This picture shows Saint Joan of Arc (1412 - 1431), known as "the Maid of Orleans," at Reims Cathedral, circa 1429. Her inner voices moved her to ask the dauphin (later Charles VII of France) to let her fight the English in 1428.

This picture shows Saint Joan of Arc (1412 - 1431), known as "the Maid of Orleans," at Reims Cathedral, circa 1429. Her inner voices moved her to ask the dauphin (later Charles VII of France) to let her fight the English in 1428.

A young, French peasant girl standing in a field receives a heavenly message: she must lead the French in driving the English out of the country. So begin most retellings of the story of Joan of Arc. But medieval historian Helen Castor says that to get a true picture of the girl and her place in history – and to understand how her remarkable story was possible – we need to go back further. Castor brings us deep into France of the early 1400s: into a country long ravaged by war, and a society where fears about the will of God are ever-present. A fresh look at the woman known as Joan of Arc and the world she inhabited.


  • Helen Castor Historian of medieval England and fellow, Sidney Sussex College Cambridge.

Featured Excerpt

JOAN OF ARC by Helen Castor Copyright © 2015 by Helen Castor. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


  • 11:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. Over centuries, Joan of Arc has become a legend and an icon. The young woman famed for leading the French to victory at Orleans in 1429 and turning the tides of the Hundred Years War. She went on to sainthood and remains a beloved symbol for the French.

  • 11:07:18

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSBut medieval historian, Helen Castor, says in all this idolization, we've lost sight of the real woman herself. In her new book, Castor sets out to bring Joan of Arc into three dimensions, looking at her contemporaries and at the context surrounding her rise to fame and her subsequent fall. Helen Castor's new book is called "Joan of Arc: A History," and she joins me in the studio this morning. Welcome, Helen.

  • 11:07:41

    MS. HELEN CASTORThank you very much for having me.

  • 11:07:43

    ROBERTSDelighted to have you. And you can join Helen Castor, as always. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at Of course, communicate through Facebook or Twitter, however you would like to do that. And Helen, interestingly, you subtitle this book, "A History," and that's deliberate. You are a historian and -- but Joan of Arc, as a figure, is as much myth as she is real, maybe even more.

  • 11:08:21

    ROBERTSAnd the images we have, whether it's the legends, the movies, the stories, what do you want readers to know about the real Joan of Arc that the myth doesn't capture?

  • 11:08:37

    CASTORI wanted to get at the living, breathing, human being, the young woman who lived and died in the early decades of the 15th century, precisely because I wanted to recapture how it was that she came to do the almost impossible. Once someone's become an icon and a myth, by definition, they've done something extraordinary. And in a way, that's the problem, I think, with a lot of the biographies of Joan.

  • 11:09:05

    CASTORThat's why I wanted to call this "A History," because I didn't want to start with Joan as a young girl in the field at Domremy, hearing her voices for the first time because in a sense, if we start our story then, we're already telling the story of the icon and the saint because otherwise, why are we with this young peasant girl in a field, if it's not that she's going to turn out to be something really special? We've already set the train in motion.

  • 11:09:35

    CASTORWhat I wanted to be able to do was to understand the world that she lived in, in all its complexity and its chaotic conflict and understand how it was that a teenage peasant girl came to do what should've been impossible. And I think that's what we can do if we don't start with Joan, but we start with the war and the world that she lived in.

  • 11:09:57

    ROBERTSAnd you've been quoted as saying that writing medieval history is like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with half the pieces missing because the documentary evidence is very limited. You did have the transcripts of the two trials that you could draw on, but still, how hard was it to put this history together?

  • 11:10:18

    CASTORYou put it very well, I think, because with any medieval figure, there are huge gaps in information that we would take for granted in the modern world. I mean, we can say, for instance, that Joan was probably born in 1412, but we don't know that for certain. We never will know that for certain. What we do have with Joan is much more information than we have for virtually anyone else of her time and certainly her class, particularly, as you say, the remarkable records at these two trials.

  • 11:10:48

    CASTORShe was tried twice over. Once in 1431 by her enemies who found her guilty of heresy and burned her at the stake, and then again, 25 years later, by her supporters who held another trial to overturn the verdict of the first. So in the first trial, we have Joan herself as a witness, speaking about her life, her experiences and so on, but two very hostile prosecutors. And then, 25 years later, we hear from her family, her friends, men who fought beside her and also men who were involved in trying her the first time.

  • 11:11:20

    CASTORBut one of the problems with all of this information is that it's all infused not only with parties and perspectives, you have to be on one side or the other, but also with hindsight. These trials took place when she'd already become what she became. She'd already achieved what she achieved. So we have to be very, very, very careful just straightforwardly mining those sources for information and applying it to a biography.

  • 11:11:47

    CASTORThat's another reason, in my mind, for trying to tell the story forwards, for coming to the trials when they happen and on picking what people say at each stage so that we can see when stories are growing in the telling, when there are contradictions and we're not just glossing over everything into one smooth story of the women who would eventually, 500 years later, become a saint.

