Monday, May 30, 2011

Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing warrior-saint

Saint Joan of Arc by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 1994

Joan of Arc was a cross-dressing teenage warrior who led the medieval French army to victory when she was 17. She is a queer icon, girl-power hero and patron saint of France. Her feast day is today (May 30).

Smart and courageous, Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431) had visions of saints and angels who told her to cut her hair, put on men’s clothes and go to war. At age 18 she helped crown a king and at 19 she was killed by the church that later made her a saint. She died for her God-given right to wear men’s clothing, the crime for which she was executed 580 years ago today.

Joan of Arc portrait, c. 1485
Wikimedia Commons
Today’s LGBT people recognize a kindred spirit in her stubborn defiance of gender rules. LGBT writers tend to downplay Joan’s Christian faith, while the church covers up the importance of her cross-dressing. In truth, Joan believed strongly in God AND in cross-dressing. She insisted that God wanted her to wear men’s clothes, making her what today is called “queer” or “transgender.” Cross-dressing was illegal, but what really upset the church authorities, then as now, was the audacity of someone being both proudly queer AND devoutly Christian. Her belief that God was the source of her gender-bending queerness makes her an especially inspiring role model for LGBT Christians and our allies.

Joan’s extraordinary life continues to fascinate all kinds of people. Many are eager to claim her as a symbol, from LGBT people and feminists to the Catholic Church and French nationalists. Joan is the subject of more than 10,000 books, plays, paintings and films, including recent works by transgender author Leslie Feinberg and lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage.

Gage’s one-woman show “The Second Coming of Joan of Arc” is an underground classic with Joan as “a cross-dressing, teenaged, runaway lesbian” confronting male-dominated institutions. Feinberg has a chapter on Joan as “a brilliant transgender peasant teenager leading an army of laborers into battle” in her history book “Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman.”

The extensive records of her trials by the Inquisition make Joan of Arc the best-documented person of 15th century. There are only hints that she may have been a lesbian, but the evidence is absolutely clear about her transgender expression as a cross-dresser.

Joan of Arc, also known as Jeanne d’Arc, was born to peasants in an obscure village in eastern France around 1412, toward the end of the Hundred Years War. Much of France was occupied by England, so that Charles, the heir to the French throne, did not dare to be crowned. When Joan was 13, she began hearing voices that told her to help France drive out the English.

The visions continued for years, becoming more detailed and frequent. Once or twice a week she had visions of Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. They told her that God wanted her to meet Charles and lead an army to Reims for his coronation.

Joan’s family tried to convince her that her visions weren’t real, and her first attempt to visit the royal court was rejected. When she was 17 she put on male clothing and succeeded in meeting Charles. He agreed to outfit her as a knight and allowed her to lead a 5,000-man army against the English.

On Charles’ order, a full suit of armor was created to fit Joan. He had a banner made for her and assigned an entourage to help her: a squire, a page, two heralds, a chaplain and other servants.

Joan of Arc on Horseback, 1505
Wikimedia Commons
Joan’s appearance awed the soldiers and peasants when she traveled with the army. Mounted on a fine warhorse, she rode past cheering crowds in a suit of armor. Her hair was “cropped short and round in the fashion of young men.” She carried an ancient sword in one hand and her banner in the other. Her sword was found, as Joan predicted, buried at the church of St. Catherine at Fierbois. The banner showed Christ sitting on a rainbow against a background of white with gold lilies and the motto “Jhesus-Maria.” Legend says that white butterflies followed Joan wherever she rode with her banner unfurled.

With Joan leading the way, the army won the battle at Orleans and continued to defeat English and pro-English troops until they reached Reims. She proudly stood beside Charles VII at his coronation there on July 17, 1429.

Joan soon resumed leading military campaigns. Even during her lifetime the peasants adored her as a saint, flocking around her to touch her body or clothing. Her cross-dressing didn’t disturb them. In fact, they seemed to honor her for her transgender expression. Perhaps, as some scholars say, the peasants saw Joan as part of a tradition that linked transvestites and priests in pre-modern Europe.

One of the first modern writers to raise the possibility of Joan’s lesbianism was English author Vita Sackville-West. She implied that Joan was a lesbian in her 1936 biography “Saint Joan of Arc.” The primary source for this idea was the fact, documented in her trials, that Joan shared her bed with other girls and young women. She followed the medieval custom of lodging each night in a local home. Joan always slept with the hostess or the girls of the household instead of with the men.

