Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Joan of Arc: A History, by Helen Castor

Today I'm looking at a semi-biography of Joan of Arc. I say this is a semi-biography because since Joan was really only in the public eye for a few years before she was executed for heresy, it's really hard to give more than a brief summary of her life. Otherwise the lives of ordinary peasant girls in late medieval France are largely unrecorded and we can only make best guesses. Of course, the life of Joan grows far more complicated because of the hundreds of years of mythology and symbolism that have grown up around her and in some ways taken away her humanity by putting her on a level above ordinary human beings.

Castor acknowledges this problem and so the book is not so much a biography of Joan as much as it's an attempt to put Joan into context. As she explicitly states, we do not follow Joan from her life in rural France and her journey to Chinon. Instead, we follow the movers and shakers of French politics for many years and are with Charles VII when Joan arrives at Chinon. And after Joan's trial and execution, we see not only the final stages of the Hundred Years War, but the afterlife Joan has enjoyed into the modern era.

Castor does an excellent job of setting the scene of fifteenth century France, torn between three factions. The French themselves were split into two factions, attempting to control the mentally ill Charles VI and, by extension, power at court. On the one hand were the Armagnac faction, eventually led by Prince Charles the dauphin of France who would become Charles VII, and on the other hand the Burgundian faction led by first John the Fearless and then his son Phillip, both Dukes of the increasingly autonomous region of Burgundy. Burgundy sat on the border between France and the Holy  Roman Empire and owned land technically within both countries. On top of this the Dukes of Burgundy had extensive territories and interests in the Low Countries which tied them economically with the wool trade of the English. So what was good for Burgundy wasn't always what was good for France and created increased tension and outright violence between the dukes and their monarchs.

Exploiting this factionalism among the French, the English monarchs pressed their own competing claims for the French throne and managed to make extensive gains in Normandy while the French fought amongst themselves. Victories such as Agincourt, where outnumbered English archers and infantry absolutely massacred armies of French knights, created an aura of invincibility around the English army and their warrior-king Henry V. Even with Henry's death by a fever, the French had a strong fear of going against the apparently unconquerable English and when the city of Orleans was besieged by the English, it seemed only a matter of time before they would gain this crucial crossing of the Loire and advance into the strongholds of  the Armagnac faction.

When Joan arrived at Chinon, declaring she had been sent by God to ensure Charles would be crowned and anointed King of France with the holy Oil of Clovis, it caused a good deal of consternation. Some people believed her, some people didn't, but almost nobody was sure what to do with her. After considerable debate among theologians it was concluded that if Joan was truly sent by God to save France, then she would accomplish a sign. As the city of Orleans needed to be relieved from its besiegers and an army would have been sent there anyway, this was deemed an appropriate task for Joan to accomplish. If she failed, well no harm done and at least they tried to save Orleans. But if she succeeded, then perhaps God had finally come to save the most Christian kingdom on earth.

As Castor depicts it, and as I've read in some other sources, the biggest asset Joan had was as a morale booster for the highly discouraged French forces. French armies that should have been victorious on the field of battle had been utterly routed by numerically inferior English forces. An army that goes into battle expecting to lose will almost certainly find a way to lose regardless of any advantages. But with Joan, who claimed to have been sent by God to redeem France and expel the hated English, the French armies were able to believe they actually stood a chance at victory. Once Joan was victorious not only at Orleans, but at other battles as well, it is small surprise that the French began to believe they were now invincible and the English feared to face against any army headed by Joan. It is small surprise that the English and their allies were incredibly pleased when Joan was captured and engaged in an extensive heresy trial to remove Joan from the equation entirely.

What is remarkable about Joan, aside from her ability to win against the English, is the very fact that she is remembered today. Fifteenth century France certainly wasn't short on mystics, holy seers, or other individuals who claimed a mission from God. Joan enjoyed some brief success, but she suffered some failures as well and was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic and burned at the stake. It seems almost odd that Joan has remained not only in the popular consciousness but became as saint of the Roman Catholic Church as well. Perhaps it was because Joan's trial for heresy, and then twenty-five years later the trial overturning that decision of heresy, were such big news in their eras that Joan's legacy has endured. Certainly Jan Huss, whose followers had as great an effect in Bohemia as Joan had in France, is less well known among Americans. Perhaps it was ultimately just one of those accidents of history which we may never truly understand. But five hundred years later it is still difficult to sort out Joan the person from Joan the saint.

- Kalpar

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