  • 11:12:09

    ROBERTSNow, to that very point, you actually start the book long before she emerges at that field and hears the voices. She was about 2, I think, or about 2, 'cause you say you don't know. Of course, you start the book at the famous battle of Agincourt or Agincourt, as the Brits describe it in 1415. Why do you start there? You want to set the historical context in which Joan arose as a figure.

  • 11:12:40

    CASTORI do. And there were two particular reasons for starting at Agincourt. One is that for an English-speaking reader, whether back home in the UK or here in the States, we tend, I think, to think of Agincourt as Henry V's great victory where the happy English few beat the great might of France. But I wanted to tell the story from the French perspective, from the perspective of the dreadful defeat of Agincourt that took place when France was already at war with itself.

  • 11:13:11

    CASTORThere was a civil war going on in France before the English invaded. And I wanted to get that perspective to show how deep the divisions within France went to make clear that the war Joan walked into was not simply the Nationalist French trying to drive out the invading English. It was far more complex, far more long-standing. But the second reason I wanted to tell the story of Agincourt is that I wanted to establish from the very beginning that in the Middle Ages, people believed that God intervened directly in the world.

  • 11:13:44

    CASTORAnd one of the ways in which he intervened directly in the world was to determine the outcome of battles. And that's very clear at Agincourt. If you're English, it's very easy to interpret what happened there. God was on the English side.

  • 11:13:55

    ROBERTSGod is an Englishman, yeah.

  • 11:13:57

    CASTORExactly. And therefore, he gave the English victory. But it was very hard for the French to work out what on earth was going on because they thought of themselves as God's chosen people in the late Middle Ages. The most Christian...

  • 11:14:07

    ROBERTSWell, they were the most Christian...

  • 11:14:08

    CASTOR...kingdom, exactly.

  • 11:14:09


  • 11:14:09

    CASTORSo the idea that they should be beaten against all the odds by this upstart invader from England caused a sort of existential crisis. And it helps us understand, I think. It helps us set the scene for the idea that God is present all the time. We tend to think, I think often, of one of Joan's powers, when she turns up, being that she brings God into a war that’s been going on for a long time.

  • 11:14:36

    CASTORShe says, I've come with a message from God and he'll sort it out. Actually, God's been there all the time.

  • 11:14:42

    ROBERTSAll the time.

  • 11:14:42

    CASTORAnd that's one of the ways in which she is able to intervene because all her contemporaries know that God might intervene. And if God's going to work a miracle, a teenage peasant girl is a pretty miraculous way to do it.

  • 11:14:54

    ROBERTSBut you talk about not only the historical world, but the thought world of the time. And you've started to describe the presence of God as an ever present idea in the daily life, but you then say that because of that, this tale that she tells of hearing the voices is not that strange or that unbelievable to people of that era and of that mindset.

  • 11:15:25

    CASTORExactly. We tend to go straight to questions of diagnosis. Is she ill in some way? Does she have schizophrenia or epilepsy and something like that? Of course, those are entirely modern assumptions and preconceptions. To her contemporaries, I mean, it was possible that people were mad and heard voices that weren't there, but...

  • 11:15:44

    ROBERTSIncluding the King of France.

  • 11:15:44

    CASTORIncluding, yes, the mad King of France, Charles VI, definitely. But contemporaries knew that otherworldly beings existed and that they could speak to men and women of completely sound mind and there'd been a whole stream of them, Saint Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden in the 14th century had been imminent examples of that, but much lesser known women in the early 15th century had also had similar experiences. A noblewoman called Jeanne Marie de Maille, a peasant woman called Marie Robine in the couple of decades before Joan arrived on the scene.

  • 11:16:19

    CASTORSo the key question, the million dollar question wasn't why was she hearing voices that weren't there. For her contemporaries, the question was, did these voices come to her from God or the devil. And that really, really mattered.

  • 11:16:32

    ROBERTSAnd she hears these voices and gathers some assistance and marches westward to the French battlefield, the French military headquarters. And as you say, one of the key questions when she arrives was trying to vet her and examine her and that's a fascinating part of the book of what they did.

  • 11:16:58

    CASTORIt is. I mean, she's already had to jump several hurdles to get there in the first place. The effort of will and conviction that it took a 17-year-old girl from a small village in the far east of France to persuade the men around her, and it did need to be men because this is a male-run society when it comes to matters of government and war, to persuade them to take her...

  • 11:17:18

    ROBERTSWe might argue it still is, but that -- yeah.

  • 11:17:18

    CASTOR...absolutely, one might. But to give her an escort to go to the court of the Dauphin, who her side in the war believes is the rightful heir to France, that took extraordinary will and determination. But having got there and having got a hearing, partly, of course, because they're so desperate for a savior to come, a messiah from somewhere...

  • 11:17:39

    ROBERTSGiven that point you made about the existential crisis of God is not on our side...

  • 11:17:44


  • 11:17:44

    ROBERTS...this is not just another battle.

  • 11:17:46

    CASTORQuite. God -- they're looking for God to indicate that he has returned his support to them and the Dauphin that she's going to speak to, one contemporary says, rather tactfully, it was not a war-like man. He wasn't a military leader in his own right.

