Thursday, May 30, 2013

Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing warrior-saint

Saint Joan of Arc by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

Joan of Arc was a tough 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 581 years ago today.

Joan of Arc portrait, c. 1485
Wikimedia Commons
Contemporary LGBT people recognize a kindred spirit in her stubborn defiance of gender rules. Queer 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 can be called “queer” or “transgender.” She fits the medieval archetype known as the “holy transvestite.” 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 trans 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 Michael the Archangel and two virgin saints: Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch (another transvestite saint who refused to marry a man). 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 the warrior who helped win him the crown. 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 honor Joan as 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 possess 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 stunning portrait of Joan kissing her sword (below) was painted by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose sister Christina Rossetti is also part of the LGBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog.

“Joan of Arc Kisses the Sword of Liberation” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863 (WikiPaintings)

This post features contemporary portraits of Joan by Rowan Lewgalon, Robert Lentz and Tobias Haller. Lewgalon is a spiritual artist based in Germany and also a cleric in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church. Her work is online at Lentz is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. He is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. His icons are available at

“Jeanne d’Arc” by Tobias Haller

“Jeanne d’Arc” was sketched by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his husband were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

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.”

Joan has a dialogue with the fire that is about to consume her in a haunting song written by award-winning Canandian poet Leonard Cohen and sung on July Collins video .

Related links:

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

Joan of Arc sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Juana de Arco: Santa Travesti

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.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

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


St Joan Fan said...

I really like the St Joan icon, it is beautiful and I love the butterflies and think it is very fitting that the cross she held at her death is represented because it shows her love of Jesus until the very end. It was also given to her by a compassionate English soldier. The prayer I know, and I love, St Joan reminds us to follow God above all and have integrity even when others despise us. I pray that Christians everywhere may have such love and courage. I love St Joan and I am very happy that she has inspired you and I hope she will always inspire you towards Our Lord.

While, I firmly believe that St Joan is for everyone and her message should be known by all and I am grateful that this article inspires the dear friends who visit here, there are some historical inaccuracies. I mean no harm and I have no bigotry, I, as an amateur historian, aspiring scientist and lover of truth, feel that I should say where I find these and what is actually true. Please forgive me if this is wrong to do, I have a social disorder and scruples and it is hard to know what is right to do.

St Joan as far as history documents was likely not transgender. She called herself Jehanne La Pucelle or Joan the Maid, and I think this is a very feminine title. She referred to herself as a woman and was very proud of the skills she acquired as a young girl. Once, when she thought she would die in jail, she asked to be buried in a woman's dress. I think St Joan mostly loved her clothes because they were a sign of her divine mission and her work. I do think they were important to her but that does that means she was not a woman, and she seems to have been very much a woman, a maiden to be precise. Also St Joan did not attempt to be a man or look as one but rather one could see that in men's clothes she had breasts and female features and did not try to hide it. Mostly I think she was surely a woman because she practically made The Maid her last name and I do not think many men would do so. Also I believe that above all she died to obey her voices and stand true to God.

On the point of her being a lesbian because she slept in a bed with girls, I think that she, being a young woman, would rather sleep in a bed with young women which she did in her village than with a mature woman. Women in medieval times often slept in the same bed and St Joan was uncomfortable in a bed with men, because she was a woman and because in order to feel safe she left her armor on. St Joan probably liked to take her armor off and relax. Because of her commitment to complete chastity and that all said she was chaste, St Joan did not have sex with the women she slept in a bed with. As for crushes, there is no historical evidence arguing for or against it so far as I know.

Also pagans are incorrect when they claim Joan as their own. She was a very devout Catholic and the most pagan thing she did was play by a Fairy Tree when she was a little girl. Many people tell fairy or ghost stories but they are not involved in paganism or occult.

I simply don't think that one can say these things as fact or more probable than they are when history argues otherwise. There are many Christian role models that really are lesbian or transgender, I am sure, though I do not know any because I like medieval times best. Please do not be demoralized or give up on St Joan, her story will help you serve God better! And she is inspiring whenever you need strength.

May God bless, guide and lead you all towards Him and may St Joan help you towards Him!

Normandy Thenandnow said...

Hello, Vintage postcards of Basilique Notre-Dame de Bonsecours and the Joan of Arc memorial by Rouen led us to a tale of Joan of Arc's remarkable mother and her role in Joan's rehabilitation. Some photos and more about Isobelle here if you would like to see