Joan of Arc and Should Women Be Allowed to Wear Trousers?

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 char-grilled 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 forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.

Joan 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 was beginning to find here 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, captured and taken 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 change out of her  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 much less than tolerant than we are now 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 than the English.  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!

To conclude the story:

The French seem to take this ladies wearing trousers thing rather seriously and since November 1800 it has been technically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in Paris without a police permit. Just over a century ago, exceptions were introduced for women riding horses or bicycles. Otherwise, the by-law remained in force.

The law appears to have been introduced because French revolutionary women started to take the whole ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ thing too seriously and demand the right to perform men’s jobs and wear men’s clothes.  The law was last applied in the 1930s when the French Olympic committee stripped the French athlete Violette Morris of her medals because she insisted on wearing trousers.

The ministry of women’s rights only finally proclaimed the edict unconstitutional in February 2013 when it declared:

“Ruling Number 22 of Chief of Police Dubois of the 16th Brumaire of the year nine (7 November 1800 in the revolutionary calendar), entitled ‘ruling on women cross-dressing’, is incompatible with the principle of equality between men and women enshrined in the constitution.”


9 responses to “Joan of Arc and Should Women Be Allowed to Wear Trousers?

  1. The English propaganda about French ways is, as often, completely false . At school, I remember I was taught, like every French pupil, Joan was judged by the french Bishop Cauchon . We all knew that some french and some Bourguignons were part of the trick .
    We also learnt that the ungrateful French king was annoyed by Joan, and the corrupted clergy hated individuals who could listen to God directly, ruining their power .
    We all know that, and only Anglo-Americans and young uneducated French believe Joan was killed by the English .
    Another common mistake is to exagerate the military role of Joan . Read detailed history, you’ll see her action has essentially been moral . First she made the French King willing to fight for his crown, because by this time France did not exist very much . There was no nationalist spirit, people obeyed their nobles, and nobles obeyed the King they prefered . Burgundy, in that time was huge in the eastern part of actual France . A good half of western France belonged to English vassals of England . This war was England and half of France vs the other half of France . Funnily I never read this on blogs .
    Well, Joan gave a fighting spirit to the king and to the army, but there were male generals to develop strategies . The battle which definitely marked the English loss of this long war, the battle of Patay, was set without her .
    Everybody in the world know Crecy, Azincourt or Poitiers, but nobody knows French victories . You could wonder how the English were expelled from France . Nobody knows either Bertrand du Guesclin, who achieved the reconquest of the whole territory except Calais in the end of the first half of this very long war .
    So it’s always the same thing . England got America, America only knows history from Hollywood and English propaganda, so the world sees history through English eyes . Same for the French revolution, they only heard of the Terror, which lasted less than one year amid 10 years of events, and nobody heard of the human prodigies displayed during these ten years .

  2. Hi Phillipe
    thank you for returning to my blog and leaving a comment.
    People will always interpret history in accordance with their nationality, it is the same the world over.
    Of course the 100 Years War was a long time ago so little wonder people today have little knowledge of the politics of Medieval Europe. The history of the state of Burgundy is indeed an interesting one which ultimately failed to survive because of its vulnerable geographical position on a major European political fault line but what people should be aware of is that the legacy of this for modern Europe is the existence of the independent states of the Benelux countries and the recent history of Alsace-Lorraine as it passed between France and Germany. You will know this of course but in November 1918 the Diet of Strasbourg proclaimed an Independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine but this only lasted a few days before French troops arrived and occupied it.
    Anyway, I have nothing against Joan of Arc because after all she is your Patron Saint as I have pointed out before my post was meant to be light-hearted rather than a scholarly revisionist thesis!
    On to the French Revolution and here is a seismic event that is still relevant to modern Europe and a period in history which should be on every school curriculum. I agree with you that it is a shame that we focus on the period of Robespierre and the Terror but it is just the same with the English Civil War (revolution) where all the focus is on the decision to cut off the King’s head.