  • 11:17:59

    ROBERTSAnd what happens next, we're gonna hear right after this break from Helen Castor, author of "Joan of Arc." Please stay with us.

  • 11:20:01

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Helen Castor, a British historian who has written a new book called, "Joan of Arc: A History." And you can join my conversation with Helen. Give us a call, we have a line or two open, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at Or send us a Tweet or a posting on Facebook. And Helen, we actually have an email that sets the stage for the conversation we've just been having. "When Joan arrives in court, as you said, at the military headquarters of the Dauphin, why was she given the time of day?" writes Emma.

  • 11:20:43

    CASTORA very, very good question and a key question. A 17-year-old peasant girl turns up. Why would you listen to her? Partly, they were desperate. Partly, it was just possible that this was a message from God. They had to be very careful because if it was actually an entrapment sent by the Devil, it could be the route to disaster. So the first thing that the Dauphin and his advisors did was gather together the most learned theologians they could find and send them off with Joan to Poitier, a nearby town, and get them to interrogate her for several weeks. I say the first thing, not quite the first thing. The first thing was to get some eminent ladies of the court to examine her physically.

  • 11:21:22

    CASTORBecause a young, unmarried girl turning up saying she had a message from God ought to be a virgin. And if she's not a virgin, you send her packing straightaway. So the first thing is the physical examination. So the first thing is the physical examination. But once she's passed that with flying colors, then you get the theologians to question her. And the interesting thing is the theologians couldn't really make up their mind about Joan. They said they couldn't prove that her message came from God. But they couldn't prove that it didn't. So why not give her a test? And the test turned out to be that the town of Orleans, the very strategically important town of Orleans, the northernmost crossing on the River Loire, was under siege by the English.

  • 11:21:58

    CASTORIf she could raise the siege of Orleans, that would be proof that she'd been sent by God.

  • 11:22:04

    ROBERTSAnd before I get to the battle, I do want to ask you a little bit more about the physical examination. Because Joan of Arc didn't call herself Joan of Arc. That came from her father's name. She called herself La Pucelle, the maid or even the virgin. And that -- it was clearly a linkage to the Holy Mother.

  • 11:22:29

    CASTORAbsolutely. It's fascinating this, that she -- her sense of purpose and her sense of self is so strong from the moment she walks onto the political stage, that this is the name she claims for herself. Pucelle is a very interesting word. It means that intimate -- intermediate stage between girlhood and womanhood. So a young woman who's not yet married and who is therefore, by definition -- should therefore, by definition, be a virgin. She's not claiming to rival the Virgin, the Mother of God. But she is associating herself in some way with a kind of special standing in relation to God.

  • 11:23:05

    ROBERTSA purity and a virtue.

  • 11:23:07

    CASTORA purity and a virtue and also a special relationship. She calls herself at some stage a daughter of God.

  • 11:23:14


  • 11:23:14

    CASTORShe -- her voices, she later on says, address her as daughter of God. So there's a very strong sense of the mission.

  • 11:23:20

    ROBERTSMother of God, daughter of God, pretty close.

  • 11:23:21

    CASTORYeah. Pretty close. And that's how she refers to herself in the small handful of letters that still survive, which she writes to the English, declaring her mission to them and telling them that, if they know what's good for them, they should get out of France straightaway.

  • 11:23:36

    ROBERTSWhich is part of what happened at the Siege of Orleans.

  • 11:23:39

    CASTORIt is. The Dauphin, on the advice of the theologians, decided that he would give her some men. He would give her a specially-made suit of armor. This is another element we ought to mention in all of this. Joan was dressed as a boy, as a man. She wasn't pretending to be a boy or a man. This wasn't a question of disguising herself. It seems to have started as a practical measure when she set out from her home village. She had 250 miles of dangerous country to travel in the company of men-at-arms and she needed to be safe from physical assault. But by the time she got to court, it seems to have been incorporated into her mission in her own mind that she dressed as a man in order to do what God had sent her to do.

  • 11:24:23

    ROBERTSWhich was lead men in battle.

  • 11:24:24

    CASTORWhich was lead men in battle, which women didn't do. But we know that the suit of armor that was made for her was very fine because it cost a large sum of money. The accounts still survive for how much it cost. So the Dauphin sent her off to Orleans. It wasn't terribly clear what was going to happen when she got there, even in terms of a chain of command or where the troops were going to be deployed, or whether they were going to be deployed at all. But the one thing that is absolutely clear is Joan's determination. She, when she got into the town, wrote a letter to the English, had it wrapped around an arrow and shot over the town walls into the English camp.

  • 11:25:02

    CASTORAnd it still...

  • 11:25:04

    ROBERTSIf you don't have Facebook, you might too.

  • 11:25:05

    CASTORExactly. And it's still spine-tingling to read a little of what she says. She declares in this letter: You men of England who have no right in this Kingdom of France, the King of Heaven orders and commands you through me, Joan the Maid, to abandon your strongholds and go back to your own country. If not, she says, I will make a war cry that will be remembered forever.

