Skip to main content

Joan of Arc

The bizarre trial of a teenage war hero

Jean Seberg in the 1957 film Saint Joan. Bettmann/Getty Images

We are much less sceptical than our ancestors, says historian Helen Castor in You’re Dead to Me, a popular history podcast “for those who don’t like history… and those who do”. Take Joan of Arc, the teenage peasant and scourge of the English whose visions of saints captivated France and made her a war hero. She was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1431, but in 1920 she was canonised as a saint. So what changed?

In the 15th century the whole idea of Joan was alarming: “She was young, she was poor, she was a woman. She wasn’t supposed to have a voice.” These days we want to give her a chance, so we “smooth the story over into a single narrative”.

As a result, chunks of Joan’s trial have been wiped from history. How she spent parts of it blabbing about how good she was at sewing. Or her claim that she saw not just saints but an angel, who walked into a crowded room and gave the king a crown. No one in the crowd could recall it, and Joan would later confess it was a metaphor – she was the angel. “These are the kind of difficulties we don’t really see in Joan’s story any more.” But we should. “If we want to get to the real Joan of Arc, we need to step away from the saint and get to the contradictory and sometimes, as we all are, implausible human being.”

Listen to the podcast here.