Long ago, during an earlier life as a medievalist, I spent some time studying the trials of Joan of Arc. Like all those who encounter her words as well as her deeds, I was amazed and impressed by the courage and conviction displayed by that extraordinary 19-year old in front of the array of old men who confronted her.
I hadn’t thought about Joan for years, but in the last couple of months—okay, since the Brett Kavanaugh calamity—bits of her story keep coming back to me. So I took another look.
Everyone knows the story, or at least has seen the movie. I’ll write from selected versions of the legend here. [For a note on background and sources, see below.]
Joan was born in 1412 to a relatively prosperous peasant family in Domremy, a village in what is now northwestern France but was then in contested territory occupied by the English and their allies, the Burgundians. When she was about thirteen she was visited by the archangel Michael, and thereafter, frequently, by the virgin saints Catherine and Margaret. Joan referred to the saints as her “voices,” and the voices told her that she was a daughter of God who must lead a good life. Whether or not she was aware of a contemporary prophecy that a Maid, La Pucelle, would save France, she understood that she was charged with a special mission that required her to remain a virgin.
Joan was not frightened by her voices; their visits were occasions of joy. She obeyed them in every particular, even the preposterous instruction to leave home, go to the Dauphin (Crown Prince of France) at Chinon and escort him to Reims to be crowned. That insane enterprise required her not only to travel hundreds of miles through battle zones, but also—at least as difficult—to persuade several high ranking men, including the prince, to take her seriously. She succeeded: she reached the Dauphin, and with the aid of a miraculous secret sign convinced him that she might be useful. She passed a test conducted over several days by court theologians to establish that she was neither a heretic nor possessed by the Devil. Joan also “passed” a physical examination administered by some high-ranking ladies to confirm that she was not a camp-follower who consorted with soldiers, but a virgin who might be plausible as “La Pucelle.” It’s hard to imagine this quasi-gynecological event, but it was only the first of such that she endured.
Joan traveled to Chinon with the help of soldiers who provided her with a soldier’s outfit, including armor, so she could travel through combat zones. The armor was protective in another way; it discouraged her companions from thinking of her as a female available for sex. Years later, during her rehabilitation trial [see note below], some of her fellow soldiers reported that they had been unwilling or unable to respond to Joan as they would to any other young woman traveling alone – one assumes, by sexual assault. One of her companions reported that “. . . both Bertrand and I slept each night with her. The Maid slept beside us without taking off her doublet and breeches; and as for me, I was in such awe of her that I would not have dared to go near her; and I tell you on my oath that I never had any desire or carnal feelings for her.” Sex, gender, and clothing were central themes in the life of the Maid from the time she set out from home until her death—and even afterwards, when her naked, burned body was displayed to the crowd so they could see she was neither man nor angel, but a dead woman.
When Joan passed the exams and promised to raise the six-month-long siege of Orleans and escort him to his long-delayed coronation, the miserable Dauphin, whose fortunes had sunk very low, decided to give her a chance. She succeeded brilliantly: the siege ended nine days after Joan arrived with her army, who hailed her thereafter as a true messenger of God. Just three months later she escorted the Dauphin to Reims, where he was crowned Charles VII, king of a reawakened and re-inspired France. After that he had little use for Joan.
The coronation marked a turning point for France and its new king, and in the opposite direction also for Joan. After some military mistakes and defeats she was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the English, who handed her over to the Bishop of Beauvais, an English sympathizer whose task was to find her guilty of heresy and get rid of her. From May 1430 until her death a year later, Joan was imprisoned in a dungeon in Rouen, examined and interrogated over and over again by groups of men who tried to trap their unlettered young prisoner into heretical statements.
At night she was shackled to a heavy wooden block in her cell, guarded by soldiers who certainly taunted and probably molested her. She was not allowed to attend Mass, and she was not taken to an ecclesiastical prison where she could have been guarded by women instead of men (nuns, not soldiers), although she repeatedly requested both of those things.
Joan was continually harassed about her clothing, and she continually insisted that men’s clothes served as necessary protection against sexual assault. It’s worth asking: just what were the clothes that caused such an uproar, and eventually sent her to the fire? While Joan was with the soldiers but not armed for combat, she offended against the dress code for class as well as gender by wearing the clothes of an off-duty knight or squire: short breeches, “hosen” laced to a doublet (jacket), and a cloak and cap. (The hosen, or long stockings, were laced to the doublet with about twenty shoelace-like “points.”) In prison she wore a similar style of clothing, although not of such fine materials. High boots are mentioned occasionally, as is a man’s hood (known, oddly enough, as a “chaperon”). A woman in prison would have worn a long skirt, a blouse of some kind, and perhaps a cloak with a hood. No one of any class or gender in the 15th century, not even kings and queens, wore anything we would recognize as underwear.
Obviously, men’s clothes did offer some practical protection against assault, and perhaps a psychological barrier as well. Joan was certainly subjected by her guards to taunting and groping if not much worse, and towards the end of her imprisonment she told her confessor that an English “lord” had entered her cell and tried to rape her. Was he somehow prevented by her clothing? It seems unlikely—indeed, it seems extremely unlikely that one or more of these men would not have actually raped her. The soldiers with whom she lived when she traveled with the army may indeed have been awed, perhaps (as they said) even made impotent by the charisma of the Maid, but what about the jailers with whom she was alone, helpless, and shackled? We do not know what really happened, and we must take Joan at her word. The Maid, whose virginity was essential to her vocation, required men’s clothes when she lived with men, on the battlefield or in the dungeon.