  • 11:25:29

    ROBERTSShe was right about that.

  • 11:25:30

    CASTORShe was, wasn't she?

  • 11:25:31

    ROBERTSBut also, she's sort of fusing two ideas there, which is the godly mission and the nationalist mission. Because there's this sense of ejecting the English from French territory. Now I know at the time, of course, national lines were not what they were and there was a whole Burgundian Kingdom that was sort of alive with the British. But still there was a sense of France for the French.

  • 11:25:57

    CASTORFrance for the French, very clear in Joan's mind, not clear in the minds of many of her countrymen and women.

  • 11:26:04


  • 11:26:04

    CASTORAs you say, the Burgundian side, which was the other side in this civil war -- the two sides are known, slightly confusingly sometimes, as Burgundians and Armagnacs. And Joan's French were the Armagnac French. The other side in the French Civil War, the Burgundians had allied themselves with the English and recognized the King of England as the true King of France. So Joan's view had a wonderful clarity and simplicity that didn't match the reality on the ground. The reason why she won the battle of words, the war of words, in the end over the centuries as well as the particular battle at Orleans, is that her side did end up winning the war for France but only 20 years after she died.

  • 11:26:46

    CASTORSo there's a very complex story to be told. And that's the other story that I'm weaving into this book, is the story of France divided upon itself and how that division is eventually resolved.

  • 11:26:57

    ROBERTSBut through the military victory, starting at Orleans, the Dauphin is -- reaches Rouen and is crowned king. And this was sort of the high point of her crusade.

  • 11:27:12

    CASTORIt was. It was a tremendous moment because until that point, this had been a war for a number of years between two uncrowned kings. The Dauphin, who was the last remaining son of the previous King of France, Charles VI, had not been able to have himself crowned because, as you say, has -- where by tradition, by long tradition, the Kings of France were anointed with a holy oil that had been sent from heaven a thousand years before and then crowned was in the hands of the English and Burgundians. He literally couldn't get there.

  • 11:27:44

    CASTORMeanwhile, on the other side, Henry V had died by this time. And his son was a small child. He, too, hadn't been crowned. So for Joan to lead her king, the man she believed should be king, all the way deep into enemy-held territory to the Cathedral at Reims and to stand by his side when the crown, the holy oil and the crown were put on his head, was a supreme moment, the triumph of her mission. And it's very movingly described in several of the chronicles of the time, as the one chronicle tells us that she stood holding her banner by his side.

  • 11:28:17

    CASTORAnd when the coronation was over, she said to him -- she knelt at his feet and said, "Noble King, God's will is done," and began to weep because she was so overcome by what she'd achieved in only a few months. The difficulty was, what should happen next?

  • 11:28:32

    ROBERTSWell, as you say, these were the seven months. People forget how brief a time this campaign was. And then in your wonderfully evocative phrase, Helen Castor, the miracles stopped.

  • 11:28:46

    CASTORThe miracles stopped. The men around the king, having seen this moment of triumph happen, wanted to take advantage by negotiating, trying to pry the Burgundian French away from the English, seizing the diplomatic moment. Joan didn't do diplomacy. She didn't do negotiation. She knew that there was one way, God's way, or no way. And she wanted to keep fighting. So they let her take the army on to the walls of Paris that September. And they gave her one day to try to take Paris. One day. She'd raised the Siege of Orleans in four, after all, four days. So why not take the great City of Paris in one? Except that Paris was a very, very different proposition. She...

  • 11:29:29

    ROBERTSShe was almost a victim of her own reputation...

  • 11:29:31

    CASTORShe was.

  • 11:29:31

    ROBERTS...for miracles.

  • 11:29:32

    CASTORAbsolutely. And at the point at the end of that day when she was carried from the battlefield bleeding from a crossbow-bolt wound through the leg and the retreat was sounded, it was clear that her great moment was over. But then it became very, very hard to know what to do with her. If she wasn't working miracles, what was she doing on a battlefield?

  • 11:29:53

    ROBERTSAnd eventually, how long after the Siege of Paris, which had failed, or the attack on Paris, that she was actually captured?

  • 11:29:59

    CASTORShe was captured the following May. So the Siege -- the attack on Paris took place in September 1429 and she was captured in May 1430, having occupied herself through the winter in a series of minor skirmishes and little campaigns, trying to be a normal captain in the King's Army, because that was all that was left to her. But 18-year-old girls, 17-year-old girls aren't really normal captains. So one gets the overwhelming feeling that actually it was something of a relief for her own side when she was captured in May 1430. They'd certainly disowned her pretty quickly.

  • 11:30:37

    CASTORThe Chancellor, the Dauphin, the now King's Chancellor, the Archbishop of France wrote a letter to the King's supporters explaining that this wasn't God deserting the King. God was merely deserting Joan because she'd become too proud. She'd got a bit above herself, become too fond of luxury and finery and so on. And so that's why he'd allowed her to be captured. But it didn't matter because they had another emissary from God already, a young boy who -- you know, one can't help but laugh really at this distance, although it's a tragic story -- a young boy who was almost an anti-Joan, William the Shepherd, who had stigmata on his hands and feet and rode side-saddle and didn't fight. He, too, was captured a little while later and came to a bad end.

