fifteenth-century France was deeply religious; the defeat suggested that God detested the French, punishing them for their sins. Naturally, wanting salvation, the French turned to a girl who claimed she had received messages from the divine.

Not everyone trusted Joan of Arc. Many people feared that demons spoke through her, and she would bring about the ruin of France. Not everyone shared the France envisioned by Joan of Arc for her people; these conspirators would eventually bring about her downfall. Although the French attempt to reinvigorate her name after her death, Joan of Arc suffered intense persecution in France before she was ultimately executed. What Castor finds most compelling about Joan of Arc is that she never wavered in her conviction, refusing to be swayed from God’s will.

Castor describes fifteenth-century Europe as eager to categorize this unusual woman as a saint or a heretic. There was no in-between—Joan of Arc was either good or evil. The problem, Castor explains, is that this categorization is over-simplistic. No one’s motives can be entirely pure or entirely evil. Attempts to revere or demonize Joan of Arc are misguided.

Castor ends the book by looking at Joan of Arc’s canonization by the Catholic Church in 1920. This was incredible, Castor notes, because the Catholic Church pushed for her execution back in the fifteenth century. Many didn’t agree with her canonization because she had not proven herself spiritually virtuous, and she died in fear and anguish. This is not, according to some, how saints should die. Others, however, believe Joan of Arc deserved to be made a saint because God did indeed speak through her.

What Castor finds significant about these conflicts is that even today, we still can’t agree on who Joan of Arc was, or how to feel about her. This confusion is why she is emblematic for so many people from various backgrounds. Anyone can take Joan of Arc’s story and make of it what they will. This, in Castor’s mind, makes Joan of Arc a true hero.

Although we have preserved Joan of Arc’s story for centuries, we have lost the human girl along the way. We don’t see Joan of Arc as a complex girl, with a rich and deep inner life, fighting for what she believes in. We only see her as an icon. Now that she has become all things to all people, she has lost to us. However, by exploring Joan of Arc’s story from a new angle, Castor hopes to reinstate some of the girl’s lost humanity.