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Tuesday, 20 April 2004

Gender and Joan of Arc

Celeste Hutchins
Gender and Joan of Arc

In her trial, Joan of Arc testified "that, from the age of thirteen, she received revelation from Our Lord by a voice which taught her how to behave." (p 47) This revelation eventually told her to dress like a man and take up arms. Centuries later, during her lengthy trial for sainthood, one of the Devils Advocates arguing against her suggested "that perhaps all of her voices were manifestations of hysteria . . ." (Kelly p 221) If we use hysteria as a tool for unpacking Joan of Arc's gender identity, then what Freud wrote in General Remarks on Hysteric Attacks comes to mind. "One may observe that it is just those girls who in the years before puberty showed a boyish character and inclinations who tend to become hysterical at puberty." (p 23-4) We do not know if Joan showed "a boyish character and inclinations" before she started hearing her voices, but we do know that the voices guided her in such a direction.

Joan's voices may have functioned according to what Foucault terms "Christian techniques of the self." (p 368) In Sexuality and Solitude, he discusses how Christians formed sexual identity through confession. Joan testified that she had a confessional relationship with her voices. When she was being questioned about leaping from the tower of Beaurevoir, she said "that she knew by revelation from Saint Catherine that she had received forgiveness after she had confessed. And it was by Saint Catherine's advice that she confessed it." (The Trial of Joan of Arc p 112) She was no stranger to the confessional, telling her judges earlier, "One cannot cleanse one's conscience too much." (p 110) Therefore, Joan sought to fulfill her "Christian truth obligation" as often as she could and continued these conversations further with her voices. Because these truth obligations cover thoughts as well as actions, her virginity, something which she must have thought often about, did not mean that she would not have thought deeply about sexuality.

The voices had an immediate sexual effect on her. During her trial, "[s]he said also that the first time she heard her voice, she vowed her virginity as long as it should be pleasing to God. She was then of the age of thirteen years or thereabouts." As soon as she was a pubescent age, she began to hear voices and swore off sex. It seems these are linked, but perhaps a Freudian reading is more correct than a Foucauldian one. The transcript immediately continues, "Asked if she had ever spoken of these visions either to her her curé or to any other churchman, She said no . . .." (p 96 - 97) Thus, even to her judges, voices, virginity and confession are linked. However, Joan fails to make the final link. Presumably, as a pious youth, she was already cleansing her conscience. Yet she never mentioned divine voices or, presumably, her pledge to her confessor.

Joan's path to adult sexuality thus took place outside of normal paths. At puberty, she rejected gender roles assigned to her. She refused marriage, even suing to escape one, and she refused the convent by making her virginity pledge outside of the confines of the church. Having rejected a female role, she seemed to turn to a male role, but not fully. She did not attempt to pass as male. It may have been possible for her to put on male dress, adopt a male name and join the French side of the conflict as a peasant soldier. In so doing, she would have joined the bottom rung of the military. As a military man, she would have had more freedom, would have been able to take part in the conflict and would have lived in fear of discovery. Instead, she chose a third path.

Cixous, writing about western thought, claims that "thought has always worked through opposition." (p 63) She starts Sorties: Out and Out: attacks / Ways Out / Forays with a series of oppositions. She notes, "And all these pairs of oppositions are couples." (p 64) All thought is subject to binary oppositions, which must then somehow be "related to 'the' couple, man/woman." (p 64) However, Joan did not simply switch sides of the male/female dichotomy. She clung hard to her female identity by proclaiming her virginity, even adopting it as a title. The second Devil's Advocate during her trial for sainthood argued that Joan "was hardly consonant with modesty to boast of [her virginity] and to offer her body for inspection." (Kelly 217-218) She made too much of her virginity, and thus her femaleness, according to him.