  3. Hi Andrew . Even Robespierre is not known . He did immense things to impulse a more and more popular direction ( not really working class, Marat went more this way, and even more my favorites François Boissel and Jacques Roux), But Roby played a huge part to avoid the collapse of the revolution into a premature reaction . He did this before the Terror, and all that Anglo-Saxons know about him is the Terror, without the slightest knowledge of how and why that Terror started . Even before the revolution, Robespierre felt concerned by the poor’s fate .
    Ignoring all that, and so much more, is a miserable insult to this highest attempt of humanity seeking for justice and peace .
    But French bourgeoisie did its best to create this idea of a blood bath deprived of any high motivation and super-human exploits . English bourgeoisie and aristocracy did twice more, as wealthy and as English . Fortunately, the IIIrd Republic compulsory, free and secular schooling taught generations of French children some of the brilliant ideas and events of this time .
    They didn’t teach a thing, yet, about the best ( Boissel is never mentioned at school, the important role of the Commune of Paris bursting several times into the National Assembly to force the Deputies to take measures for the poor is hardly mentioned – hence this tendancy we still have to demonstrate in the streets although modern French have forgotten a demonstration must go into the Power’s buildings) and not a thing either about the worst (how the horseless and greedy new bourgeoisie killed the revolution before holding the nation to Bonaparte) .
    They couldn’t, they were themselves “leftist bourgeois”, those IIIrd Republic Ministers, and a leftist Bourgeois is above all a Bourgeois . But I admit French people in general know a bit more about the revolution than Anglo-sphere people, who seem to think the revolution has been a sort of blood insanity crisis, which had no pure intention, no bravery and no intelligence . Propaganda .

    • Bonjour Phillipe
      Having studied revolutionary Europe 1789-99 at University then I hope I understand a little about the period. My main interest was in the course of the revolution rather than the principal personalities and my thesis was on the great survivor – the Abbe Sieyes. This was a man who fascinated me, a man who was uniquely involved in every phase of the revolution as it intensified and relaxed and reversed before, as you say, being one of those who handed power to Bonaparte! You have just reminded me of all this – thanks.

  4. Hi . When I wrote about Boissel it wasn’t meant to be about personalities, but about the underground political streams that not only struggled but were created during this fantastic period .
    From a wealthy bourgeoisie upsetting the aristocracy to more liberal bourgeois who were forced to concessions to poor peasants and workers because of inland reactionary forces and all Europe attacking France, to Robespierre who was in between, to Marat who was evoluating more and more towards the masses, to Hebert more extreme and yet still politically bourgeois, to the melting pot of the Commune de Paris and its most advanced section, the Grainvilliers estate with Jacques Roux and Varlet, to finally the emergence of the purest form of Socialism far before Marx in François Boissel’s action . Not only his acts and strategy, but his theories will last for ever above the incredible confusion that existed in individual minds by this time . They were creating something that had never existed, they didn’t know where to go, until which point, they hadn’t any experience nor a real working class .
    If you’re concerned by the course of revolution you must not underestimate the gigantic weight of the Commune de Paris as a whole, nor the currents that agitated French peasantry until the longly waited abrogation of feudal property and the establishment of communal lands in every village . You must not underestimate the unheard intelligence of the French popular consciousness, who reached its climax in the other Commune, in1871, establishing ideal laws without any intellectual leaders .
    I’m sure you read a lot about the revolution, I did too before, but when I read Kropotkine’s book ” The Great French Revolution” I discovered a complete other reality, a political reading . Then I read books about ” Les enragés”, about Boissel, Varlet and Roux, about Gracchus Baboeuf . All these books give a real political lecture about the deep forces in presence . And this is never even mentioned in French schools , and of course in English books .
    Something vital for humanity was not achieved in 1794, in 1848, in 1871, in 1918 everywhere and finally in 1924 in USSR when the monster Stalin killed the Russian revolution .

    About Strasburg, as in every part of Germany and Austro-Hungary, spontaneous soviets ( soldiers and workers councils) emerged following the example showed by Russia . In Berlin the attempt failed, they were slaughtered, Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht were executed . In Strasburg as in many places the failure was softer but it has nothing to see with a revival of any old Burgundy memory .
    It was the spreading of the Socialist revolution, a thing which French, English, American and German bourgeoisie didn’t want at all ( Let’s not forget they all sent troops in Russia after the armistice to help White Russian armies ) . Fortunately for them, in 1924 Stalin got the power instead of Trotsky and did the worldwide anti-revolutionary work made for them .

