Remembering Joan of Arc, The Gender-Bending Woman Warrior Who Changed History

The Maid of Orleans and her holy voices were in many ways too different to live

Joan of Arc on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

It’s been almost 600 years since the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, and her memory hasn’t faded. From novels, plays and movies to scholarly books and endless theories about how she heard the voices that led her to lead an army, her story has been regularly re-explored by generations in France and elsewhere. Here are a few reasons we can’t forget Saint Joan.

She was a classic underdog.

Joan of Arc got more done in a year than most military generals—heck, most people—do in a lifetime.

Her story could start at a lot of places, but maybe the most dramatic is in February 1429, when the teenage peasant rolled up to the court of Charles VII of France. She was wearing men’s clothes and saying God had sent her to deal with the issues of succession that Charles, not yet king, was wrestling with, writes

He believed her. A couple of months later, she led a small force of troops to the city of Orleans, which was under siege by the English. Oh, and she wrote the king of England this letter, which should really go down in the history of smack talk.

“The Maid promises and certifies that if you do not leave France she and her troops will raise a mighty outcry as has not been heard in France in a thousand years,” she wrote. By early May, Orleans was hers.

But that was just a warm-up. “During the next five weeks, Joan led French forces into a number of stunning victories over the English,” writes, “and Reims, the traditional city of coronation, was captured in July. Later that month, Charles VII was crowned king of France, with Joan of Arc kneeling at his feet.”

But in the end, Joan of Arc got the short end of the stick. She was captured in May 1430, still fighting, writes historian Kelly DeVries. “Joan became a prize of war,” he writes, paraded through the English-occupied parts of France before being sold to the English by her captors, who were also French but from a part that was allied with England (things got complicated during the Hundred Years War).

Her motives are really mysterious.

Part of why we still remember the Maid of Orleans:  her unswerving claims to hear holy voices: that is, God and Saints Margaret, Catherine and Michael.

One possibility for why she made those claims? To get men to listen to her. “The assumption of the mantle of prophecy was one of the few ways by which medieval women could speak with public authority, certain of being listened to,” writes author Mary Gordon. Because Joan relied on the words of her supernatural conversants to give her authority, she’s part of this tradition, Gordon writes. Joan’s visions led her to do extraordinary things: “For most of her life,” Gordon writes, “she understood herself to be constantly and palpably in the company of the divine.” That’s where Joan got her strength and authority, Gordon writes, and whatever else it was, it wasn’t a lie.

Most sources agree that she really believed she heard God. Historians through the ages have proposed a number of possible reasons for Joan’s visions: schizophrenia, epilepsy, other medicalized ailments. But others have asked if it matters what was behind Joan’s visions: those diagnoses aren’t the ways that Joan or other people of her time would have understood what was going on.

We have such good records about her.

Like us moderns, fifteenth-century people noticed Joan of Arc. It’s kind of hard to miss it when the French army is kicking your keister with a sword-wielding teenage girl at its head.

“In relative terms, as much ink and parchment were expended on the subject of Joan of Arc by her contemporaries as print and paper have been in the centuries that followed,” writes historian Helen Castor.

But the biggest reason we know so much about her, Castor writes, is the courts. They wrote everything down, both at her trial and, 35 years later, when she was retried and found to be innocent by France: great news for a country that has since accepted her as its patron saint, less so for Joan, who was long dead.  

She wasn’t wrong.

Although she was convicted of heresy and killed for it, Joan of Arc was on the right side of history in a lot of ways. She ignored her social rank and her gender and took a place that she aspired to. She also  “almost continuously” wore men’s clothing, writes historian Susan Crane, in a time where that was unheard of. Those are things we might honor today.

Joan was a genius, writes Gordon. “She is an impossibility, a puzzle and yet she did come from somewhere.” In the end, though, Joan of Arc was very human. She was terrified of being burned at the stake, and the only time she changed her story was not long before she died. She took it back though, and the trial transcript records “she said that what she had declared and recanted on Thursday was done only for fear of the fire.”

Many of these historians argue that the real threat Joan of Arc posed was being too different. From her trial documents we know she was: “a woman of dissolute life,” to one English nobleman, John, Duke of Bedford; “a simple girl” to court clerk Guillame Manchon; and “wholly forgetful of womanly honesty, and having thrown of the bonds of shame, careless of all the modesty of womankind” to the court. Most often, those documents refer to her as “this woman,” not by name.

Editor's Note, Jan. 10, 2018: The headline of this article has been updated.

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