Folio Society

Book Excerpt: 'Joan of Arc' by Helen Castor


Few figures have been as lionized by popular culture as Joan of Arc - so much so that it's become difficult to separate fact from mythology. This is one of the many achievements of Joan of Arc, Helen Castor's best-selling, meticulously researched account of her life, which not only tells her story with fidelity, but places it within the oft-missing wider historical context.

The Folio Society's new editon of Joan of Arc (available now) augments Castor's riveting text with archive documents, paintings, and other illustrations - as well as a new foreword by the author. We're pleased to present this edited excerpt.

Folio Society


When I was writing this book, I was acutely aware that, over the centuries, Joan has become both instantly recognisable in image and almost infinitely malleable in meaning. ‘All things to all people’ still seems to me an appropriate way of describing a figure who has lent her name to everything from a North American brand of canned beans (under the slogan ‘JOAN of ARC® – the Heroic Bean!’) to a recent track by British girl group Little Mix (‘Man, I feel like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen of Hearts’). In fact, along with her many iterations in art, literature, opera and film, I suspect there have been more pop songs written about Joan – Kate Bush, Madonna and Leonard Cohen are only the first few names on the list – than about any other individual in history.

But, in versions of her story that are not completely unmoored from the recorded details of her life, the central elements of her persona are her nationalism, in the positive sense of national self-determination, and her faith. She has been specifically claimed, in other words, by both France and Rome, however much her general appeal might extend to other causes and denominations. And what is striking about this construction of Joan as her country’s patron saint is how much it obscures, rather than illuminates, the complex reality of her history.

Joan said that she was fighting for France against the English; she said that she was sent by God. But she did so in the midst of a brutal civil war, in which many French men and women saw Joan’s dauphin as the enemy, and the English as their allies. The conflict bitterly divided the French Church as well as the State, which is how Joan came to be condemned as a heretic by a court of French theologians and canon lawyers who recognised the king of England as the rightful king of France. Two decades after her execution, her dauphin finally won the war. He did so, in large part, by making real the world that Joan had described and for which she had fought: through diplomatic manoeuvres and military campaigns, he reunited the French under his own kingship and expelled the invading English. Now, Joan was vindicated, but she was also an embarrassment: a reminder that the truth, in its current form, had not always been so.

She was retrospectively cleared of heresy; a necessary step, given that she had led the king to his coronation and stood beside him as he was anointed. Beyond that, there was every reason for the powers-that-be in mid-fifteenth-century France to deal with the difficulties of the past by opting for oblivion rather than truth and reconciliation. Joan, after all, had suffered defeats as well as winning victories. The king believed the God-given triumph to be his own, rather than Joan’s to bestow upon him. And those among his subjects who had once fought for a different version of their country’s future – the captains who had taken up arms against Joan, and the clerics who had condemned her – could point to the undoubted culpability of the English and move on, as loyal subjects of a reunified kingdom.

But Joan’s blazing charisma and her uniquely transgressive story – claiming military leadership under a divine mandate in a world that believed neither was the preserve of women – turned out to mean that forgetting was not an option. Instead, it was the civil war that was jettisoned from the narrative. As years became decades, and decades centuries, she became a constantly reinvented version of what she had always claimed to be: the champion of a people, a sovereign nation-state defending itself against external assault – a role that, in its iconic clarity, played its own part in burying the messy reality of the conflict that had consumed her.

Her transformation into a saint was less straightforward. She had been tried and found guilty of heresy by an ecclesiastical court. Her horrifying death could hardly make her a martyr, therefore, since she had been executed on the authority of the universal Church, however much it had been, in that time and place, a Church divided against itself, and despite the nullification of the verdict after her dauphin’s victory. In this context, it took half a millennium for Joan’s messy reality to recede. Her trials had been political, and she had not died for the faith, the Holy See concluded in its investigations over the three decades before 1920; but she had lived a life of heroic Christian virtue, and that was enough for her sanctity to be recognised.

The mutating interaction of these two paradigms – her goodness and her justified resistance to an invading power – produces the intercessory, peace-loving Joan of so many modern images. But that is not the woman who died in the fire in 1431. This book seeks to reclaim, in all its difficulty, what it is possible to know about her short and challenging life. From the beginning of the story, on the battlefield at Agincourt fourteen years before Joan arrived at Chinon to declare her mission, I have tried to inhabit the perspectives of the various protagonists and participants in the conflict; to see the world through their eyes while their angles of vision change, and to convey the certainty of their truths, even when their truths are incompatible and inconsistent.

As a result, I hope the book is also a reminder of how profoundly it matters who succeeds in shaping our stories, in the past and in the present, and how essential it is to interrogate the ways in which narratives can be controlled and co-opted by those with an interest in directing them. In 2019, that task is more urgent than ever.

Helen Castor

London, January 2019

Excerpted from the foreword to "Joan of Arc" by Helen Castor, out now from The Folio Society. Used by permission.