Open main menu

  • Edit
  • Watch this page

Cross-dressing, gender identity, and sexuality of Joan of Arc

Page issues

Emmanuel Frémiet’s statue (made in 1874) of Joan of Arc in armor, located outside Place des Pyramides in Paris.

Joan of Arc (Fr: Jeanne d’Arc), a French historical figure executed by the English for heresy in 1431, is a national heroine of France and a Roman Catholic saint. Joan accompanied an army during the Hundred Years War, adopting the clothing of a soldier, which ultimately provided a pretense for her conviction and execution. Whether her crossdressing and lifestyle have implications for her sexuality or gender identity is debated.


Kelly DeVries notes that, “No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saintheretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, proto-feminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, person who turned the tide of the Hundred Years War and even Marxist liberator.”[1]

After her capture during the siege of Compiegne while retreating from a failed attack at Margny, Joan was sold to the English, imprisoned, and subsequently put on trial for heresy. Despite the attempts by the judges to induce her to repent for her wearing of male attire, Joan repeatedly defended the wearing of this clothing as a “small matter” that was “the commandment of God and his angels.” As Pernoud and Clin note, “Other questions about her mode of dress provoked only repetitions of these answers: She had done nothing that was not by the commandment of God. Probably not even Cauchon could then have guessed the importance that her mode of dress would come to assume.”[2]

Joan signed a cedula, possibly without understanding it, indicating that she would no longer wear men’s clothing, only to “relapse” later, giving the court justification to have her executed (“Only those who had relapsed — that is, those who having once adjured their errors returned to them — could be condemned to death by a tribunal of the Inquisition and delivered for death.”)[3] On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Historical contextEdit

Life and society in the late Middle Ages was heavily dominated by the teachings of the church. Concerning crossdressing, Deuteronomy 22:5, which states, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man …”[4] made crossdressing anathema. On the other hand, there were the guidelines of St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “… it is in itself sinful for a woman to wear man’s clothes, or vice versa; especially since this may be a cause of sensuous pleasure … Nevertheless this may be done sometimes without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.”,[5]

Vern and Bonnie Bullough comment that despite the specific canons against it, one might search the church fathers in vain for overt and unconditional approbations on transvestism.[6] On the contrary, Susan Schibanoff notes that “one version of transvestism appears to have been both admired and encouraged, albeit indirectly, in the legends of female saints who disguised themselves as men to live as monks“.[7]As a consequence, Joan’s accusers were forced to carefully frame their accusations that Joan retained “nothing about her to display and announce her sex, save Nature’s own distinctive marks”. That is, unlike the holy transvestites, who totally disguised their sex, Joan had not concealed her anatomy or other “marks” of her biological femininity.[8]

The “holy transvestite” – i.e., transvestite female saint – was a common medieval archetype, and one of the grounds used to defend Joan’s attire. St. Margaret, followed the classic story: fearing for her virginity on her wedding night, she cut off her hair, donned male attire, left her husband, joined a monastery, passing herself off as “Brother Pelagius”. The devil tested her by framing her for the pregnancy of one of the nuns, and she was driven into exile. She clung to her identity until her deathbed, where she confessed and was absolved of guilt.[9]

With regard to the holy transvestites, Gaunt argues that “Sexuality is central to the construction of sanctity in the Middle Ages,” and that holy men and women are not removed from sexuality, but continue to define themselves through reference to sexuality that has been reshaped and redirected. Gaunt agrees with Anson in the description of these stories as “monastic fantasy” that attempts to appease sexual longing by imagining a woman in the monastery who need not inspire guilt; however, the appeasing of the longing is complexly gendered by the apparent masculinity of the subject.[10]

15th-century Europe possessed a significant cultural lore of such saints extending back nearly as far as the history of ChristianitySaint Thecla, sourced from the New Testament Apocrypha The “Acts of Paul and Thecla“, was so enraptured with the teachings of Paul that she left her fiance and followed him, dressing as a man part of the time while in his retinue.[11]Thecla’s story was very popular and widespread, with depictions of her and dedications ranging from Antioch to Iberia.[12] According to Dekker and van de Pol, “The transformation into a man was a very dominant theme with female saints from the fifth to the seventh century. Saint Margaret, for example, escaped on her wedding night in men’s clothes. … A saint especially popular among the common people in Europe from the eleventh century on … was Saint Uncumber. She was a Portuguese princess who refused to be married to the heathen King of Sicily, and prayed to God to be saved from this fate. Her salvation was unusual; she suddenly grew a beard. Variations on this theme recur more often … As always, myth and reality interact, and several medieval women took these saints as their models. The example that first comes to mind here is Joan of Arc.”[13] Likewise, numerous legends and tales from Medieval Europe (and, likewise, elsewhere in the world) discuss transvestism and sex change (often miraculous). Folklorist Stith Thompson documents only a few traditional “sex tests” for unmasking men dressed as women, but numerous tests for women, ranging from placing a spinning wheel nearby to scattering peas on the ground to slip women but not men. The latter example is well known from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but can be found in William Shakespeare‘s As You Like It, and the trick is even attributed to as far back as King Solomon.[14]