  • 11:31:20

    CASTORSo they were certainly very keen to indicate that God's support for their cause didn't end just because Joan had been captured.

  • 11:31:28

    ROBERTSAnd once she was captured, of course, subjected to the trial and eventually the execution.

  • 11:31:36

    CASTORAnd that, too, is a fascinating process. The trial transcript is the longest and most detailed record of any court proceedings we have from the Middle Ages. And one of the reasons for that is that the Burgundian French and the English who had captured her, the allies who were now putting her on trial, were determined that this trial should demonstrate to the whole of Europe that she was not what she claimed to be. She was not sent by God. So even though, in one sense, the outcome was inevitable, there was no way that a court composed of Burgundian French clerics, which they were in the main, was ever going to find in favor of her voices and visions.

  • 11:32:20

    CASTOROn the other hand, this was a trial that was taken very seriously because the demonstration that her voices and visions were false had to be made in detail...

  • 11:32:28


  • 11:32:29

    CASTOR...and really, really convincingly. Absolutely. So you get a kind of face-off between two absolutely incompatible positions. Joan knows that God is with her and in fact throughout the trial is waiting for God to save her. I mean, she says explicitly to her judges at some point, the sign you need that I come from God is that he will deliver me from your hands. And it is the surest one that he can give you. So the great bravery she shows throughout the trial is clearly bolstered, as it had always been, by the knowledge that God was with her. But the bishop who was leading the interrogators, leading the trial process, knew just as firmly that God was on his side. The trouble is, they couldn't both be right.

  • 11:33:09

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Helen Castor, how did it come out? Both sides thought God was with them.

  • 11:33:19

    CASTORIt came out in the only way it could, which was that Joan was not going to succeed in convincing them that her message did truly come from heaven. But the way that verdict came about is very interesting. The central point of struggle in the trial process really comes down to a discussion of what Joan's voices and visions actually were. And the interesting thing, again, in terms of telling her story forwards, not backwards, is that this is the first point in the historical record that survives, for us at any rate, where Joan actually describes in any detail what she saw and what she heard. So if we start the story with her in the field at Domremy hearing saints' voices, it's information from this point in the trial that we're using.

  • 11:34:03

    ROBERTSMm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

  • 11:34:04

    CASTORAnd what happens is that she's under pressure. She's under pressure from her judges to prove, to validate what she's saying. She starts off by saying she hears a voice. Then she says it's the voice of an angel. Then she starts talking in the plural of voices. Then she says, it's saints. And she begins to name her saints. So we get names attached to these voices for the first time: Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel. And they push her and they push her and push her for more details, for descriptions. She talks about their faces, their hair, the crowns they wore.

  • 11:34:38

    CASTORAnd eventually, when she's being asked about the sign she gave to prove that her voices were true, and after we really know that the sign was the Victory at Orleans, but that's never going to convince the side who lost at Orleans.

  • 11:34:50


  • 11:34:50

    CASTORShe tells the story of an angel walking into the court in front of the whole assembled throng carrying a golden crown to present to the Dauphin. And this is a vision made utterly concrete, an angel walking upstairs carrying and handing over a golden crown. It seems to me that what she's trying to do, as she elaborates and elaborates, is prove that what she's saying is true by adding more and more concrete detail. What she didn't know, because she wasn't a theologian, was that the bishops and the clerics she was talking to saw the Devil at work in all of these details. Because they knew, from centuries of theological scholarship, that angels were purely spiritual beings.

  • 11:35:35

    CASTORAnd if Joan had really seen them, it should be their spiritual essence she's describing.

  • 11:35:39

    ROBERTSSo the more she talked and tried to convince them, the more she did herself in.

  • 11:35:42

    CASTORAbsolutely. And in that respect, as in almost every other, Joan is a very unusual figure. Because most women who came forward claiming to have messages from God, came with a sort of father confessor figure, a spiritual advisor, who could act as their mediator in these claims.

  • 11:35:58


  • 11:35:59

    CASTORJoan had always been completely alone, speaking for herself, which is one of the reasons her voice has echoed down the centuries. But it was one of the reasons she got herself into so much trouble at her trial.

  • 11:36:08

    ROBERTSAnd then, of course, she was famously burned at the stake. And one of our listeners writes, "Was burning of people, especially women, by church officials common in that period?"

  • 11:36:18

    CASTORIt was the standard punishment for heretics and also for witches. Joan was not convicted as a witch, although there were moments in the trial when it looked as though they were going to try to pin a charge of witchcraft on her. One interesting point here is that...

  • 11:36:35

    ROBERTSHow else would the French win the battle or?

