No hero of the Middle Ages is better known than Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, whose military leadership in one short year led to French victory in the One Hundred Years War between France and England, and placed Charles VII on the throne. Joan was captured, sold to the English, put on trial for heresy and executed at the stake. She was 19.
I’m going to risk being an iconoclast of gay heroes by not only insisting that the charges against her were trumped up but also that she was not a transsexual or lesbian as has been recently debated. She is sometimes listed as a gay hero along with Alexander the Great and Walt Whitman. She was convicted for lapsing into heresy by refusing to wear women’s apparel, even when not going into battle. And she slept with the girls!
As it happens, her trial records were extensively preserved and have been thoroughly studied. It seems clear: (1) She wore men’s clothes into war because she was a warrior. (2) She refused to untie the garments when she was in prison because they protected her from repeated sexual assaults. (3) She wore female attire between military campaigns when she was home. (4) She agreed to wear only female garments in a signed document she did not fully understand. (5) This willingness would have undermined the English prosecution’s heresy charge against her had she abided by it. (6) The English captors finally forced her to wear men’s garments, by taking away all others (a fact that was suppressed in court); when she appeared in men’s clothing again this amounted to a “relapse” into sin, which was the necessary legal basis for her being burned at the stake for relapsing into heresy.
In other words the English trial was a sham.
Less than twenty years after her death she was exonerated in a new trial, later canonized as a saint, and is counted as one of France’s major heroes.
Her personal life revolved around her exceptional piety, her chaste character, and her peasant background.
We would love for her to be “one of us” as Vita Sackville-West alleged in 1936 and as has been reasserted on various grounds since. There is insufficient evidence that Joan transgressed any laws, or infringed any mores, except to follow what she understood to be divine commands to undertake a traditional male role in a very public way. Other women warriors went into battle, but all did so covertly during the Middle Ages, dominated as the times were by paternalistic chivalry.
I will claim Joan of Arc as our saint too, on the basis that she broke society’s gender rules and lived her life “her way”. She is a role model fit for our times.
May 30 is Joan’s day in the Church calendar.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.