Despite these examples, female cross-dressers in Europe were little accepted. The only known case of accepted female gender inversion in Medieval Europe comes from the Balkans, and extends back as far as the 15th century, as noted by a mention in the Kanun. These women could escape the very rigid social rules by declaring themselves sworn virgins, and would dress as men, live as men, and share the same status as them. Families without male heirs could even declare their infant daughters to be men and rear them as boys. Sworn virgins could escape from arranged marriages, and even marry other women.[15] Such a tradition did not exist elsewhere in Europe at the time. Dr. Carleton S. Coon noted the same custom among the mountaineers of Albania, and that under certain circumstances a woman dressing as a man becomes the head of the family and assumes a completely male role.

Bennett and Froide, in “Single women in the European Past”, note: “Other single women found emotional comfort and sexual pleasure with women. The history of same-sex relations between women in medieval and early modern Europe is exceedingly difficult to study, but there can be no doubt of its existence. Church leaders worried about lesbian sex; women expressed, practiced, and were sometimes imprisoned or even executed for same-sex love; and some women cross-dressed in order to live with other women as married couples.” They go on to note that even the seemingly modern word “lesbian” has been traced back as far as 1732, and discuss lesbian subcultures, but add, “Nevertheless, we certainly should not equate the single state with lesbian practices.” While same-sex relationships among men were highly documented and condemned, “Moral theologians did not pay much attention to the question of what we would today call lesbian sex, perhaps because anything that did not involve a phallus did not fall within the bounds of their understanding of the sexual … Some legislation against lesbian relations can be adduced for the period … mainly involving the use of “instruments,” in other words, dildoes.”[16] Crane agrees, commenting on a “penitential doctrine that conceived homoerotic acts but not homosexual identity … Discourses of sexuality such as fine amor and mystical marriage with God may be less visible now than penitential doctrine, but their effects on subjectivity deserve the greater efforts of recovery.”[17]

In the context of the time, Joan was familiar with a long line of female cross-dressers living fully male lives, often at what they saw as God’s calling. However, while she may have been aware of the context, she knew that her transvestism, while potentially acceptable to a degree, still carried social risks.

Historical perspectiveEdit

Joan of Arc in armor, with a sword.

During and immediately following her life, perspectives on Joan varied widely, often (although not always) along factional lines. Rumors of a woman leading an opposing army was historically used to incite troops against the obvious heresy, sorcery, and immorality. Comments from English soldiers at the time concerning Joan range from referring to her as a “bloody tart” to asking “whether she expected [her soldiers] to surrender to a woman” and referring to her troops as “unbelieving pimps”. The English author of The Brut claimed that her troops followed her by “crafte of sorcerie”.[18]After his defeat at Orleans, Bedford reported to the English crown that his men had been bewitched by a satanic agent in the form of a woman dressed as a man.[19] Crane notes that she was referred to as “femme monstrueuse,” “femme désordonnée et diffamée, estant en habit d’homme et de gouvernement disslut” (“monstrous woman, disorderly and notorious woman who dresses in men’s clothes, whose conduct is dissolute”).[20]

On the other side of the English channel, the situation was largely reversed. From the beginning, for whatever reason, there was surprisingly little hesitation on the side of the French. Of special note was the loyalty given to her by her soldiers, who were among the most skilled in France. The Bourgeois of Paris claimed that this was because, “all who disobeyed her should be killed without mercy”, but the author of the Journal du siege d’Orleans noted that “All regarded her with much affection, men and women, as well as small children.” Jean de Macon, an eyewitness to the siege of Orleans, noted that there was only one derision, while the Cronique de Lorraine added that “All the army promised to always obey her. Each victory motivated more loyalty and further victory. Even disobedience to her higher command seems to have invited loyalty; she brought action and victory, while the older, noble generals achieved nothing but inaction and defeat.[21]

These viewpoints tended to extend to her trials—first the Condemnation trial in the hands of the English, and later the rehabilitation trial under a commission appointed by Pope Calixtus III and organized by Charles VII. As Pinzino notes, “The pro-English (Burgundian) party into whose hands Joan fell in 1430, over a year after her role in the vital French victory at Orleans, worked to defame her self-asserted divine calling and executed her at age nineteen in the marketplace of Rouen in 1431. In the years following, however, political power in France permanently reverted to the pro-French (Armagnac) party of Joan’s supporters. Promptly after Normandy and the city of Rouen itself had been restored to the French (1449) and the ecclesiastical archives there were retrieved and opened, the proceedings to nullify Joan of Arc’s condemnation were undertaken by her supporters … these proceedings were virtually unprecedented in ecclesiastical judicial history.”[22]

