History Weekend 2014 preview: 5 minutes with… Helen Castor

We all know the story of Joan of Arc: mystic, warrior, martyr, saint. But in making her an icon, have we lost sight of the real Joan?

At this year’s History Weekend in Malmesbury, historian Helen Castor will tell Joan’s story afresh, setting her within her extraordinary world where no one knew what would happen next.

Castor is a medieval historian and author, who last autumn presented Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death on BBC Four.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, she gives a flavour of her Malmesbury talk, and likens her work as a medieval historian to that of a detective…

Helen-Castor-17cf458


Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?

Advertisement

A: When I was very small and I read Jean Plaidy’s two books for children – The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary, Queen of Scots.

What I loved was that I could identify with those girls, intriguingly different characters though they were, even though they lived in an alien world that managed to be strange and glamorous and frightening and thrilling all at the same time.

I love sci-fi for many of the same reasons – but history’s better because it really happened…

Q: What’s the best thing about being a historian?

A: That I work on what I’m fascinated by – I feel pinch-myself lucky.  I get to spend a lot of my time in the world of the past, and I love the process of working out how best to communicate what it was like to live in that world.

There’s huge satisfaction (as well as much angst and labour!) in seeing the stories of people I care about, long gone though they might be, take shape on the page or the screen.

Q: Are you reading any exciting history books at the moment?

A: Jessie Childs’s God’s Traitors, a superb exploration of Catholic lives in Elizabethan England. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a sneak preview of Dan Jones’s next book, The Hollow Crown – a brilliantly compelling narrative of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudor dynasty.

Q: Why do you love medieval history?

A: Partly, it’s the challenge of the detective work. Writing history from medieval sources is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing – it requires a combination of forensic analysis and deep imaginative engagement to make sense of the whole picture.

And partly it’s in my bones: I just don’t feel the same way about any other period of history.

Q: What can we expect from your talk at Malmesbury?

A: Over the five centuries since her death, Joan of Arc has become a saint and an icon. But I’m not so interested in icons, because they’re by definition two-dimensional, and, in the process of becoming all things to all people, the historical person risks disappearing altogether.

So that’s what I want to explore: how was it that a 17-year-old girl did what Joan did, came – from nowhere – onto the political stage to seize an unprecedented moment in a world that believed that women couldn’t fight?

I hope people will come away with a sense of a real – and extraordinary – human being.

To buy tickets to Helen Castor’s talk, Joan of Arc: A History, click here.

Advertisement

To find out more about the History Weekend line-up, click here.