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Friday, 15 July 2005

rumination about Joan of Arc

I once had a spiritual experience. I was in Notre Dame (if you're going to have a spiritual experience, pick a sexy locale) in 2001 and I lit a candle in front of the statue of Joan of Arc and I was somehow directed to write an opera about her. I'm still in the research stage of this project. Fortunately, she is the figure with the most information available about her life before modern times. We know more about her than we know about Jesus. I'll try to keep to the important bits.

Joan of Arc was born a peasant girl during the Hundred Years War and was pretty much a normal girl, although she prayed a lot. Around the age of puberty, she began to hear voices. They told her to keep her virginity and that big things were afoot for her. A bit older, her parents arranged a marriage for her and she went to court to get out of it. Around the age of 16 and again at 17, she went to the local nobility and explained that she was going to save France from the English. The second time she did this, she successfully persuaded the local soldiers. Somebody gave her both a dress appropriate for the bourgeoisie and soldiers clothes that were small enough to fit her. She was practicing with the soldiers and learned to use a sword. The local nobel sent her on to the Dauphin, who eventually sent her to Orleans as a cross between an army captain and a mascot. Her title was Jeanne la pucelle which means "Joan the virgin." This is often translated at "Joan the Maid" but "maiden" would be a better translation. It's not the celibate form of virginity appropriate to nuns. It's the virginity of youth. Her path was a balance of religious and secular. Although her voices came from God, she went to a nobel instead of a priest.

As she was living with men and doing things men do, she took to dressing like men. She lead Charles to Reims for his coronation (behind enemy lines!) and participated in the ceremony dressed as an army captain, in men's clothes, with her military banner. She demanded and got special placement in the ceremony. She got special placement in a lot of ways. She wanted to dress as a man and do things men did but still identify as female. She wanted special treatment. She got power through this exceptionalness combined with military victory. It may have been possible for her to just dress as a boy and enlist. But she didn't want to be a boy. she wanted to be a woman in man's role in men's clothes. This gave her far more power than she probably would have garnered for herself as a male (although she was a military genius and may have been able to climb up through the ranks).

she was not a feminist. She told other women to go home and get married. Her role was only for her. She was not blazing a trail. She was creating a place for herself and herself only. She demanded that society accommodate her and grant her special status which she did not deign to share. God spoke to her and gave her and her only special dispensation to cross-dress.

She was eventually captured and put on trial. They convicted her of dressing like a man. She was possibly mislead as to what it would mean to sign a full confession and so did, agreeing to only dress as a woman from then on. A few days later, she was again in men's clothes and was burned at the stake. She was very sick at this time and would probably have died shortly anyway. However, she made the choice to burn rather than dress like a woman.

I can't say I blame her for that.

I find it annoying that she didn't want to pave the way for other women to follow her, but she was in rather precarious position, straddling religious and secular, male and female. There wasn't much room for others to join her in this balancing act.

So let's call Joan butch. She wanted to be a woman but dress and be treated like a man. Her culture couldn't really accommodate that. Ours isn't so great on it either. And why should people like Joan (and me) be running around demanding special treatment? Yes, I'll be in your coronation or I'll be your bridesmaid, but I won't wear a dress. Ok, so in Joan's case God told her to, which seems to count for something.

I dunno, in some ways it seem to be more mature to change to accommodate society rather than expect everything to change to accommodate you.

and now for some navel gazing: maybe the label doesn't matter as much as body image matters. i can change how i feel about the way i look or i can change the way i look. i never felt out of place at mills. i never felt out of place among lesbians. so i guess this means i'm butch and not trans . . . and i just happen to wish i looked a lot more like a boy and had a goatee. and i'm also really lazy and pain adverse and everybody in the world has body image issues. and so . . .. I dunno, I'm going abroad for a year so there's not much action i could take anyway.

also: I scapegoat str8 white males a lot for the problems in the world and it's true that a few of them do seem to go and casue a lot of trouble, but certainly not all of them do, not even the majority. i need to knock that shit off.



Anonymous said...

You should read the Shaw play about her, it's quite nice.


Crinis said...

I just shaved my beard off. I loved it, but man, maintenance was hell. I'll probably grow it back when it gets cold again.

As a white man, I've been blamed for many things: rape, pillage, misogynist literature, war, famine, homosexuality, and 'Saturday Night Live.'

I sadly can take credit for none of these (especially, praise <deity of choice>, SNL). Other white men have beaten me to the punch.

Chorus of Apes said...

nice analysis of JOA. Can't wait to see the opera. there are other interesting gender-transgresive folks in history. a friend is doing research on the first Jew in the new world, who happened to get here by dressing and living like a man. The french in canada could not handle, so after some correspondence with Luise the ???, the paid for him/her/hir to come back to France and languish in prison. There is more to the story, but I don't recall it. Yay for gender-transgressors in history!