After several years of deliberations, on 7 July 1456 Joan of Arc was pronounced ‘freed and cleansed’ of the charge of idolatry that had seen her burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. As political as the original trial run by Anglo-Burgundian sympathisers, who had sought to discredit Joan and the French king whose army she led, the rehabilitation proceedings aimed to remove any taint of illegitimacy from the reign of Charles VII at a time when the monarch was pressing his advantage against England after the Hundred Year War. However, what precisely made up the charge of Joan’s idolatry in the first place, and how was it manifested?
According to the Articles of Indictment of 1431, Joan’s idolatry consisted in her belief in the saintly voices with which she enjoyed a spiritual relationship and, critically, in her transvestism. Advised to don male clothing by her voices, Joan successfully led Charles’ forces to victory at Orléans in 1428 dressed in a short tunic with doublet, breeches, and boots, with a breastplate for armour along with a dagger, sword, and lance. Her hair was cropped above her ears and the trial recorded that there was ‘nothing about her to indicate the female sex except what nature gave her to distinguish her sex.’
Joan herself considered her male attire of little importance – she called it ‘a small matter’. Nonetheless, her reversion to male clothing after briefly rejecting both it and her voices was regarded as the outward sign of Joan’s spiritual deviancy and hastened her execution – this despite her claim that one reason for re-donning male clothes was to stave off threats of sexual violence from her captors.
Women dressed in men’s clothing had appeared in history from Antiquity onwards, so why was Joan’s public transvestism so important? Her choice of attire certainly received support from some prominent members of the ecclesiastic hierarchy, including the respected former Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson. As scholars have suggested, perhaps the difficulty lay in the fact that while Joan appropriated masculine attire, she did not conceal her femininity. Rather, she projected herself as neither male nor female as she assumed command over French forces, thereby threatening contemporary standards of gendered behaviour and appearance as much as Anglo-Burgundian political aims in France.
While today Western societies congratulate themselves on their liberal attitude towards women’s dress and contribution to public life, perhaps it is worth remembering the attitudes of our current Prime Minister, who reportedly questioned whether men were ‘more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command’ than women, and whose resistance to a former female leader was widely publicised. In this respect, concerns about Joan of Arc’s dress and role as a military leader arguably reflect an anxiety to preserve gendered norms in the Middle Ages that remains prevalent today.
Image citations (top to bottom):
- Joan of Arc depicted in records of Paris Parlement. Paris, Archives nationales, AE II 447 [X1a 1481], fol. 12r, c. 1429.
- Joan of Arc. Paris, Archives nationales, Paris, AE II 2490, late 1400s.
- Joan of Arc, portrait by Jean Pichore in Antoine du Four, Les vies des femmes célèbres, 1504, ill. c. 1506. Nantes, Musée Dobrée, MS 17.
Dr Tania M. Colwell is a Visitor in the School of History. She is writing a monograph on the reception of the French Mélusine romance manuscripts and their medieval audiences, and is an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions working on emotions of encounter in medieval and early modern travel and ethnographic literature.