  5. Bonjour Phillipe (again)
    Thank you for your thought provoking response! It is a long time since I read anything about the French Revolution but think I may return to it again now. It is always interesting to return to something with a different perspective. Having just returned from Russia I am beginning to wonder if political seismic events such as the Russian Revolution matter at all given that Russia has returned to a market economy, the predominance of the bourgeoisie and the reverence of the Romanovs and a Royalist history.
    On a separate point I note your interest in the radicals François Boissel and Jacques Roux but let’s not forget that 150 years earlier England had its own proto-communists in the Levellers and the Diggers during the Civil War and that is not something that is taught in schools either.
    I enjoy your comments and responses – please continue.
    Au Revoir

  6. Yes I always felt a great nostalgy towards the Levellers, far too early in history they were condemned since the begining . In the same time there were proto-organized revolts from workmen in Flanders, in Germany, in Lyon . In Lyons prinery workers stood 3 years on strike, and a strike is one step ahead of a confused revolt .
    In England it seems the last significative movement was the Chartists, at least the most advanced among them . After that, there has never been a Socialist hope in the UK, due to the concessions that English capitalism was able to give to some of its workers from all the wealth coming from the Empire .
    Jacques Roux is not my idol, he was too emotionally violent to keep a clear head . Boissel is the superman . What he could find out in his prehistorical time from his action and observation amazed me, really .
    About Russia, the task was formidable from the begining, and the civil and invasion war lasting for years, killing the purest elements and diverting Trotsky from organisation task, preventing Lenin to hold his promise to stop the war, preventing any possibility of economical growth, made the thing impossible . The long disease of Lenin (shot years before by a fucking Anarchist), the military commitment of Trotsky let the sinful Stalin set his henchmen .
    From 1924 the revolutionwas dead . Another class (cast ?) of bastards had taken the power and the wealth, replacing aristocracy and Capitalists, oppressing the masses in a new way . Not only in Russia . Stalin committed the heresy of “Revolution in one single country”, an idea that every Socialist pioneer knew was absurd .
    After Zinoviev had made the last chance of a German revolution abort in 1923, Stalin deliberately led the socialist Chinese revolution of 1926 into a dead-end, into death actually . He ordered the German Communist Party to collaborate with the Nazi Party against the Social-democratic Party in the Prussian referendum of 1931 . Communist parties have always done their best to prevent any victorious revolutions everywhere . They did it in France in the 20s, in the 30s when they could stop the revolution with their allies the “Socialist” Party – since the end of XIXth century, since the scandalous agreement to the first world war, the so-called Socialist Party in France is just one of the two weapons of capitalism to cut any Socialist attempt from its roots, the other being Stalin and Stalinist organizations – when all that the masses got was a “Front Populaire” government conceding alms like the first paid holydays but saving the holly private property system of production . They did that everywhere, in Italy, in Brazil, and they did it again in 1944 France, when Stalin sent the French Communist leaderThorez back in a hurry to tell Resistance organizations to drop their guns . Those guys wanted the revolution, after having witnessed what French capitalists were able to . All the French got were our splendid Social Security laws, nationalization of energy and transports, little things which avoided real Socialism . Once more, the system was saved, and de Gaulle and Thorez worked well in the same direction .
    When I write Stalinism has been the best ally of Imperialism it’s not provoking, I mean it . We could verify it again in May 1968 here .
    The Nomenklatura was just another gang of oppressors, just like American stockholders, and the way ancient Apparatchiks have turned into Mafia gangs is not different than the way Al Capone’s successors have integrated official Capitalism, or vice versa . Nowadays the Mafias don’t use a hundred gunmen, they have the whole US army and the whole Russian army .
    I’m sincere : the hope of humanity has been missed several times in the past, and I’m not sure we can avoid hideous barbarity now .

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