Today the golden figure of Joan of Arc, astride a horse, banner raised to the heavens, dominates the Place des Pyramides in Paris. Yet the girl who became a saint in 1920 had died a cruel death almost five hundred years earlier, burned at the stake by the English at Rouen in 1431 at the age of nineteen. Her captors had accused her of heresy and arranged a show trial, harnessing all the legal and theological arguments that the best minds of the day (or those that served the English cause, at least) could muster. And all this to silence a teenage peasant girl from Lorraine in eastern France who was convinced that God had told her to rid her country of its oppressors and heal the wounds of civil war. We may be familiar with the outline of Joan’s life but what do we really know of her brief moment of glory as the most unlikely military leader and kingmaker in history? These are questions that Helen Castor sets out to answer in her excellent new book on this heroine who has been the icon of many causes.
Castor tells Joan’s story against the wider backdrop of the violence and dislocation that engulfed 15th-century France. This is, as the title reminds us, a history, not a biography. She begins with Agincourt and goes on to reveal the disastrous effect of Henry V’s famous victory on a country and