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Joan of Arc

By Gael Stirler, owner of
(August, 2010)

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

The Maid of Orléans

by Gael Stirler
(August, 2010)

At the start of the 15th century the Hundred Years War, famine, and plague had left France demoralized and exhausted. The English King, Henry V, asserted his right to the throne of France through his lineage on his mother's side. This caused civil conflict in France between the supporters of the English king and the supporters of the Dauphin, Charles VI. Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt in 1415 but never completely consolidated his power. In May of 1420, Henry married the Valois princess, Catherine, and all rights to kingship were passed to him from Charles VI of France. Just two years later, Henry V died leaving his infant son to inherit the throne. When Charles VI died the same year, his son, Charles VII claimed that he was the rightful King of France, but he was too weak and indecisive to press his claim. It took a fiery young maiden named Joan to inspire the people of France.

Joan of Arc claimed to be chosen by God to lead France against the English and that only through her would they be victorious. She convinced Count Robert de Baudricourt who then gave her an escort of five veteran soldiers to conduct her before the Dauphin in Chinon.

She made a pledge before God to remain a virgin "until God wills it otherwise." When she set out for Chinon, she wore a red woolen dress. Her escorts urged her to don male clothing so that she would be safe from ruffians. They gave her a black doublet, a short black tunic, hosen, and a black cap, which she wore over her newly shorn hair. After she convinced the Dauphin of her claims she was given all the appointments of a noble knight, including a horse, armor, weapons, tunics made of gold cloth, a banner, and an entourage.

Letter writers of the day comment on how Joan the Maid was commanding when dressed in armor atop her steed, but when she was wearing women's clothes, she was as demure and naive as any young maiden. Whether this means that she was only emboldened when she was wearing men's clothing or if men only saw a shy teenage girl when she wore a dress, we don't know. She must have perceived how she was treated differently depending on her attire. When she wore a dress, older men dismissed her as a child and young men looked on her with lust. But the more masculine she looked and behaved, the more they listened and respected her. She always asserted that she wore men's clothing because it was practical in battle and when she was riding. She said it also was to prevent rape because, with the way the the conjoined hose were laced to the doublet, it was difficult to molest her sexually. Shortly, she began to dress and behave at all times as a man, so much so that on two separate occasions women were brought in to prove her gender and claims of virginity. But unlike a true cross-dresser, she didn't try to fool anyone into thinking she was a man, she always presented herself as a maid in men's clothes.

Four month later, after victories in Orléans and Patay, Joan saw Charles crowned King. In October, after more victories uniting France under one king, Joan and her family were granted nobility with this extraordinary language "[the Virgin and her family] and their male and female posterity can when and all times that they will like it, to obtain and receive from any knight the badges of the knighthood." So women of her family line were granted equal rights to become knights!

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake,
by Hermann Stilke (1803-1860).

The Trial of Condemnation

In May of 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians in Compiègne. After several escape attempts she was sold to the English so that they could put her on trial. The English knew that they must discredit her character while maintaining the appearance of fairness at her trial in order to undermine Charles VII claim to the throne. They didn't try her in a court of civil or military law because even the "English notary, Nicolas Bailly, commissioned to collect testimony against Joan, could find no adverse evidence." Instead they accused her of heresy and tried her in an ecclesiastical court of inquisition. They stacked the court with partisan English judges and bishops. They denied Joan, who was illiterate, any legal council. She was subjected to torture, denied sleep, and for most of the trial, she was chained to the bed in her cell. Even so, she astonished her judges with her carefully worded answers. We know so much about her trial because there are multiple copies of all the testimony plus translations made during the trial still in existence.

In 1431, just 24 months after she left her home, Joan of Arc, age 19, was put to death at the stake. Of all the crimes she was accused of, only two stuck. First, heresy for claiming that the "voices" that guided her were divine, and second that she wore masculine clothing against the laws of God as written in Deuteronomy. Eventually she confessed and signed the bill of abjuration stating that she would never wear men's clothing again. Since heretics could only be burned if they relapsed, the English arranged for her relapse by stealing her female clothing and leaving only male clothing for her to wear.

After her death, the city of Orléans held a procession and Mass in her honor every year. Then, starting in 1435 they also sponsored a religious play about her. In 1452 the Church declared that attendance at this play would earn the faithful an indulgence from the penalty of sin as if it were a pilgrimage to the site of a saint.

The Trial of Rehabilitation

The second trial of Joan of Arc was held 19 years after her death in 1456 at the request of her family to clear her name. To avoid partisan politics, the judges selected were highly respected legal and Biblical experts from many countries. They determined that the "...trial and sentence- being filled with fraud, false charges, injustice, contradiction, and manifest errors concerning both fact and law" was a mistrial. They found that the prisoner should have been given a counselor to advise her and read all documents to her. She should have been housed in an ecclesiastical prison and guarded by nuns to protect her from "acts of outrage" by the English guards. They found numerous examples of falsification in the transcripts of the first trial. They heard testimony that the judges had been intimidated and threatened with death if they didn't find her guilty. Above all they found that the inqisitors had wilfully misinterpreted the law of God by ignoring the long established exceptions allowed for women to wear men's clothing without sin.

" is sinful for a woman to use male clothing or vice-versa... Nevertheless, in some circumstances this may be done without sin due to some necessity, whether for the purpose of concealing oneself from enemies, or due to a lack of any other clothing, or due to some other matter of this type..." from Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, 1273
"If a woman should have a proper purpose, such as in order to [safely] travel abroad, or to protect her chastity under other circumstances when there is fear of losing it, or if some other necessity should arise, she is not committing a sin if she should then make use of male clothing to more easily evade danger or otherwise engage in proper and fitting activity."...from "Rosarium super Decreto" by Guido de Baysio, Archdeacon of Bologna, 1300

Church literature is filled with the stories of female saints who wore men's clothing, some for safety when traveling, others to disguise themselves and escape being married to a pagan, and some to pass as male and become monks or hermits. Cross-dressing that was modest and chaste and had some purpose other than sensuality, was of no concern to the Church. Socially it was still scandalous, of course, but not a matter for the law.

At the end of the second trial, the Archbishop read a lengthy speech condemning the first trial and excommunicating the judges who sentenced an innocent girl to death. Then he ceremoniously tore up a copy of the charges against Joan of Arc and pronounced her completely innocent of all charges, paving the way for her beatification and sainthood. It took until 1920 for Joan to become a recognized saint in the Catholic Church, however she was always a saint in the hearts and minds of the people inspired by her heroism.

References online about Joan of Arc Joan of Arc
Wikipedia. Joan of Arc.
Williamson, Allen, 2009, Joan of Arc Archive, accessed 8/12/10.

References in print about Joan of Arc
Crane, Susan, The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity During the Hundred Years War,

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