I really enjoy Helen Castor’s work- if you ever catch her programmes on BBC 4, or get your mitts on a copy of She Wolves, her book about ferocious medieval English queens, I recommend taking a look. This book was one of those I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had, so was pleased to discover I had it waiting for me on my bookshelf!
I’ve learnt from experience that reading biographies of women from the medieval period can be frustrating; with the exception of queens, there’s frustratingly little in the way of material for biographers to work with and this is true even of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous women of the last 2000 years. How can it be, then, that one of the most recognisable names in European history- and one of a tiny handful of women- has so little in the way of a record of her life? There is only one picture of her from her lifetime and even that was drawn by someone who hadn’t seen her.
However, Castor does an admirable job of trying to get inside the head and the life of Joan and her remarkable courage in battle. Like most books about the period, I found a knowledge of the Hundred Years’ War and the Plantagenets (or, as they’re referred to by me, late at night as I can’t sleep and so I’m reading and also Googling their family trees ‘Those Bloody Plantagenets!’ Pretty sure Henry VIII used a similar phrase.) Because as much as we want to claim Joan as a feminist icon, or an idea to rally to our cause- and she has, as Castor points out, been used as a symbol for many, many causes, some often contradicting each other-her rise and fall was intrinsically linked to the fortune of men; cardinals, generals, the dauphin. When she agrees, in prison, to shun her male clothing and dress as a woman, there are strong suggestions that she is in some way sexually assaulted. She quickly recants her confessions and asks to be back in her men’s clothes. Like all women of her age, no matter how powerful, she was subject to the whims of the men in charge.
They say that history is written by the victors and this is especially true in the story of Joan of Arc. Denounced as a witch, then rehabilitated as a saint, her story has one of the most tragic and interesting trajectories of all of those medieval women we know about and Helen Castor comes close to making her seem real.