However, she also clung hard to her male role and identity. Her "maleness" was not simply her military knowledge and abilities, but also manifested in her male attire. This attire was a powerful symbol for her enemies and the official reason that she was finally burned. It also seemed to be a powerful symbol for her. Her male dress is often described as pragmatic. During her trial for relapse, she stated that "it seemed to her more suitable and convenient to wear man's dress being with men, than to wear a woman's dress." (The Trial of Joan of Arc p 157) If she wanted to be around soldiers and avoid rape, it was necessary for her to wear men's clothes. However, among her own troops at least, her clothes did not hide her body. "They had seen her dress and undress in their presence, as a fellow-soldier concerned little with her privacy while on campaign." (Joan of Arc: A Military Leader p 33) Her squire testified during the nullification trial that he had seen her breasts. The duke of Alençon testified, "sometimes he saw her breasts, which were beautiful." (ibid p 33)

During her trial, she was repeatedly asked about why she was wearing men's clothes and repeated over and over again that it was God's orders that she do so. Her clothes seemed to have meant more to her than a pragmatic explanation suggests. There is a telling scene during her trial when she is suddenly offered what she wants most, if she changes clothes.

her questioner said: I promise you that you will hear Mass if you put on woman's dress.
She replied: And what do you say if I have sworn and promised our King not to put off these clothes? Nevertheless I say, Make me a long dress, right down to the ground, without a train, and give it to me to go to Mass, and then when I come back I will put on the clothes I now have.
Asked if she would wear woman's clothes at all to go and hear Mass,
She said: I will think this over and then answer you. she further asked, for the honour of God and Our Lady, that she might hear Mass in this good town.
They then told her that she must take a woman's dress, unconditionally and absolutely,
And she replied: Bring me a dress like that of a citizen's daughter; that is, a long houppelande, and I will wear it, and also a woman's hood to go hear Mass.
But she also begged, with the greatest urgency, that they should leave her the clothes she was wearing, and let he go hear Mass without changing them.
(The Trial of Joan of Arc p 114 - 115) The argumentative nature of her replies in that section is not unusual. However, more seems to be at stake than her typical obstinance. The promise of mass almost seems to have alarmed her. She asked for a dress to be made, making specific demands. This seems like a delay tactic. And even if the dress were made to specifications, she would change back out of it immediately. The questioners asked her directly if she would change clothes for mass and she directly asked for time to think about it. She asked frequently to hear mass, but could not commit immediately to making the compromise of changing clothes just for Mass. It's clear by the end of the exchange that she very much wanted to keep her clothes and hear mass. She "begged, with the greatest urgency." Her clothes were clearly very important to her and had a meaning for her beyond the pragmatism of avoiding rape.

Male clothes and virginity were technologies of the self; her identity was formed through her voices' instructions to stay a virgin and to wear men's clothes. She constructed her self through her abstinence and costume. Her virginity was her title. She died rather than switch dress. At puberty, she began a path both towards "boyish character and inclinations" and also away from them. She did not simply change sides of the male/female binary opposition; she stood with one foot clearly planted on either side of it. She straddled the male/female dichotomy and would not budge from one side or the other. She denied the hierarchal ordering of things. She existed outside of patriarchal system of thought and dominance. What did it mean for her to be on both sides?

It meant that, at least while she was with the French, she escaped the male gaze. Her squire testified at her rehabilitation trial that, "never, despite any sight or contact he had with the Maid, was his body moved to carnal desire for her, nor did any of her soldiers or squires, as he had heard them say and tell many times." (Joan of Arc: A Military Leader p 33) The duke of Alençon also testified that, "he never had any carnal desire for her." (ibid p 33) In fact, the royal esquire went so far as to testify that the soldiers "believed it was impossible to desire her." (ibid p 34) Joan existed fully outside of the male gaze. To put her back within it would be impossible. She no longer belonged to the category of beings to be gazed at. Not only did she escape the subordinate side of oppositions, she jammed the system. The male gaze broke down her presence. The royal esquire testified, "And often when [the soldiers] spoke about sins of the flesh, and used words that might have aroused carnal thoughts, when they saw her and approached her, they could not speak like this any more, for suddenly their sexual feelings left them" (ibid p 34) Her presence as a masculinized woman changed the soldiers to de-sexualized, feminized men. By straddling the binary opposition of gender, she caused the men around her to do the same. When she refused to function as woman, the subordinate other, they ceased to function as dominant men.