  • 11:36:37

    CASTORThe church did not actually inflict the punishment itself. The church could not take a life. So if you hear descriptions or for instance bishops going into battle in the Middle Ages, which they often did -- sometimes did, at any rate -- they wouldn't carry swords because swords would draw blood. They would carry maces with which they could crush their opponents' skulls but not shed blood. The church was not supposed to shed blood. So what the church did was hand the convicted heretic, Joan in this case, over to the secular arm, who would inflict the punishment. So the French clerics who convicted Joan in the court handed her over to the English military authorities and the English burned her.

  • 11:37:15

    CASTORAnd that, yes, that was the standard punishment for heresy. Heresy trials were not ten-a-penny, but every so often. Yes, this was an awful punishment that was inflicted.

  • 11:37:25

    ROBERTSHelen Castor, her book, "Joan of Arc: A History." We'll be back with your comments and your calls. You stay with us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And we'll be right back with your calls. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:00

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Helen Castor, British historian who has written a new book, "Joan of Arc: A History." And Helen, we had just taken the story of Joan through the trial, but she was convicted, really, of two counts, one, the obvious one, of heresy that we've been talking about, but there was also this curious condemnation of her habit of dressing as a man, and that was really significant as part of the verdict.

  • 11:40:32

    CASTORIt was a very significant element. The difficulty for Joan was that in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, it says, in words of not quite one syllable, that a woman dressed as a man was an abomination unto the lord. It was contrary to God's plan for the world, if you like. So while her supporters could overlook it because they could see it as part of this special mission that God had given to Joan alone, the minute that she fell into enemy hands, the fact that she was a young, unmarried woman dressed in this outrageous way was the first point of condemnation against her.

  • 11:41:09

    CASTORAnd she clung to her male clothes. It was only at one brief moment when she did break and confessed before, a few days later recanting her confession and going back to her male clothes and her belief in her voices, I mean, that they were absolutely tied up together in Joan's mind, it seems, that she wore these clothes because God had given her this mission. But it did make her vulnerable. It made her very vulnerable.

  • 11:41:38

    ROBERTSLet's turn to James in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. We're delighted to have you with us, James. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:41:45

    JAMESThey, Steve, hello. I can't wait to get your book. It's a wonderful text, and congratulations on the book.

  • 11:41:51

    CASTORThank you very much.

  • 11:41:53

    JAMESHelen, I don't want to be, like, perverse or weird on this, but there's been, like, many series and fictional books, movies, and what I wanted to ask you is there any research or record indicating that when Joan was held captive whether she was tortured, sexually assaulted or raped, raped repeatedly, one time, 12 times? Is there any way we could know any of that, Helen? And I'll hang up and listen to your answer. Thank you, Helen.

  • 11:42:15

    ROBERTSThanks, James.

  • 11:42:18

    CASTORThat's a very, very interesting question. It's very difficult to get at because we have the trial record, but of course the trial record doesn't tell us what happened behind the scenes, back in her cell when the official proceedings were over. We do know that on one day, her judges took her to another room in the castle and showed her instruments of torture and threatened, essentially, to use them.

  • 11:42:41

    CASTORJoan was so defiant, she said to them, you can do what you like to me, but if I do say anything as a result of torture, I'll only say afterwards that that was - it was because of the violence that I said it. And I think her utter conviction and her determination meant that they knew it wasn't worth trying. The question of what happened back in her cell is a rather different and darker story, I think. We know that she had English soldiers guarding her outside and inside her cell.

  • 11:43:10

    CASTORWe know that she was chained in her cell. We know that she was dressed as a man in her cell throughout almost the whole trial, and being dressed as a man did offer her some sort of protection against sexual assault because the hoes were tied on to the britches, to the upper garments with cords. And Joan, it seems from the records, used more cords than was normal to tie her clothes together.

  • 11:43:32

    CASTORBut there are certainly suggestions that in that brief weekend, really, towards the very end of the trial, when she had recanted out of terrible fear that God had abandoned her, and she would be burned, there were three or four days when she confessed her guilt and spent three or four days back in her cell dressed as a woman before the bishop was then called back in to say that she'd gone back to her previous beliefs.

  • 11:43:57

    CASTORThere are suggestions from later testimony that during those few days when she was dressed as a woman, and therefore physically much more vulnerable in a skirt, that she had been sexually assaulted or perhaps even raped. We can't know for certain, but the trauma that she demonstrates in the transcript of the trial after those few days may just be the trauma of having abandoned her beliefs, and she says that her voices had told her that she had damned her soul to save her life. That may be trauma enough, but it is certainly possible that there was additional physical trauma as a result of those few days.

  • 11:44:34

    ROBERTSAnd you point out that the issue of her sexuality, this is not the first time it came up, given the fact that she was this young virgin. As you point out, while dressed in men's clothes was some protection, in other ways it was more alluring because her legs were visible and that there was always that shadow, that element to Joan that has to be part of the legend.

  • 11:44:58

    CASTORAbsolutely. It was sending out mixed messages all the time. It was, on the one hand, a badge for her and her supporters of her unique mission from God. For her enemies, it was a sign that she was a whore, that she came from the devil, because it was so improper and contrary to God's will that a young girl should go around dressed like this. So and of course it is also, as you say, part of the reason why her legend has persisted until now, because her image is so enduringly recognizable, the young girl with the cropped hair, in armor, in men's clothes. It was a strength and a vulnerability at one and the same time.

