Wednesday, May 30, 2012

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.

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Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing warrior-saint and LGBTQ role model

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 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 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 here.

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

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


Trudie said...

Too much else has been going on in my world in the last few days to give me leisure to comment, but I wanted to remark that I really enjoyed the excellent and expanded post on Joan of Arc.

Thinking back to my pre-pacifist and non-Catholic childhood, Joan was of course a hero rather than a saint in my experience. As long as society as a whole and the Church as an institution insists on validating and baptizing warfare, we definitely need heroic women who "keep the faith" in this specific way.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I’m glad you appreciated by new and improved post on Joan of Arc. When I read her story again this year, I felt just as inspired as before. Have you read “The Hunger Games” yet? I just finished reading it, and Joan of Arc seems a lot like Katniss, the amazing 16-year-old heroine of the story who triumphs with her bow and arrows, and her indomitable spirit.

I just saw some heroic nuns on the news tonight, fighting back against Vatican sexism and proclaiming that most of the church is "feminist."

Trudie said...

I read "The Hunger Games" last summer while visiting my daughter Lorna in Arizona. She teaches middle school language arts on the Navajo Reservation, and the Hunger Games series was one of several that she had acquired to enhance the reading opportunities of her students.

I have to admit that although I considered the stories extraordinarily well-told, and agreed that the premise of this as a possible future is quite valid, I HATED the whole idea.

I far prefer the approach in Starhawk's "The Fifth Sacred Thing" (which if you haven't read, you must, with it's CA setting!). It also has a much more supportive "gay theme".

Anonymous said...


What a fantastic summary of Joan of Arc’s life! I have heard a lot about her here and there but I have not read much in depth about her until I read this post of yours. Thanks also for the wiki links those help to flesh out the story. It is interesting that many people over the years are interested in a cross dressing women who fought for what she believed in, was betrayed, executed and then made a Saint. Makes me wonder what Carolyn Myss has written about this . . .


Kittredge Cherry said...

Indeed it is amazing that people are still fascinated by a cross-dressing woman warrior-saint, as you point out, Judith. What sets Joan apart from Katniss in “The Hunger Games” is that Joan is motivated by a larger vision -- her faith in God, her goal of freedom for France -- while Katniss is focused on survival for herself and her family. I’d say the larger spiritual vision is what really attracted people to Joan… and also threatened the powers that be. After all, Katniss survived but Joan was executed.

Judith and Trudie, both of you have discussed “The Hunger Games” with me apart from this blog so I will respond in more detail here about the themes in that novel. It is a terrifying vision of the future and the violence was too much for me personally so I skipped a huge section of the book. It seems a lot more violent than the most popular young adult novel of my own teen years, “The Outsiders” by SE Hinton, which told about one murder. (I just looked it up and discovered that author “SE” is a woman. Susan Eloise!) But in many ways “The Hunger Games” is just a more extreme version of today, with our brutal reality TV shows to distract the masses from the growing gap between rich and poor. I appreciate the book’s excellent writing and well crafted plot and pace.

Trudie, thanks for bringing up that “The Hunger Games” isn’t especially gay-positive and
suggesting again that I read Starhawk’s “Fifth Sacred Thing.” Another favorite feminist futuristic novel of mine is “The Wanderground” by Sally Gearhart.

Paige said...

Revisionist history is not our friend. Jeanne was not a lesbian or transgendered or queer. This is because there simply was no such thing in her time. What Jeanne did, she did for God, and not to uphold a 21st century socio-political sexual identity. Many Medieval sources allowed for cross-dressing including the Summa Theologica. Had the cross-dressing actually been an issue, we would not have actual sources that said they made a suit of armor "specially to fit her body." She was tried on a trumped-up charge because she was sold out for political reasons and not religious ones.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Paige, I agree with you on the facts, but we interpret them differently. With the perspective of hindsight, I see Joan of Arc as queer, in other words different from the heterosexual norm in her gender identity. Of course she wasn’t trying to make a point about LGBT rights. Cross-dressing was indeed a trumped up charge against her as a saint who threatened the power structure. Still that IS the charge they used, and she DID wear attire normally worn by men, so today’s queer people can justifiably celebrate her as a role model. One reason that I write this LGBT Saints series is to show that people are not defined by their sexuality or gender -- anyone can lead a holy life.

Zoe said...

Why, when St. Joan was born in a village with a German name in an Alsatian-speaking area (Lorraine) is she always portrayed as being francophone? I accept that she would have learned French as a second language but surely her first language would have been Alsatian and this would have been her regional identity.

True christian said...

You are all deluded. Our Lord Jesus Christ would not ask anyone to go to war and fight with a sword- he did not condone violence. To be violent would be going against his teaching and his Father's teaching.

Kittredge Cherry said...

When I read your nickname (True Christian) and your first sentence (“You are all deluded”), I was sure that you were going to condemn homosexuality. But then it turned out that you are condemning violence. Such a viewpoint is almost never expressed here, so thanks for looking beyond sexuality to raise a valid point. Jesus did say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.