She offered them victory and "religious possessions, in particular salvation." (A Woman as Leader of Men p 5) In exchange they were willing to offer her loyalty and suspend gender hierarchy. No such arrangement existed with the English after she was captured. They wanted to place her back within their gaze; to show her to be a witch and thus following a female gender role. The trial returned again and again to her clothing. The clerics wanted her in woman's dress and offered her everything short of freedom to change. They would let her hear mass, if only she would step back into the box labeled "woman" and become subordinate, trapped in their gaze and, as Cixous explains, asleep. From age thirteen, she had rejected "beauties [sleeping] in their woods, waiting for princes to come and wake them up." (Cixous p 66) She danced around the fairy tree like other little girls in her village, until her voices told her not to; a different path awaited her. Other women, Cixous explains, "[have] slept, [have] been put to sleep." (p 66) If she would not go willingly they would push her.

They did push her, all the way to the final sleep of death. If she would not exist within their system, then she could not exist. It was not enough to call her a witch and discredit her; she must be killed. Indeed, they would not allow her to willingly go to sleep, she must be "put to sleep". Pernoud reports that after Joan finally agreed to wear woman's dress either rape was attempted against her or her dress was removed while she slept and replaced with male attire. (p 132) She was thus condemned to die a violent death by trickery or by force. She was already very ill. One of her doctors, who treated her while she was in prison, testified at her rehabilitation trial, "more than anything in the world the king did not wish her to die a natural death. . . . he did not wish her to die except at the hands of justice and he wished that she should be burned." (Pernoud p 125) This was political. It was a reaction to her power and her specialness. She had lead Charles to Reims for coronation. If she had done it through witchcraft, then Charles' claim to the throne would have been tainted.

However, her specialness arose from her voices, her gender and her identity. Her disavowal of gender roles was both the political weapon against her and her political strength. If she had joined the French forces disguised as a boy, she would have been at the very bottom. Her family was not "wealthy enough to train their sons for military service, let alone their daughter." (Joan of Arc: A Military Leader p 37) Only by creating a special niche for herself was she able to gain power. This niche was dangerous. It was only big enough for herself. As far as we know, she did not inspire a generation of girls to take up arms. Cixous writes, "today, writing is woman's. That is not a provocation, it means that woman admits there is an other. In her becoming-woman, she has not erased the bisexuality latent in the girl as in the boy." (p 85) Joan of Arc did not know "A from B;" she could not read or write. She existed as a person of actions and not words, aside from her letters. However, she inspired Christine de Pisan to come out of retirement to write one final poem. She inspired her troops. She was inspired, by her voices. Instead of being a writer, she was written on. Her voices inscribed her identity and sexuality. They dictated her actions and told her to answer her judges boldly. They told her to lead Charles to Reims.

Joan of Arc as actor, not writer, inspired by voices, carved out a niche just big enough for herself, which collapsed on her when she was captured by the English. Her voices transformed her, from female to "bisexual" as Cixous would define it - "the location within oneself of the presence of both sexes." (p 85) They, as a technology of the self, lead her to wear male attire and take male actions, while also leading her towards virginity, a female construct. They formed her identity such that she was unwilling to renounce either her femaleness or or her maleness. These pubescent visions may have resulted from hysteria as Freud describes it, but they function as confessor, writer, and formers of identity. They formed her self and her gender and gave her strength.


Cixous, Hélène. "Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks / Ways Out / Forays." In Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader. Thrupp, Stroud and Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999

DeVries, Kelly. "A Woman as Leader of Men: Joan of Arc's Military Career". In Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996

Foucault, Michel. "Sexuality and Solitude." In On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Freud, Sigmund. "General Remarks on Hysterical Attacks." In Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Ed. Philip Riefe. New York: Collier, 1963

Kelly, Henry Angsar. "Joan of Arc's Last Trial: The Attack of the Devil's Advocates" In Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996

Pernoud, Régine and Clin, Marie-Véronique. Joan of Arc: Her Story. Trans. Jeremy Duquesnay Adams. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999

The Trial of Joan of Arc. [Trans. W. C. Scott]. Evesham: Arthur James, 1996.

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