  • 11:45:37

    ROBERTSSame time, as it often is.

  • 11:45:39


  • 11:45:40

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Kyle in Lakeland, Florida. Kyle, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:45:45

    KYLEYes, thank you for taking my call. And I've definitely got to get this book. You pretty much answered my questions about why she was burned at the -- I mean, when the English, the country at the time, when they believed whoever won in battle, like you said, that they believed that God gave them the victory. And when she was burned at the stake, you know, English and France, both believing in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, she was still burned, I mean, even though that she was on trial, saying that she heard a voice from God.

  • 11:46:28

    KYLEBut you pretty much answered my question about why it was heresy, when she was wearing men's clothing and et cetera.

  • 11:46:39

    CASTORAnd also because her judges believed that her voices came to her from the devil, and she wouldn't accept their authority in saying that this was actually the devil speaking to her. She insisted that this was God, when they were trying to demonstrate to her that it wasn't, and therefore as a relapsed heretic, because she had confessed briefly and then gone back to her former error, the idea is that the flames are in some sense purifying, that they've tried to save her soul, they haven't succeeded, but this process of going through the fire will in some way be purifying, though horrific though it is from our perspective, and that this was what the church was required to see done.

  • 11:47:23

    ROBERTSNow given that judgment, several of our listeners, Helen Castor, have written and said, what precipitated the later trial that cleared her name, given the fact that she was burned at the stake, and yet 25 years later exonerated and deified, really?

  • 11:47:41

    CASTORWell, the simple answer to why the second trial took place is that the war had moved on by then, and her side had won. Only four years after she died, the great internal conflict within France, between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, came to an end. The duke of Burgundy, who had broken with Joan's king, the former dauphin, had his own fish to fry, essentially. He was trying to set up his own independent state. It had suited him for a long time to be allied with the English, and he had good reason to be allied with the English because the dauphin had murdered his father when under diplomatic protection and so on.

  • 11:48:21

    CASTORBut many years had gone past, and in 1435, a negotiation brought the French back together, and by 1450, the reunited French had succeeded in kicking the English out of France almost completely. So by 1450, what Joan had always said should happen had come true. Her king was now the kind of France, one France, France for the French.

  • 11:48:43

    ROBERTSFrance for the French.

  • 11:48:47

    CASTORSo the one fly still remaining in the ointment, if you like, for the new, undisputed King Charles VII, was that the woman who had stood by his side when he was crowned all those years ago was still, by the official verdict of one part of the French church at least, still officially a heretic. So he started the process moving to get a second trial underway, which was then pursued through to the point of overturning the verdict of the first.

  • 11:49:14

    CASTORBut the other interesting thing we have to notice here is that it was a fairly limited verdict. Joan was still quite a problematic figure. Where did these voices come from and so on? Best not to inquire too far. The second trial declared that she had not been a heretic, and she had been justified, and I think the idea was that everyone could then forget about her, and we could smooth over everything, and the king could get on with being the undisputed king to whom everyone was loyal.

  • 11:49:40

    CASTORIt isn't until 1920 that she was declared to be a saint, and even then that was tricky. I think I'm right in saying that she is the only saint of the Catholic Church to have been killed on a verdict given by the Catholic Church. So she couldn't be made a saint as a martyr in the same way as she could if she'd been executed by Protestants or pagans.

  • 11:50:01

    ROBERTSYeah, exactly, yeah.

  • 11:50:02

    CASTORInstead she was canonized as a holy virgin who displayed the virtues to a heroic degree. So she's always been a complicated figure.

  • 11:50:10

    ROBERTSStill is.

  • 11:50:10

    CASTORAnd she continues to be one now.

  • 11:50:13

    ROBERTSHelen Castor, let's turn to Bill in Ann Arbor, who's got a question that several other of our callers have. Please go ahead, Bill.

  • 11:50:20

    BILLHi. I guess I wanted to know what the Arc comes from. I mean, I know she was the Maid of Orleans, and she was from Domremy, and now that I've heard what la Pucelle is, because Shakespeare calls her la Pucelle, and she's in the big sword fight with the dauphin, Henry VI, and I'd also like to remark that Winston Churchill, who was a bit of an Englishman, wrote that what she had to say about patriotism and duty was all a soldier needed. Thanks.

  • 11:50:51

    CASTORAbsolutely, it's extraordinary the role she played in World War II, actually throughout, because within France, both the French Resistance and the collaborationist Vichy regime were both trying to use her as a heroine at the same time, as well as Churchill. So, I mean, you're absolutely right to point that out. That's a great point. But Joan of Arc, the name we all know her by, is not one she ever used. Her father was known as Jacques d'Arc.

  • 11:51:19


  • 11:51:19

    CASTORAnd as far as we can tell, that may have been a place name, but it's quite hard to trace. What Joan herself called herself, she was asked during her trial what her name was, and she said that girls in her region were called after their mother. And we know that her mother was known as Isabelle Vouthon or Isabelle Romee. So if we want to know what Joan called herself back in the village, we know she called herself Jeannette, so Jeannette Vouthon, Jeannette Romee would be what her friends back home knew her as.

