Joan of Arc

A History

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Helen Castor
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History is a well-written addition to the literature about the medieval saint. The number of books written about Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is vast, but Castor manages to set hers apart by giving an in-depth history that provides not only Joan’s story, but the much larger context of her life. The depth Castor goes into is difficult to find in other works on Joan and provides yet another perspective on the familiar figure.

In her introduction, Castor states that she does not intend to tell Joan’s story only through Joan but rather, “I’ve set out to tell the story of France during these tumultuous years, and to understand how a teenage girl came to play such an astonishing part within that history” (6). Castor accomplishes her goal exactly. She divides the book into three parts: “Before,” “Joan,” and “After.” Part 1, “Before,” offers details about the interesting political context prior to Joan’s arrival on the scene. Castor includes the back and forth of alliances and territories in the war between England and France. The deaths of both kings feature heavily in this portion. Their deaths leave an infant to rule England and a young, disinherited Charles VII to lead the Armagnacs against English occupation. Castor also includes the political influence of certain figures often overlooked, such as Yolande, Charles VII’s mother-in-law.

Part 2, entitled “Joan,” begins with Joan’s arrival at Chinon to persuade the dauphin Charles VII that she was sent by God to lead him to rule a united France. Some readers might be disappointed that Joan’s mystical experiences in her home of Domrémy that led her to the dauphin are not detailed until Castor describes her trial for heresy. However, in Castor’s attempt to broaden the historical context, she does not address these earlier occurrences until the primary sources do. Castor follows Joan’s history with great detail, from her victory at Orleans to her demise at the stake. This part of Castor’s book particularly shows her gift for storytelling. While giving important historical information, Castor succeeds in writing the events much more like a novel, which is sure to keep the reader wanting more. Non-academic readers will surely find Castor’s writing style compelling and accessible. At times, Joan’s frustrations are practically palpable as she is forced to wait to return to battle despite her previous demonstrations of military leadership. Castor ends this part of her book with Joan’s heresy trial and subsequent execution.

Part 3, “After,” discusses the fate of Joan’s trial, which was overturned only a few decades later, as well as the outcome of the war in France. While Joan’s trial and execution as a heretic was a devastating blow to France, circumstances finally allowed France to unify and drive out the English, just as Joan predicted would happen. The victory of France and the continued memory of Joan encouraged church officials to reopen Joan’s trial and eventually overturn it. I especially admire Castor’s use of an epilogue to describe Joan’s canonization as a saint. It is unusual that the same Catholic Church that condemned her to execution as a heretic canonized her hundreds of years later. The details of this process are rarely included in works about Joan and were an appreciated addition in Castor’s history.

The entirety of Castor’s Joan of Arc is well-written and extremely accessible. A wide audience interested in Joan of Arc, and especially the broader context of the war between England and France, would be able to find Castor’s work not only informative, but stimulating as well. However, someone using her book for more than casual interest will find it a difficult source. Castor’s lack of citations throughout the book will make it difficult for a scholar attempting to use her history to pursue their own research. Castor does provide notes at the end of the book, but because they are without the usual endnote in the text, it would be difficult for someone to follow her work to the primary sources she used.

Castor’s history of Joan of Arc fulfills her goal in its broadened contextualization of the subject. It is not a monograph, nor did Castor intend for it to look like one. As such, there is room for many others to use the research in the production of much more specific monographs. Overall, this well-written book will serve anyone interested in learning more about Joan of Arc or 15th-century France.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Phillips is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen Castor is a historian of medieval England and a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her first book, Blood and Roses, was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the English Association’s Beatrice White Prize. Her second book, She-Wolves, was selected as one of the books of the year by The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Financial Times, and BBC History Magazine. She lives in London.


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