Nobody knows for sure whether Joan of Arc was sexually attracted to women or had lesbian encounters, but her abstinence from sex with men is well documented. Her physical virginity was confirmed by official examinations at least twice during her lifetime. Joan herself liked to be called La Pucelle, French for “the Maid,” a nickname that emphasized her virginity. Witnesses at her trial testified that Joan was chaste rather than sexually active.

Joan’s illustrious military career ended in May 1430. She was captured in battle by the Burgundians, the French allies of the English. During her captivity they called her “hommase,” a slur meaning “man-woman” or “masculine woman.”

In a stunning betrayal, Charles VII did nothing to rescue Joan. It was normal to pay ransom for the release of knights and nobles caught in battle, but he abandoned Joan to her fate. Historians speculate that French aristocrats felt threatened by the peasant girl with such uncanny power to move the masses.

The Burgundians transferred Joan to the English, who then gave her to the Inquisition. She spent four torturous months in prison before her church trial began on Jan. 9, 1431 in Rouen, the seat of the English occupation government. She was charged with witchcraft and heresy.

The politically motivated church trial was rigged against her, and yet Joan was able to display her full intelligence as she answered the Inquisitors’ questions. Her subtle, witty answers and detailed memory even forced them to stop holding the trial in public.

Witchcraft was hard to prove, so the church dropped the charge. (Many of today’s Wiccans and pagans still consider Joan one of their own.) The Inquisitors began to focus exclusively on the “heresy” of Joan’s claim that she was following God’s will when she dressed as a man. The judges told her that cross-dressing was “an abomination before God” according to church law and the Bible. (See Deuteronomy 22:5.)

They accused Joan of “leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws” and instead dressing in “clothing and armor such as is worn by man.”

Joan swore that God wanted her to wear men’s clothing. “For nothing in the world will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress; I must obey the orders of Our Lord,” she testified. She outraged the judges by continuing to appear in court wearing what they called “difformitate habitus” (“monstrous dress” or “degenerate apparel.”)

Today Joan’s conservative admirers claim that she wore men’s clothes only as way to avoid rape, but she said that it meant much more to her. Joan of Arc saw cross-dressing as a sacred duty.

The judges summarized Joan’s testimony by saying, “You have said that, by God’s command, you have continually worn man’s dress, wearing the short robe, doublet, and hose attached by points; that you have also worn your hair short, cut ‘en rond’ above your ears with nothing left that could show you to be a woman; and that on many occasions you received the Body of our Lord dressed in this fashion, although you have been frequently admonished to leave it off, which you have refused to do, saying that you would rather die than leave it off, save by God’s command.”

Joan refused to back down on the visions she received from God, and she was sentenced to death. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 in Rouen. Twenty five years later she was retried and her conviction was overturned. Joan was declared innocent.

Her armor, that “monstrous dress,” became an object of veneration, sought after like the Holy Grail with various churches claiming to have her true armor. Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920. Famous writers and composers who have done works about her include Shakespeare, Voltaire, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht and George Bernard Shaw.

A widely used prayer to Saint Joan of Arc makes a powerful statement that can inspire those who believe in equality for LGBT people, despite rejection by religion and society:

“In the face of your enemies, in the face of harassment, ridicule, and doubt, you held firm in your faith. Even in your abandonment, alone and without friends, you held firm in your faith. Even as you faced your own mortality, you held firm in your faith. I pray that I may be as bold in my beliefs as you, St. Joan. I ask that you ride alongside me in my own battles. Help me be mindful that what is worthwhile can be won when I persist. Help me hold firm in my faith. Help me believe in my ability to act well and wisely. Amen.”

Click for more info:
Wikipedia article on Cross-dressing, sexuality, and gender identity of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc trial transcript online

Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing martyr at Queering the Church Blog

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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, heroes and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Icons of Joan of Arc and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Turtle Woman said...

This is the best post EVER in the herstory of this blog. I love a woman atop a horse armed with sword and armor. We need thousands of Joans worldwide today!
Only this time, it will be women getting crowned at the French palace! (aka the French presidency and the IMF).

Sage said...

Notwithstanding the fact that I am a conscientious objector and have been for over 30 years, which isn't completely pertinent to this post, given the context. Still, I agree with Turtle Woman, this is really one of the best pieces I have read on this blog Kitt, that is known for excellent posts. Even among the fabulous and educational posts within the "GLBT Saints" series this one is really quite special. You must have been inspired by the spirit of Joan herself when you wrote this or some other cosmic entity, because it is really, really fabulous! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!

Trudie said...