  • 11:51:47

    CASTORAnd then she became as Jehanne la Pucelle, Joan the Maid, once she stepped onto the public stage.

  • 11:51:52

    ROBERTSThanks so much for your call, Bill, we appreciate it.

  • 11:51:52

    BILLThank you.

  • 11:51:54

    ROBERTSAnd let's turn to Kristin in Muncie, Indiana. Kristin, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:52:01

    KRISTINGood morning. I have a question for the author. I'd like to know if she has read Mark Twain's book on Joan of Arc. He has said it is what he considered his best writing, and he -- and the book does start with her as a young girl in the village and talks about her family there. And I was just wondering if she has read it. Thank you so much.

  • 11:52:27

    ROBERTSThanks, Kristin.

  • 11:52:28

    CASTORThat's a very good question, and it's a question that has come in various forms as I've talked about the book over the weeks and months, where I have to make a terrible confession, which is that when I came to write this book, and I was looking at the volume of 19th and 20th-century narratives that have been written about Joan, I realized that if I set out to write them all, I would need to have -- to read them all, I would need several more lifetimes before my book was written.

  • 11:52:55

    CASTORAnd I wanted so much to immerse myself in the 15th century, surviving documentation, that I thought that's what I needed to do. And actually I took a policy decision not to read -- there are so many wonderful characterizations, whether Mark Twain's, whether (unintelligible), whether on film, in music, it's so much, I promised myself that when all of this is over, I'm going to lock myself away for a week and read and watch everything and see how different my version is from what went before. I must apologize, but I'm looking forward to Mark Twain more than almost anyone.

  • 11:53:31

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But why do you think, Helen Castor, this figure has generated so much attention from writers and poets and filmmakers and painters, more than the possible exception of the Virgin Mary, probably more than any woman in history?

  • 11:53:54

    CASTORIt's an endlessly fascinating question. My sense at the moment, as far as I've got, is that she was always unique. She was always extraordinary. from the moment she stepped out from the shadows, people started talking about her because she didn't fit any previous model. She didn't match any neat category. And at the same time, she had this extraordinary voice, this extraordinary will and this extraordinary image that could be nobody else.

  • 11:54:25

    CASTORAnd what that's meant, I think, is that she's instantly recognizable, over the centuries, and at the same time she's become almost an empty vessel that we can fill up with whatever meaning we want. So Protestants as well as Catholics look to her, monarchists as well as nationalists, feminists and traditionalists, Vichy and the resistance, as I say. You can figure her in all - an infinite number of ways, and yet she always remains herself, and there are not many people you can say that of.

  • 11:54:52

    ROBERTSAnd the other dimension the caller, the terrific caller we had, mentioned, Churchill using her as a model for the mentality and the courage of his soldiers. And so that commitment to faith and to country is a noble and enduring model, and yet at the same time, in the modern world, we've also seen unwavering commitment to faith can lead to the kind of turmoil that we're seeing in many places right now in this world, and it's a mixed story.

  • 11:55:23

    CASTORIt is a very mixed story, and in a way that's been one of the resonances that I'd hoped would come out of writing this book. I have left my book very firmly within the 15th century. I want to tell a 15th-century story. But as I was writing, and actually in the year, and now more than a year since I've finished writing, the resonances have just got stronger and stronger. Teenagers traveling hundreds of miles from their home to fight for a cause that they believe is divinely inspired and within which they see no room for negotiation, even if their own life is absolutely on the line, it's something that collapses the centuries like a concertina, and those resonances, those echoes, those ways of seeing Joan in relation to what's happening in our world today, enormously powerful, I think.

  • 11:56:15

    ROBERTSAnd how would you like readers to see Joan? How do you see Joan as the author? And I know you're a historian, you're not a political -- espousing a political cause. But what's the lesson here? What's the message? What's the impression? You've steeped yourself in this life. What do you come away with?

  • 11:56:38

    CASTORI come away, I suppose, with a powerful sense of a human being. One of my frustrations with how Joan so often gets figured now is that she becomes the icon and the saint. But an icon is by definition two-dimensional, flattened, and I want to understand how a human being could have done this. And I think Joan was not a comfortable human being to be around. Someone with this much unwavering purpose, this much conviction, this much certainty, probably was never going to be comfortable.

  • 11:57:16

    CASTORSo the image of the saint that we have, our idea of what a saint is, I think also needs to be challenged. She was spiky, she was difficult. She had to be to achieve what she did. But I would like us to understand a human being in a world of human beings that makes sense. That's my ambition.

  • 11:57:36

    ROBERTSExcellent way to end. Helen Castor, author, "Joan of Arc: A History." What a pleasure being with you this morning.

  • 11:57:42

    CASTORAn absolute pleasure being here, thank you.

  • 11:57:43

    ROBERTSAnd thank you so much to our audience for a wonderful hour, and Diane will be back next week. I'm Steve Roberts. Thanks for listening.

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