Scrap Book Project – Joan of Arc and French Women Wearing Trousers


The modern French revisionist 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.

Interesting however that in 2005 in a French TV poll –  (The Greatest Frenchman of all Time) that Joan only came a very disappointing thirty-first.

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. This was a bit one sided of God and there is no real explanation for his anti-English sentiment.  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 ceremony 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 (and I am getting to the trouser bit now) 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 authorised 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 over a hundred 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.  If Joan was watching she must have been delighted!

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 was 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 far 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.”

I wonder if Brigette Bardot had the necessary license or maybe was just exempt?

Bridgette Bardot


34 responses to “Scrap Book Project – Joan of Arc and French Women Wearing Trousers

  1. From all this I see the constant English will to bash the French . When you say “the French ” killed Joan you just forget by this time there was no France as now . Normandy, Burgundy and a good deal of Aquitaine were either English possessions or English allies all along the 100 years war . By the time of Joan’s trial Rouen was the capital of English government in “France”, and Pierre Cauchon followed his constant Burgundian inclination to be the councelor of the English king in Rouen . So saying the French were to blame is a bit fast said .
    And about war itself, I’m always amazed by the fundamental English dishonesty which consits in obliterating the 3 definitive French victories, the decisive battles of this long war : Patay 1429, Formigny 1450 and Castillon 1453 . Patay, not far from Orleans, was technically the revenge of Azincourt and was done without Joan, already prisoner . Of course Formigny in Normandy and Castillon in Aquitaine were held after her death . The English deliberate fog that surrounds the end of the war, “somehow due to Joan’s military prowess”, compared to the fame of Poitiers, Crecy and “Ajincourt”, is instructive from a French point of view . The only role Joan played was moral : the Dauphin was on the edge of giving up and the people of “France” didn’t care about which despot would be their Lord . There was no nation nor nationalism, only a life of misery and ignorance for the majority .

    • Thanks for this contribution. Everyone knows that England eventually lost the Hundred Years War. I was surprised when I visited the Agincourt museum how balanced the interpretation was. Nice to know that we are all friends now!

      • I know a lot of water has ran under the old briges . But the present of the world conscience has been framed by the remarkable English efficient dishonesty ( and the fact they gave American childish minds their general orientation is not of few importance ) . Shortly, one could think that the very last and final battles of this incredibly long fight, all three in the same direction,would be at least as famous as any other . But no .
        To put this in a perspective, the world fame of Waterloo doesn’t fade from the fact that Napoleon lost the majority of his army during the disastrous retreat from Russian Winter, and the majority of the remaining part during the simultaneous deadly occupation of Spain, when the Spaniards invented the concept of guerilla and individual murders towards an occupant. The result was France was defeated, the Kosaks in Paris in 1814( the slang word for a bar Bistro comes from then ). When Napoleon came back in 1815, the flame had been smashed by all Europe, and the army was not brilliant any more . In spite of that, Waterloo had been well advertised by the English because it was the last one . So what ?…
        Oh, and I barely read in English about General Blücher’s Prussian forces with Wellington in Waterloo bt the way .

      • Every one knows that Bonaparte was a brilliant military general and that Blucher’s contribution at Waterloo was critically important. Who knows what Bonaparte might have achieved if he hadn’t foolishly invaded Russia?

      • And Joan was not in any of these three last battles . Everybody knows the English had to leave, but this very smart English propaganda has made the world vaguely believe a sort of weird and confused magical intervention through a girl gave the French the possibility of winning their battles. She actually made something change in the collective spirit, she has been quite an extraordinary figure coming from a poor peasants family, at this time of history ! But the French fought their battles without her .

      • Well, the French need some leadership mystique because apart from Bonaparte they haven’t had many other military heroes! de Gaulle perhaps – no, I don’t think so!