Years ago, Joan of Arc was definitely a hero for me. It is interesting, of course, that somehow all the stories I read and/or movies I saw glossed over the "cross-dressing" aspect. I "got it" that Charles was jealous of her, and that she obviously insulted the church hierarchy by refusing to accept their authority. It was quite clear that the real threat was her insistence that she got her instructions directly from the Saints, and would not accept the right of the priests and bishops to shout down God.

It is also interesting that although I totally disbelieve in war as a way of solving humanity's conflicts, and would therefore have to question the authenticity of Joan's instructions from God on that basis, I'm well aware that this is as much a minority opinion now as it obviously was then. Nobody seems to have doubted that Joan's success in leading the army of France was heroic patriotism, just as people nowadays adhere to the "Just War" doctrine despite Christ's teachings to the contrary.

Obviously, if you allow war at all, you have to admit that Joan was brilliant as a leader -- and she led the troops, and accepted wounds and injuries, but I don't believe she actually killed anyone by her own hand. She was not, after all, a trained soldier, and wouldn't have lasted even as long as she did in a full-fledged hand-to-hand battle.

KittKatt said...

Thanks for your enthusiasm, Turtle Woman, Sage and Trudie. Indeed, as Sage perceived, I did feel inspired by Joan’s own spirit in writing this post. Over at Facebook this post is sparking debate about whether someone can be both a saint and a warrior. This wasn’t a problem for the church, which has done great damage by glorifying violence while punishing sexuality. It’s another one of the contradictions embodied by Joan, the man-woman.

I seek a spirituality based on reverence for life. But that doesn’t mean I reject Joan or Arc.
As Trudie and Turtle say, we need more role models of strong women. Joan fought real wars, but she also serves as a rare “warrior archetype” for women, showing us how to assert our needs and defend ourselves.

KittKatt said...

As I reflected on Joan in her armor and all the various comments on this post here and elsewhere, Ephesians 6 came to mind. It says that we are not fighting people, but spiritual forces, so we need spiritual armor, girding ourselves with truth, putting on “the breastplate of righteousness,” wearing peace as our shoes, taking the shield of faith, “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

KittKatt said...

Terrence Weldon at the Queering the Church Blog emphasizes how the church finally admitted it was wrong about Joan… and sees hope for LGBT people in that part of the story.

Here’s a quote from his post on Joan of Arc today:

In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc). In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected. We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

-- from

Trudie said...

One other thought that occurred to me on re-reading this blog: Joan's feminist credentials are supported by the fact that among her "voices" were only female saints; her military credentials are sustained by Michael -- the militant archangel -- and her gay credentials by the rainbow banner she had. What more does one need?

Sage said...


Turtle Woman said...

I was amazed to learn of the rainbow banner that Joan carried!
And I thought I knew about Joan! So many new insights so little time ... sigh! Uh oh, Joan off the front page now... we've gone from battle to brattle :-)

CJ Barker said...

Really, really good post again Kitt.

You know, I honestly don't think that being seen as a "saint" has all that much to do with a person's "good" moral character - no matter how "good" may be defined- or by whom. That may sound quite odd -but I think it's true. I believe that what drives people to honor saints is mostly the presence of spiritual power in their lives- their anointing, if you will- and their willingness to utilize that power on behalf of others, even at great risk to themselves. And one of the forms that such sacrificial and loving spiritual engagement can take, is saving one's country from threats- of whatever kind- by what look to be supernatural means. I think of one of the last Hawaiian queens- her name escapes me right now- who refused conversion to Christianity and continued in her devotion to the Goddess Pele. When a lava flow threatened a major area, she went out and stood in its path and, to the missionaries' chagrin, invoked her Gods. The lava stopped. Elijah demonstrated massive spiritual power on Mt Carmel- and then demonstrated the end of a major drought (and mass murder of the rival pagan priests - followed by running for his life from their powerful protector). Ghandi and Martin Luther King, at immense personal risk that eventually resulted in their respective violent deaths, lead resistances to long entrenched systems of privilege and discrimination, utilizing means that were absolutely not based primarily in what evangelical Christians tend to call "the natural"- ie not politics or war.
Brigham Young led what was left of Joseph Smith's tattered flock to Utah- where seagulls suddenly appeared to eat plagues of katydids that threatened their first year's crops. Moses called down plague after plague- including death- then parted the Red Sea to effect the escape of an entire enslaved people, and and saw the pursuing army massacred to a man.