The 19-year old Joan, without formal education, foiled and frustrated the bishop and his team of interrogators by repeatedly dodging their theological traps. After almost a year of this they resorted to terror: they took their prisoner to the place of execution and described in graphic terms what happened to heretics. Joan recanted, denied her voices and her mission and repented of wearing “a dissolute habit, misshapen and immodest and against the propriety of nature.” She put on a skirt, but that was not enough: her hair, she confessed, had been “clipped ‘en ronde’ in the style of a man, against all the modesty of the feminine sex.” The jailers shaved her head: a bald head was more acceptable than a man’s haircut, and doubtless contributed to the necessary shaming.
The bishop’s last trap was successful. A heretic who recanted could be spared the fire, but a heretic who recanted and then “relapsed” was doomed. The jailers must have been confident that Joan would relapse, and very shortly she did. She said she had been frightened into recantation, and there is no reason not to believe her—although her reasons for resuming men’s clothes may not have been so simple. The story tells us that the jailers tricked her again by hiding her skirt and leaving only men’s clothes available; she had to wear those or be naked. Whether or not that last piece of treachery really occurred, it was the resumption of men’s clothes that sent Joan to the stake on May 30, 1431.
After her body was displayed so the crowd could see that she was human and female, it was returned to the fire to be reduced to ashes. These were thrown into the Seine: the executioners wanted nothing left of the Maid to serve as relics for her followers. That hope was defeated, in the end, by the persistent legend that Joan’s heart never burned.
Joan of Arc was “rehabilitated” in a new trial twenty-five years later and canonized in 1920. She has been claimed as a saint by the church that burned her, and as a symbol of the French nation by Charles de Gaulle, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and many other Frenchmen. I believe it is time to claim her also for #MeToo.
Note on Background and Sources
The historical background of Joan of Arc’s short life was the Hundred Years War between England and France – the series of battles, sieges, and campaigns fought in much of what is now France from the mid-14th to mid-15th century. The issue was contested succession to the French throne, claimed by both Plantagenet and Valois monarchs. Joan’s mission to bring about the coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII was a crucial step in the transformation of France into something like a modern nation, and of a dynastic conflict into an international war.
Joan grew up in a village in Lorraine, an area subject to the Dukes of Burgundy (allies of the English invaders) and ravaged by decades of occupation and destruction long before she was born. Her imprisonment and execution by the Burgundian-English forces and their clerical sympathizers was an act of war couched as an ecclesiastical trial and punishment of a heretic. When the long war ended in French victory, that trial was nullified and the Maid was “rehabilitated” and declared a martyr in 1456, 25 years after her death. Many of the stories about Joan come down to us from the second trial and thus depend on the highly subjective accounts of those who later “remembered” her.
Because of the two trials and the enormous accumulation of legend, politics, and romance around the figure of Joan, the sources for her history are extremely numerous and complicated. For beginners, the bibliographical note at the end of Larissa Taylor’s 2009 study, The Virgin Warrior, is a good place to start. The standard English translation of the first trial is W.P. Barrett, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc (1932); for the second trial, significant extracts are made available to English readers in Regine Pernoud’s Retrial of Joan of Arc (1955). The secondary literature is also enormous and varied; again, Larissa Taylor’s book is a good place to start. Marina Warner offered a feminist perspective in Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981), and for a fresh take on an old subject, see also Francoise Meltzer, For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity (2001).
I note with delight that the slogan used by French women in our international #MeToo movement is #BalanceTonPorc—or “Expose your pig!”
This is one of my favorites so far on this website–and that’s saying a lot. The writing is always so good, and the insights so astute. But as usual what is most useful to me are the ways in which Atkinson’s knowledge and understanding of history illuminate what we are going through now–Me Too indeed–and the deep, deep desire to silence women at any cost. It’s no wonder so many of us feel eerily vulnerable after watching a spectacle like the Kavanaugh hearings–the implicit threat remains: You must not say these things. You must not speak out of turn. You must not interrupt our version of reality. On penalty of death.
Good luck with that, guys. As of today, the stake is not an option, and the word is out. Thanks in no small part to this kind of thoughtful, elegant research and writing.
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Thank you so much — and yes, the stake is not an option, but Dr. Ford hasn’t been able to go home yet…
Strong stuff, so beautifully written. And yes, we should embrace her for illuminating things of this moment from #MeToo to Michelle Obama’s concept of becoming, to transgender rights.
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Great account of Joan’s life, Clarissa. You might be interested in a novel by Ali Alizadeh, Jeanne d’Arc. It’s quite an unusual take on the story of her life, and very moving.
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This is terrific, Crissy. When I was interviewed for the Wilson as an undergraduate, the panel consisted of two priests and a (male) professor of education, a cheery type but of marginal sanity. One of the priests (from the reactionary institute that “studied” relations with, I think., the Russian orthodox) was so hostile in questioning me that the other, a Jesuit from the English department whom I remember with great fondness, finally broke in to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, father, but this is beginning to sound a little too much like Joan of Arc and the Bishop of Beauvais.”
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Thank you! I love this story — still relevant, isn’t she?
I should have added, ‘beautifully illustrated’.
Your note on background and sources is useful, but your account is incisive, elegant and sufficient. Thank you.
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