Wednesday 29 October 2014

Joan of Arc in 3D: a guest interview with Helen Castor

Photo credit: Chas Gibbions
We are very pleased to welcome our October guest, Helen Castor, well known to those interested in History for her book and TV series, She-Wolves. She is also famous on this blog for being the big sister of Harriet Castor, who has only just stopped being a History Girl.

This is what Helen says about herself: Helen Castor is a medieval historian and a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Blood & Roses, her biography of the 15th-century Paston family, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005 and won the English Association's Beatrice White Prize in 2006. Her last book She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth was widely selected as one of the books of the year for 2010. She presents Radio 4’s Making History and documentaries for BBC television, including a three-part series based on She-Wolves and, most recently, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death.

Harriet: Thank you so much, History Girls, for this opportunity to come back and visit you! Thank you, too, for giving me this chance to interview my sister, Helen Castor, about her new book Joan of Arc: A History (published in the UK by Faber this month, and in the US by HarperCollins next May). You might think we’d have talked about Joan many times already… but the reality of busy lives – plus the fact that we live in different parts of the country – means that we don’t get the chance to see each other as often as we’d like, and so to have this excuse to chat about Helen’s new project has been a pleasure, as well as very interesting. You might accuse me of family bias (I can’t do anything about that!) but I can say with complete honesty I absolutely loved reading Joan; it is gripping, moving, and explains with vivid clarity the immensely complex and constantly shifting political scenes of the time, both in England and France – a huge achievement in itself, and one that succeeds in setting Joan the woman in her proper historical context.

Harriet: Your last book, She-Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, was about four medieval queens. How did She-Wolves lead on to Joan of Arc?

Helen: In She-Wolves I was exploring the constraints on female power in a world that expected its rulers to be male – and one of the most significant of those constraints was that women couldn’t lead armies on the battlefield. As I talked about the book, I kept finding myself saying, ‘The only woman who did lead armies on the battlefield was Joan of Arc – and look what happened to her…’.

And eventually it dawned on me that I didn’t really know what had happened to her. I knew the outline of her story, as most people do; but I didn’t really understand how she’d come to do what she did, or what she thought she was doing, or how those around her – friends and enemies – had reacted. Once those questions had occurred to me, I wanted to know more.

Harriet: Many books have been written about Joan. What did you feel still needed to be explored?

Helen: There are countless books about Joan – as well as plays, films, music, art – which meant that sitting down to write was a fairly terrifying prospect. But what I felt was missing was a book that told her story forwards, not backwards.

By that I mean that most books about Joan start with her in the fields at Domrémy, hearing her voices for the first time. But all our evidence for that part of her life comes from the transcripts of her two trials – one that condemned her as a heretic, and the other, held twenty-five years after her death, to clear her name.

And that leaves us with a problem. The trials took place when it was already clear what Joan had achieved, so the evidence they present is deeply infused with hindsight of one kind or another. And if we start with Joan in the fields, that hindsight is built into the narrative: it’s obvious from the start that she has an extraordinary destiny in front of her, so we’re already telling the story of the icon and the saint.

What I wanted to do instead was put hindsight aside as much as possible; to understand the war in France, and then to experience the shock of a seventeen-year-old peasant girl appearing from nowhere, claiming to be sent by God. Then, we can start the story by asking why on earth anyone would listen to her…

Harriet: What were the particular challenges of the research for this book?

Helen: I knew the fifteenth century very well, but almost entirely from the English perspective. So it was a challenge – and a fascinating one – to find myself in fifteenth-century France, within a civil war every bit as complex and brutal as our Wars of the Roses a few decades later.

Beyond that, the transcripts of Joan’s trials are deeply testing sources to use. Utterly absorbing, but never straightforward – the process shaped by medieval canon law and theology, the testimonies full of inconsistencies and contradictions, and many of the witnesses’ stories growing in the telling. Every time I go back to them I see new things.

 By Clément de Fauquembergue
(The only surviving image of Joan made during her lifetime: a picture drawn in the margin of the records of the Paris parlement by its notary, Clément de Fauquembergue, on 10 May 1429, the day when news arrived of the liberation of Orléans. He had heard that the Armagnacs were accompanied by a maid carrying a banner, but he had never seen her, and so depicted her with long hair in female dress).

Harriet: There seems to be a push, in the non-fiction history market, towards adopting a fiction-like style of writing. In this context, how would you describe your approach to writing narrative history?

Helen: For me, the point of writing narrative history is that it allows the past to be immersive. I’m trying to look through the eyes of the people who were there, to understand what they thought and felt – and that, of course, means there are many points of comparison with what writers of historical fiction are seeking to do. It’s crucial to remember that the people I’m writing about don’t know what hasn’t yet happened, any more than we do in our own lives; so any mention of what’s still to come, or of what later historians have said about their experiences, jolts us out of their world – and I try very hard to avoid that. Instead, all that contextual and historiographical discussion goes into the notes, where it can stand on its own terms.