Being perceived as bringing miraculous or transcendent power to bear on those kinds of problems for large groups of people- and either risking or losing your life doing it- is definitely the short path to long term, wide spread remembrance as a saint. It's the stuff that saint-hood is made of. And of course, the second shortest way is through healing miracles. Jesus performed those right and left, but was constantly threatened with death because of being perceived as the likely leader of a nascent rebellion - someone who *might* have used his power that way. Even in secular understandings of who he was, the ignominious only-fit-for-rebellious-slaves-and-criminals death he died was a large part of why he eventually became a focus of devotion among many of the slave classes upon whose subjection the Roman Empire depended.

CJ Barker said...

Violence, anger and all manner of others things we often think of as negative -even sometimes dishonesty- can and frequently do co-existed right alongside real spiritual power in the lives of people who move in it. People don't generally want to look that fact too hard in the face - especially when it comes to their own religious traditions- but to me it's just undeniable. I've not got much of a choice- I've received real healing and real and extraordinary help from ministries run by the likes of Pat Robertson, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and many others who advocate for things I believe to be deeply wrong and mistaken. And, as all the world knows only too well at this point, uber-flawed personal lives are all over the place in that world. But so are the kinds of miracles that keep people coming back for more.

I think Joan is a Saint, ultimately, because the French people of her time *made* her one with immense passion- and have *never* turned back from that. That doesn't just happen- there has to have been a huge measure of spiritual "umph" about her, which endeared her to those who benefitted from her willingness to risk exercising it on their behalf, but scared and appalled those against whom it was used (or who feared they might eventually become people used against whom it could be used.)

I don't think you can stop people from sensing and acknowledging that- or from seeking help from it when their longings draw them. No matter how much you may disagree with some aspect of what a particular "saint" did or believed, how they worshipped or practiced (or failed to), or what they may have done in their not-for-public-consumption life, people will always be drawn to and seek out that kind of self giving love. You can't stop that anymore than you can stop the emf action of metal filings "seeking" the poles of a magnet, or the osmotic action of ions flowing across a permeable membrane to "find" the areas with lower concentrations of similar particles on the other side. The presence of spiritual power that enables one to risk injury for the sake of others is, after all, one of the Christian definitions of love: "Greater love hath no man than this- that he lay down his life for his friends." And love attracts- no matter how many people don't like it, or try to label it wrong.

Trudie said...

Some of C.J.'s comments concerning spiritual power really bear thinking about. Somehow they call to mind the Star Wars series. The Force is certainly out there -- sometimes manifest in the physical realm in ways that we consider miraculous because they are beyond current rational understanding. Of course, as I've often reflected, much of what we accept now as scientific explanation, for instance as he cite, the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, computers, lasers, cosmic radiation, atomic fission, and so on and on, would have been unbelievable in Joan's time. One of my favorite stores as a child was Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court".

The real point is, though, that there are indeed psychic or spiritual forces at work in our cosmos that dwarf what little we have so far been able to discern through logic and scientific investigation. But those forces can be, and have been, used for both good and evil. As you made so powerfully clear in Jesus in Love, what makes the difference in the long run is indeed the power of love, which in ALL it's forms is filling up the universe.

KittKatt said...

Joan of Arc’s rainbow banner made a big impression on me too, when I was researching this post, Trudie and Turtle Woman. I’m not 100 percent sure that the rainbow is mentioned in Joan’s testimony, but it definitely appears on some early replicas of her banner.

Many of us seem to be grappling with what makes somebody into a saint. CJ, I appreciate your reflections on this topic. You words hit home when you said that comes not from perfect moral character, but from the presence of spiritual power in their lives and their willingness to use it, even at great risk to themselves. Although Joan was a warrior, she was not really a saint because of the enemies killed in battle, but because she risked her own death in battle for others.

She has become a role model for women asserting their own needs, but as Danny pointed out in a comment on this post at Facebook, “she asserted the integrity of her personhood. Knowing that her personhood depended entirely on God, like Luther, she ‘could do no other.’ Both are oddly reminiscent of Jesus' silence before Pilate.”

It all comes back to spiritual power. As CJ says, God’s power attracts others like a magnet, almost without anyone willing it. In a similar vein, long ago the Catholic church ruled that the efficacy of communion/Eucharist did not depend upon the moral character of the priest celebrating it (fortunately!) Trudie, thanks for bringing it back to the core: the power of Love. I hope to write my own overview about the meaning of saints someday… but it’s still in the gestation phase.

CJ, I got a kick out of your reference to the “uber-flawed personal lives” of the Christian right. Nice phraseology!

Turtle, I also got a thrill from your witty turn of phrase, “we've gone from battle to brattle.” A fun factoid: the Episcopal Divinity School calls its blog “99 Brattle” because that’s their street address.