      • Never heard of Bayard the “fearless and reproachless Knight” I guess ? And the Connétable du Guesclin who regained the whole French territory at half-time of the 100 years war ? But well, a mystique line is necessary to the French to get truly motivated . And in my eyes the highest occurrence was from 1792 to 1799, when the revolution impulsed the concept of Nation, and no more of Kingdom, when the French invented the national conscription, calling all men to defend the Republic against coalitions of all European monarchs . They were then led by 30 years old generals, all previous aristocratic officers having joined the enemies ; they were not professional, poorly armed, and they found the passion able to resist the rest of the continent . This is the kind of French mystique I love, much more than a personal cult . Bonaparte for me is the gravedigger of the revolution, and de Gaulle used all his aura in 44 to prevent French resistance from achieving their goal and slogan : ” From resistance to revolution” !

      • If I had a hero of the French Revolution it would be Saint-Just although I was always fascinated by the life of Abbé Sieyès – the great survivor!

      • You sure are far more cultured than a lot of Anglophones, who believe the Revolution was just the Terror and know Napoleon but not the preceeding revolutionary wars . But there are facts that were barely spread in “bourgeois” schools . I have several rare booklets and a big one written by Piotr Kropotkine in 1927, ” The Great French Revolution”, that give a really more pragmatic glance at this fabulous time . This one is based on the actual stages of the still confused class struggle . Beside and after the bourgeois decision to get freed of aristocratic issues in order to make more money ( since this is the only goal the bourgeoisie pursues, and the English Glorious Revolution as well as the so-called American Revolution are just a fight between diferent gangs of predators in my eyes ), an incipient working class tried to recognize and organize itself . A hell of lot of contradictory streams in this unbelievable period ! And the master piece of this real working class struggle was, as it happened again in 1871, the Commune of Paris . They were the spearhead of the revolution, the most advanced who wanted to get rid of the new rich bastards too . They dared bursting into the Convention, “in the name of the People”, and imposed their will to the National Assembly several times . This looks like democracy ! In this Paris Commune, the most advanced was the Granvilliers section, whose my heros belonged to : François Boissel . This name is not famous, of course, and neither Varlet, Roux, Leclerc, but these guys were the real deal, and the Paris Commune action is under many acts of Marat or even Robespierre, who couldn’t see clearly where the History stream was going to . In the end, he and Marat didn’t dare make an alliance with the real people, and they were killed by the reaction . Then the wealthy used the bloody Bonaparte ( and they did it again with the little Napoleon III, and they did it again with de Gaulle, and US/German capital went even further with Hitler, …)

      • Good thoughts from you on this, I enjoy reading them. Interesting that the Revolution in France (as Burke correctly called it) followed a similar course to the English Revolution of 1649. People want change but worry when it goes too far (for them at any rate). The peeling off into opposition and inevitable reaction and the emergence of extremists who radicalise events until the energy of the revolution is exhausted and with a majority of people in opposition the inevitable return to the security of the past.

      • “The security of the past” ? For the vast majority of the French there was no security . They were starving because of the ” accapareurs”, the forestallers, the new rich who speculated on wheat . When, as it is still today, a huge majority of humans survive in hellish conditions, it’s only because the avant-garde has not achieved its goal : making people aware of what is really going on, and how and why . And of course, because at each step of this long walk, myriads of opportunities of treason occur, and the majority of humans are not generous nor intelligent enough to act purely .

      • There is a security in the past point for everyone but not necessarily all in the same time and place!

  2. Reblogged this on Travels with Mary and commented:
    Great write up on Joan of Arc!

  3. Thank you for the fabulous write-up!

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  9. That was very interesting, and thank you for all that research. In my opinion, though, the patron saint of France has always been St Denis. Wikipedia says that he is “venerated in the Catholic Church as the patron saint of France and Paris and is accounted one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.” He dates from Roman times.

  10. A fine retelling of the story. I had not known it was the male attire that they got her on.

  11. Such an interesting read. I learnt a lot.

  12. Don’t know if you are familiar with it, Andrew, but a battle just took place in the Missouri Legislature where women legislators were forbidden to go bare armed while on the floor of the legislature. The old laws are alive and well among American fundamentalists. I suspect that burning at the stake for the infraction would be a possible result if the opportunity presented itself.

  13. An eye-opening and amusing look into the history of this famous woman.

    Were you a history teacher, Andrew? If not, you should have been.

  14. It was interesting to read the comments of phildange and your replies.

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