Charles VII, who owed his crown to Joan and had followed her, believing her to be divinely inspired, found himself now having been brought to power by a convicted heretic. On February 15, 1450, Charles dispatched a letter ordering the creation of a Royal Commission to reexamine the Condemnation trial, under the leadership of Guillaume d’Estouteville, Charles’s cousin. As Pernoud and Clin note, “That trial was now a symbol of complex cultural fissures in search of closure: of the internal fractures of a riven France, of national splits enervated by English invasion, and of religious and civil power struggles sustained by the University of Paris.”[23] The rehabilitation trial focused strongly on the transvestism charge, which Pope Pius II noted was problematic.[24] Individuals testifying during the trial stressed the necessity of her dress, both for means of keeping order in her troops in battle and for protecting her chastity. As the trial noted, she wore “long, conjoined hosen, attached to the aforesaid doublet with twenty cords (aiguillettes)” and “tight leggings”, with the cords being used to securely tie the parts of the garment together so her clothing couldn’t be pulled off by the English guards.[25]Guillaume Manchon testified, “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her,” a claim backed up by a number of other witnesses. The same justification was given for her relapse by a number of witnesses, such as Friar Martin Ladvenu, Pierre Cusquel, Giullaume Manchon, and Friar Isambart de la Pierre, although a number of others, such as Jean Massieu, Pierre Daron, and Guillaume Colles, alternatively claimed that she was entrapped into wearing male clothing by a guard who took away her female clothing). Jean Moreau testified that he had heard Joan reply to the preacher that she had adopted male clothing during her campaign because she had to live among soldiers, among whom it was more appropriate for her to be in male, rather than female clothing. The court ruled that “nothing improper has been found in her, only good humility, chastity, piety, propriety, simplicity.”

These viewpoints remained the dominant perspective on Joan’s crossdressing up until the modern age. As Régine Pernoud notes in the foreword to Joan of Arc, serious books about her in any language “numbered only a few dozen”.[26] Likewise, the lack of modern acceptance of and knowledge about gender identity and sexuality further limited discourse on the subject.

Modern perspectiveEdit

One of the first modern writers to raise issues of gender identity and sexuality was novelist Vita Sackville-West. In “Saint Joan of Arc“, published in 1936, she indirectly suggests that Joan of Arc may have been a lesbian.[27]

Rebuttals were forthcoming and are widely mentioned.[citation needed] The most prominent rebuttal refers to the common medieval practice of women sharing beds with one another; bed sharing had no connotations in regard to sexuality. Bonnie Wheeler of the International Joan of Arc Society called the book “dead wrong but fun”.[28]

Pernoud credits Joan’s clothing to necessity and her belief that it was ordained by God.[citation needed] Among other things, Pernoud cites large amounts of testimony, including Guillaume Manchon from the Rehabilitation trial: “… at that time, she was dressed in male clothing, and kept complaining that she could not do without it, fearing that the guards would violate her in the night; and once or twice she had complained to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the guards had attempted to rape her.”[29]

Warner argues that in pre-industrial Europe, a link existed between transvestism and priestly functions, hence justifying the historical viewing of her as both a witch and a saint. Warner further argues for Joan as not occupying either a male or female gender. “Through her transvestism, she abrogated the destiny of womankind. She could thereby transcend her sex. … At the same time, by never pretending to be other than a woman and a maid, she was usurping a man’s function but shaking off the trammels of his sex altogether to occupy a different, third order, neither male nor female”. Warner categorizes Joan as an androgyne.[30]

Under the direction of L’Académie française, the Centre Jeanne d’Arc in Orleans has been working on a re-edition of Jules Quicherat’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc. According to Bouzy, Quicherat’s work forms the basis of most modern scholarship on Joan, but has been discovered to contain a number of errors, selective editing, and use of “originals” that were often highly edited or manipulated versions of earlier documents. Relevant to Joan’s crossdressing is Jacques Gelu’s treatise, one of the theological treatise ordered by Charles VII for her rehabilitation. Quicherat criticized the text as “uninstructive hodgepodge”, and, according to him, “made it considerably shorter, taking out parts of the passages where points of religious dogma are discussed.” As Bouzy, a member of the Centre working on the project notes, “This text has hardly ever been consulted by historians, although it provides interesting evidence for the way the fifteenth-century church perceived Joan. The text stresses the problem of Joan’s cross dressing — this shows that in 1429, even the prelates who supported Charles VII were reluctant to accept a young girl dressed as a man. Apparently, Charles VII decided in favor of Joan only because his confessor, Gérard Machet, was convinced that Joan was the girl whose coming had been announced in a prophecy by Marie Robine, a hermit from Avignon; and even then, Charles required that she be thoroughly examined. Several other treatises that have never been translated (apart from Gerson’s tract) are likely to hold surprises for us as well.”[31]

In the Journal of Modern and Medieval Studies, Crane writes, “Isolating transvestism from sexual identity risks assuming both that heterosexuality is the only possible position for Joan and that self-presentation has nothing to do with sexuality — that sexuality is innate and prior to choices of gendered behavior.” Crane argues that “an intensified relation to the law produces not her acquiescence in self-correction but instead her persistent effort to distinguish herself from the category of womanhood as she understands it.” She notes Joan’s repeated justification of her attire that it “pleases God that I wear it” (“il plaist a Deu que je le porte”, etc.), dodges a question on whether she would liked to have been male,[32]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: