Joan of Arc, one of the most celebrated heroines of all time, died because of her practice of cross-dressing. Of course the legend is much more nuanced than this condensed sentence suggests, but, in a nugget, that’s what happened.
Medieval Frances most famous woman was one of history’s most courageous resistance fighters. This petite, very pious woman believed that God had commanded her to save France from England during the Hundred Year’s War. Her story is steeped in myth and legend.
Joan was known as “La Pucelle” (The Maid) by the French people. Legend says that she heard voices from Heaven that she should arm herself with an old sword that was hidden behind the altar of the church “Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois”. The rusty sword was engraved with five crosses. Before combat, she was fitted with suitable armor and prepared for battle.
In May of 1429, La Pucelle, led her resistance fighters against the English occupational forces in a nine day battle. In the end, the French claimed victory at Orléans. Then, by mid-July, Joan’s forces pressed the English into retreat in Normandy. This enabled the coronation of Charles VII as King of France.
The war was far from resolved, though. England still occupyed Burgundy along with the northern provinces. The next year, the French King decided to broker a truce with the occupiers to halt the bloodshed. La Pucelle did not like the king’s plan, so again, she planned to face the English.
In the spring of 1431, La Pucelle led her fighters against the revamped English occupational forces in the province of Artois. The Anglo forces were ready, and greatly outnumbered the french-woman’s soldiers. She attempted a retreat, however the English captured and arrested her. Joan of Arc was brought to the prison in Rouen, the English capital of Normandy. There she was placed on trial by a Church Inquisition Tribunal.
During the lengthy, intense interrogation by Bishop Pierre Cauchan and the rest of the Inquisition Tribunal, La Pucelle’s answers did not validate any charges of sorcery and heresy. She repeatedly avowed her faith in the Church and the Pope. Joan testified that she only followed the word of God in her actions. In part, because many pious women of that day and age claimed to hear the “Voice of God” in their heads, the sorcery charge didn’t stick.
The Bishop then realized that because of a small technicality in canon law, that they could condemn Joan of Arc for dressing in men’s clothing. They forced Joan to abjure never to disobey the Church in matters of dress.
May 28th, Joan recanted her abstention and appeared in men’s garments again. The Inquisition then accused her of relapsing into heresy. She was asked why she decided to wear the clothing of a man. She replied that she had done so to protect her virginity. She accused the guards of trying to rape her while in custody. Because nothing had been done to protect her while wearing female clothing, she reverted to wearing men’s clothes. She begged to be placed in a safe location so she would not be afraid to wear women’s dress.
In the end, Bishop Cauchon and the Inquisition found Joan of Arc guilty of disobeying the church and of heresy. She was sentenced to execution by burning. On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the Old Marketplace in Rouen, Normandy, France.
La Pucelle was not only a martyr for France, she was a victim of the society she lived in. Joan of Arc was betrayed by the King she had saved from falling into the hands of the dreaded English, because he never lifted a finger to save her from the Inquisition. Not a single Frenchman testified in her favor.
Apathy and fear of association, kept everyone away. Despite the fact that she had kept her virginity, was completely loyal to France, and she exhibited exceptional bravery in combat, she was burned alive basically because she wore men’s clothing.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders this statement by Joan of Arc: “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without that belief, is a fate more terrible than dying.”