Gender Transgression as Heresy: The Trial of Joan of Arc


Gender Transgression as Heresy: The Trial of Joan of Arc

By Daniel Grigat and Gregory Carrier

Past Imperfect, Vol.13 (2007)

Abstract: Joan of Arc has exercised a hold on the imagination, both medieval and modern, far exceeding her limited military achievements. It is perhaps for this reason that the trial of Joan on charges of heresy, culminating in her conviction and execution, is typically interpreted in a cynical light. The primary theme of the literature is that the she was brought to trial and convicted for challenging the institutionalized power of state and church. The issue of gender transgression, which is repeated throughout the transcripts of Joan’s trial, is either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. It is typical of the medieval narrative that belief systems no longer accepted today are not taken seriously, and this is done through reducing them to familiar categories.

This paper aims to take the trial of Joan of Arc seriously by arguing that Joan really was a heretic because she was different from orthodox Christians in that she transgressed traditional gender roles. This issue played a major role in Joan’s trial and one can scarcely read two paragraphs of the record without issues of gender transgression being raised and denounced. Furthermore, gender transgression was explicitly identified as amounting to heresy, and theological arguments were given by learned experts to justify this connection. This is not to deny that Joan was a heretic on other grounds; her obstinate refusal to submit herself to the Church militant and insistence on her ability to interpret her own revelations are crucial issues. Likewise, we do not intend to deny the political aspect of her trial, but rather to argue that the defense and reinforcement of traditional authority structures cannot be demarcated from the issue of heresy and gender transgression.




Introduction: In the context of the Hundred Years War, the military career of Joan of Arc was remarkably brief. Less than four hundred days passed between the dramatic leadership she displayed in lifting the siege of Orléans in May 1429 and her capture at Compiègne in May 1430. In spite of this, Joan of Arc has exercised a hold on the imagination, both medieval and modern, far exceeding her limited military achievements. Coley Taylor contends that Joan’s trial “has become second in importance only to the Trial of Christ”. Joan represents the ultimate underdog: an illiterate peasant woman who shook the foundations of English power in France at a time when power revolved around noble birth, extensive theological training, and, of course, the male gender. It is perhaps for this reason that the trial of Joan on charges of heresy, culminating in her conviction and execution, is typically interpreted in a cynical light. The trial, according to common wisdom, was little more than a political move by the English and their Church lackeys to discredit Joan’s mission and bring it to an end.

Click here to read this article from the University of Alberta

Sharan Newman