A Life in a Year – 7th July, Cross Dressing and St Joan of Arc

The modern French assessment of Joan of Arc is that she is credited with winning the Hundred Year war by defeating the English and she is revered as a military heroine.  She is seen as a martyr who died at the hands of the English invaders when she met her chargrilled fate and was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431.

This modern interpretation has not always been the case however and the French themselves had a significant part to play in the capture, trial, conviction and death of someone who they now revere as a symbol of national heroism and as a Catholic Saint.

Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine.  At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile.  During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France.  Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home with her brothers and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.

Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France.  To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.  She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of white armour and an army of 40,000 men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.

Joan of Arc rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted.  The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.  After that there was a run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle when challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.

From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who considered her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army at Compiègne, a city north of Paris, where she was defeated by a much stronger army and captured as a prisoner.

 She was held at first by the Bugundians but senior French clergy began to insist that she be handed over so that she could be tried in a religious court on the grounds that she had ‘great scandals against divine honour and the holy faith’. In short they wanted her tried for heresy which if proven would mean execution by burning at the stake.  The captors however wanted cash and the clergy failed to offer a suitable ransom so instead Joan was handed over to the English Duke of Bedford who paid a handsome sum for the prisoner.

Contrary to what the French would have people believe however it was not the English who tried her for her crimes, this was carried out by two Frenchmen, Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais and Jean de Maître who had the alarming title of ‘Vicar to the Inquisitor of Heretical Perversity’.

The charges against Joan were many and serious including witchcraft, blasphemy, fighting a battle on a Sunday and wearing men’s clothes and these plus the other sixty-six almost all carried the death sentence. By all accounts Joan defended herself well in intellectual and religious debate on the issues of heresy but she couldn’t get away with the issue of clothing because in medieval times it was sin for women to cut their hair short and put on armour and fight because this was a role reserved for men.  Joan refused to cast of her men’s trousers because she was afraid of being molested or raped by the English prison guards and when the judges failed to prove the religious charges against her they turned to and relied upon the unholy business of dressing up as a man.

Eventually the judges persuaded her to do a bit of plea bargaining and they offered to spare her life if she would wear a dress and confess to the crimes.  Joan agreed and she owned up to everything in a cermony at Rouen Cathedral but immediately afterwards she was betrayed and thrown back into prison (by the French) and so afraid again of unwanted sexual advances she put her trousers back on.  The judges were delighted and declared her a relapsed heretic and condemned her to be burned at the stake and the the sentence was carried out on 30th May 1431 in the market square of Rouen by her English guards.

Tragically, the technical reason for her execution was on the say so of Moses who was responsible for the Biblical clothing law set out in Deuteronomy 22:5: ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God’. It seems that Moses was less than tolerant on the issue of cross-dressing!

After the end of the Hundred Years War a posthumous retrial was opened.  The Pope authorized this proceeding, also known as the “nullification trial”, at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal and Joan’s mother.  The aim of the trial was to investigate whether the trial of condemnation and its verdict had been handled justly and according to canon law.  Investigations started with an inquest by a priest carried out in 1452 and a formal appeal followed in November 1455. The process involved clergy from throughout Europe and a panel of theologians analyzed testimony from 115 witnesses.  Brehal drew up his final summary in June 1456, when he described Joan as a martyr and implicated the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. The nullification trial reversed the conviction in part because the condemnation proceeding had failed to consider the doctrinal exceptions to that stricture and the appellate court declared her innocent on 7th July 1456.

So, history is not always what it seems and the French were probably equally, if not more so, to blame for the death of their greatest heroine.  The same church that arranged for her to be burned at the stake, canonized her a saint on 16th May 1920, nearly five hundred years later.  She is now France’s Patron saint, and her legacy to both France and the world runs deep. It is interesting as well that in England she is also in some part considered a heroine and in 1960 Airfix introduced two new model kits into the famous people range, Edward, The Black Prince and Joan of Arc, hardly the sign of a country that holds a grudge!

Principal source and inspiration of this post – Stephen Clarke – ‘1000 Years of Annoying the French’


One response to “A Life in a Year – 7th July, Cross Dressing and St Joan of Arc

  1. As ever, Andrew, comprehensive and entertaining! Thanks for referring me to this one!

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