Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #93 Crane 1996 “Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc,”

Full citation: 

Crane, Susan. 1996. “Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc,” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26:2 : 297-320.

When the question arises of medieval women putting on men's clothing, performing masculine-coded roles, and being punished for it, nearly everyone points to Joan of Arc as a salient example. In many ways, she is an atypical example, but this atypicality foregrounds the debate over cross-dressing itself, without the distracting factors of deception or of sexual transgression.

* * *

One of the most commonly-cited cases of medieval women openly dressing in male clothing is Joan of Arc, not only because of her prominent place in general history, but because both her practices and her reasoning are unusually well documented, not only by her contemporaries, but in her own words from the trial transcripts. She wore male clothing almost continually from the time of her first attempts to contact the Dauphin throughout most of her trial. Because her cross-dressing was overt, and because the importance placed on her virginal status argues against a sexual motivation, she forms an interesting counterpoint to common assumptions (both medieval and modern) about cross-dressed women. Crane, however, addresses the question of clothing as an expression of her identity and sexuality as well as being a practical aspect of her martial context.

The author begins with the usual nod to Foucault's attitudes toward the question of historic gender and sexual identity and takes a position in contrast to his notion of a "unitary" medieval discourse on the topic, in favor of a diverse set of approaches where the moral structures of the penitentials are set against the ideals of fine amor and eroticized relationships to divine figures. Within this, Joan's answers and arguments to the court regarding her gender performance appear to be intended to create a distinct category from "woman" within which her behavior can be considered normal. It is acknowledged that the evidence we have for Joan's own position is heavily constrained, not only by the models available to her from her environment, but by the nature of the adversarial legal framework. The focus here is on the motives attributed to Joan through her own recorded words.

As a record of a legal proceeding, Joan's case is fascinating, particularly as the record makes clear that she was an active participant in creating and shaping the transcript, as well as correcting it where she felt it erred. Joan insisted on continuing to wear men's clothing throughout the trial which was not merely a source of social friction but became a symbol of her resistance to the accusations. (At the end of the trial, she briefly abjured her behavior and returned to women's clothing, and it was only after recanting that and again taking up male clothing that she was condemned and executed.) The arguments used by Joan's prosecutors and defenders is often at odds with her own reasoning. Her defenders cited legends of the Amazons, early transvestite saints, and the biblical stories of Deborah and Esther. Her attackers cite the prohibition on cross-dressing from Deuteronomy and Paul's equation of women's hair and modesty. Joan, in contrast, does not invoke textual authority.

One theme in Joan's testimony is that her male dress is purely practical and a trivial matter. That no one else had advised her to do it and that she doesn't recall anyone making much fuss about it. She asserts that if returning to women's clothing would enable her to continue to resist the English, she would gladly do so. But in general she verbally equates wearing masculine clothing with participating in armed opposition. The practicalities of travel are also mentioned, but the majority of the focus is on dressing and arming herself appropriately for the task of leading the army.

Despite these practical arguments, Joan consistently wore male clothing through her career, not only when traveling or during battle. For this, she offers the authority of God, saying that it pleases God for her to dress in that fashion. This appeal to God becomes the touchstone for her continued practice throughout her imprisonment and trial. The strength of her belief in this justification is seen when her captors try to use access to Mass and Communion as an inducement to change her dress and she still refuses.

A different motive emerges from testimony presented after her death in a nullification trial, which reviewed the transcript of the previous proceedings. Here it is noted that she complained of threats of rape from her guards and the removal of her female clothing left her no option but to return to male clothing to spare her modesty. But intertwined in this is the argument that it was necessary for her to wear male clothing "because she was among men", with the implication that this would help remove her from the category of (sexually available) woman.

The use of an appeal to individual divine instruction as a basis for transgressive (or simply unconventional) behavior is common among female mystics, with varying success. But Joan is not passively asserting obedience to God, but rather foregrounding her own initiative in acting to implement God's will. Here the connection with the legends of transvestite saints becomes stronger: gender and sanctity are linked. Crane focuses on three contexts for Joan's cross-dressing as key to her construction of a gender identity: her commitment to virginity, her claim to military and social authority, and her relations with conventional femininity. Joan consistently frames her cross-dressing and her virginity as a temporary performance that may be concluded in the future "if it please God". This contrasts with the motif of the transvestite saints who are performing a masculine role in order to dedicate a lifelong chastity to God. As the trial progressed, Joan's language begins to suggest a desire to make this transition back to feminine clothing, but she feels she lacks some sort of clear indication to do so. She seems less certain about attributing the cross-dressing to God's will, but unwilling to abandon it only on her own authority, perhaps because that would seem to nullify her original claim of divine authority.

During Joan's various political and military activities, cross-dressing (sometimes very flamboyantly) was part of claiming the status and authority necessary to accomplish her ends. When she first set out, she was wearing women's clothing but was presented with a male outfit by the people of Valcouleurs which she wore (along with short-cropped hair) for the first leg of her quest. There are some suggestions that at first she would change to female clothing when off the battlefield, but those same texts indicate that this transition resulted in being treated as a "naive and inexperienced" woman. This in itself suggests a very practical purpose to full-time cross-dressing. As a peasant, Joan's new clothing violated class as well as gender boundaries, as she had been given upper-class clothing of silk and gold. The quality of her clothing was later used against her during the trail, suggesting that her purpose was luxury and excess. There are also comments on the shortness of the garments--a feature sometimes criticized as excessively sexual when the style was worn by men.

Conventional interpretations of Joan's cross-dressing view it as only practical, while commentary on men cross-dressing as women often emphasizes the sexual aspects. This is understandable given the gender differentials in power and freedom of movement. Joan regularly articulates that she does not view wearing male clothing as a change of sex, but as a costume that is more suitable to the activities she has undertaken. Descriptions indicate she put on masculine-coded gestures and habits as well. But on occasion she admits to an esthetic preference, noting after her "relapse" that "she likes men's clothes better than women's."

This masculine affect, when she first arrived at the Dauphin's court, led to a requirement that she be examined to determine her true sex, though the use of female examiners suggests there was no real doubt. Joan regularly disassociates herself from normative "women's work" saying that there are enough women to do that in her place. But conversely she expresses allegiance and some level of obedience to certain women of the French court and speaks fondly of her mother and being taught feminine arts in her girlhood. She is not repudiating women as a class, only her wholehearted membership in that class.

The trial records give no indication that Joan was suspected of being a "masculine woman" in the lesbian-like sense. Rather any intimations of sexual transgression are in the heterosexual realm. But it's clear that her insistence on standing outside the gender binary was seen as problematic--perhaps more problematic than completely passing as a man would have been. Of Joan's contemporaries, only Christine de Pizan seems to have embraced the contradictory nature of her gender identity, praising Joan in language that mixes together grammatically masculine and feminine forms.

At this point, Crane suggests that in constructing this identity that emphasized her virgin status, embraced the pursuit of arms, and yet retained strong relations with women, we can see "implications for physical desire or a transgressive desire for women" while the virginity that was an essential component of her identity shields her from "its most radical implications." [I confess this aspect seems a bit tacked on to the main analysis, and seems to fall back on a binary model for desire: that if she did not desire men, it implies she might have desired women, as opposed to entertaining other options.]

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment