Summary of: Joan of Arc: A History
Helen Castor tells afresh the compelling story of the peasant girl from Domremy who hears voices from God, leads the French army to victory, is burned at the stake for heresy, and eventually becomes a saint. But unlike the traditional narrative, a story already shaped by the knowledge of what Joan would become and told in hindsight, Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History takes us back to fifteenth century France and tells the story forwards. Instead of an icon, she gives us a living, breathing woman confronting the challenges of faith and doubt, a dynamic girl who, in fighting the English, was also taking sides in a bloody civil war. We meet this incredible girl during the tumultuous events of her extraordinary world where no one—not Joan herself, nor the people around her—princes, bishops, soldiers, or peasants—knew what would happen next.
Review of: Joan of Arc: A History
I place the many biographies of Joan of Arc into two categories: those written by authors that seem to be clueless, there are already countless biographies of Joan of Arc, and those written by authors aware of the flood of Joan biographies, but who justify their writing yet another biography because all the others seem to have been lacking in some way or another. In all of these cases, the same material is covered, over and over and over again: the Joan biographical sources, after all, are well known, well defined and well organized.
What appears to be common with all of these biographies is a strong psychological need on the part of the author to personally relive Joan’s life through writing about her. Even if the author has at least done his or her research and is aware of the hundreds of biographies already written, they still feel compelled to write yet another biography. And since she’s a hero in the pantheon of historical figures, many publishers are more than willing to ride the wave of her popularity with yet another book about her.
Only a very few of the Joan biographies stand out as having actually contributed new insights and scholarship, an example being Marina Warner’s classic study, as well of course the work of Régine Pernoud, the greatest Joan of Arc scholar. I’m giving Castor’s work five stars not because it breaks any new ground, but rather because she recasts Joan’s life firmly within the backdrop of her historical era, indeed much of the book is historical background that is directly related to better understanding Joan’s significance. What comes of this is that we learn that Joan, as being a female warrior, is not a coincidence, but can be understood in the context of the particular historical moment that engendered her. Castor has clearly invested a good deal of effort into writing this book.