So I suppose I’m saying that historical imagination always has to be at work in attempting to recreate the past – but at the same time there are boundaries to what I’ll allow myself to do. I’ll try to summon up a scene from all the available details in contemporary sources, or put flesh on the bones of my protagonists using every scrap of information I can find; but I won’t, for example, put words into their mouths. Most of the transcript of Joan’s trial is in the third person (‘she said that…’). Very occasionally something is recorded in direct speech – and those are the only moments when Joan speaks directly in my text. There remains the question of the accuracy of the notaries who recorded her words and translated them into Latin; but at least I can be faithful to the transcript.

Harriet: As you explain in the book, Joan wasn’t the only holy ‘simple’ person to emerge at this time. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

Helen: It can be tempting for us to assume, I think, that Joan’s exceptional career came about because she was a completely exceptional figure in her own time. Though she was extraordinary in many ways, it’s important to realise that God was present everywhere in her world, and that she wasn’t the only person – or the only woman – in late medieval France to claim that she heard messages from heaven.

What was unique about Joan was her claim that she’d been sent to lead the king’s army, which of course could be regarded as a miracle for as long as she was winning battles, but rapidly became a liability once the victories stopped. And, once she’d been captured, her own side adopted another messenger from God who was almost an ‘anti-Joan’: a simple boy, known as William the Shepherd, who carried no weapons but rode side-saddle, with stigmata on his hands and feet. He didn’t last long either… But if we understand the landscape of belief in which she lived, we stand a better chance of seeing what was truly remarkable about Joan herself.

Joan of Arc depicted in a 1505 manuscript.
Harriet: I had always thought of Joan’s adoption of male dress principally in terms of its symbolic value, but you point out that there were very important practical issues involved – not simply connected to horse-riding, but to personal security too. How much detail were you able to find out about this?

Helen: Her male dress appears to have started as a practical thing. When she set off for Chinon from Vaucouleurs, near Domrémy, the townspeople gave her a horse and an outfit of men’s clothes – which made complete sense, given that she would be riding across dangerous country for many days in the company of a small band of soldiers. But by the time she reached the Dauphin’s court, her male dress seems, for her, to have become part of her mission – an outward manifestation of the work she had been sent to do.

It’s very hard, though, to get a clear sense of what the balance was between the two – perhaps because they became so completely intertwined. At her trial, Joan said many different things about her clothes; she always defended her male dress, but not in consistent or completely coherent terms. Certainly, she was physically less vulnerable dressed as a man, because the cords with which hose were knotted on to a doublet offered some practical protection against sexual assault – and some later witnesses suggested that, during the three days towards the very end of her trial when she was dressed in women’s clothes, she was raped in her cell. We can’t know for sure; but it’s an important reminder of quite how vulnerable she was as a lone female prisoner in a castle full of soldiers who hated and feared her.

Harriet: Did your view of Joan change during your work on this project?

Helen: She moved from two dimensions to three. I felt I’d found the real person, standing squarely within her own world, rather than the icon who somehow escapes from history altogether. What I found particularly moving was coming to an understanding of her voices and visions that made sense to me in human terms. On the last morning of her life, some of her judges visited her in her cell in a last attempt, as they saw it, to save her soul. Some historians have completely rejected this part of the transcript as a fabrication after the event, but for a whole number of reasons that doesn’t convince me historically; and what Joan says during that meeting about her voices and visions – when she knows she’s about to die, and all her grandiose stories of angels and saints have gone – seems to me to have a real psychological truth. I’ve tried to leave room throughout the book for anyone who reads it to come to their own conclusions, but that, for me, was the moment when I felt I understood.

Harriet: She-Wolves became not only a book but also a series of BBC TV documentaries, which I know many readers of this blog thoroughly enjoyed (me included!). Can we hope for the same with Joan?

Helen: I’m working with the same director and producer and most of the same team – all of them brilliant – on a one-hour programme for BBC Two, to be shown sometime next year. We’ve just finished filming in France, following in Joan’s footsteps from Domrémy to Rouen – and one of the things we’re hoping to do, as well as going to all those glorious places, is bring the transcript of her trial to life as much as we can. It’s an exciting process.

Joan of Arc: A History is published in the UK by Faber & Faber, and will be published in the US by HarperCollins in May 2015.


Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting to hear about the process of writing a biography and getting under the skin of someone from so long ago - in some ways we know so much about her, but in other ways, so little. One for the list!

Clare Mulley said...

Excellent to look behind the layers of myth, but still see myths as part of the person. Looks great.

Mark Burgess said...

Excellent Helen and Harriet, I'm really looking forward to reading this book, especially for your take, Helen, on Joan's character and psychology. The TV programme promises to be a treat too! Thank you.

Katherine Langrish said...

It sounds like a fascinating book about a most fascinating and inspiring young woman. I shall certainly be reading it!

Katherine Roberts said...

Great interview! Joan of Arc is one of my historical inspirations... quite a few of my young characters are loosely based on her.

Celia Rees said...

Well done the Castors! Thank you for this illuminating interview. Really looking forward to reading the book and seeing Harriet on TV again. Went to see Harriet talking at the RSC where she referred to Joan as part of an excellent discussion on Roaring Girls.

Leslie Wilson said...

Must get it!

Unknown said...

Just listened to Podcast the trials of Joan of Arc Oct 2014
You clearly connected with this fascinating young woman who's life was do tragically cut short fabulous presentation Thank you