Joan of Arc: The Feminine and the Masculine

By Kelly DeVries

From heretic to miracle, from warrior to saint: A look at how Joan of Arc has been depicted, from the 15th century to the 20th century.

Joan of Arc was most assuredly a woman, from when she was born to when she died around the age of 20, burned on a stake in Rouen, English-held France. She never pretended to be anything but a woman. In fact, there is no indication that her final act of defiance to a court that had condemned her in large part because she was a woman, the dressing in the men’s clothing that had been in her cell, was her saying anything other than she was ready to die. To her prosecutors – or more appropriately, her persecutors – this proved that she was guilty of the heresy they condemned her for, dressing as a man.


With her life depending on her not dressing in these clothes, putting them on was simply her answering the call to martyrdom. She had weakened for a moment: tortured with sleep deprivation; threatened and mocked by her jailers; knowing that her trial would bring her no justice, no matter her guilt; and, perhaps worse than all, feeling that her voices had abandoned her, she had signed an abjuration saying she was wrong. Life was promised her so long as she did not don men’s clothes. Which she did, and they led her promptly to the pyre.

Some Joan of Arc “scholars” have attempted to use this final “cross-dressing” as evidence of Joan’s supposed transvestitism, her homosexuality, or her desire to be a man. Instead, as Joan had told the tribunal, she wore men’s clothes because she wore armor. We know of at least two suits of armor that were made specifically for her; one by the Dauphin Charles, made while she was in Chinon appears to be the one she wore when standing behind him at his crowning in Reims on 17 July 1429. Wearing armor necessitated trousers and a man’s shirt; she most likely would have also had to bind her breasts. She would have needed help from her two assistants – one her squire Jean d’Aulon – to dress in her armor, at least a two-man job. That this meant she was likely seen in the nude by these assistants did not seem to bother her, which further incensed her judges, as well as confirming to them – most who had never worn armor – that for to have worn armor she would have had to wear men’s clothing, and wearing men’s clothing made her a heretic, and heresy brought death.


‘Almost a miracle’

The nudity of Joan in front of other soldiers came up again in her rehabilitation trial, 1452-1456 – held primarily to soothe Charles VII’s guilt at never trying to rescue her. Witnesses reported there that not only had several of them seen her naked female body, but that none were sexually aroused by it. “She was a young girl, beautiful and shapely,” recalled her squire, Jean d’Aulon. Jean, the duke of Alençon, and many others who had ridden with her and been in her company said the same. They had seen her dress and undress in their presence, as a fellow-soldier concerned little with her privacy while on campaign. Jean d’Aulon continued in his testimony:

many times when helping to arm her or otherwise he had seen her breasts, and other times when he was dressing her wounds he had seen her legs quite bare, and he had gone close to her many times – and he said that he was strong, young and vigorous in those days – never, despite any sight or contact he had with the Maid, was his body moved to carnal desire for her, nor did any of her soldiers or squires, as he had heard them say and tell many times.

The duke of Alençon agreed, “sometimes he saw Joan get ready for the night, and sometimes he saw her breasts, which were beautiful. Nevertheless, he never had any carnal desire for her.”

Aulon’s and Alençon’s claims to never having had “any carnal desire for her” were universal among her troops or her officer colleagues. The royal esquire, Gobert Thibault, testified that:


. . . in the field she was always with the soldiers, and he had heard many of Joan’s intimates say that they never had any desire for her. That is to say that sometimes they had a carnal urge, but never dared to give way to it; and they believed that it was impossible to desire her. And often when they spoke about the sins of the flesh, and used words that might have aroused carnal thoughts, when they saw her and approached her, they could not speak like this any more, for suddenly their sexual feelings left them.

“For himself and the rest,” declared Count Jean of Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans, at the nullification trial, “when they were in the Maid’s company they had no wish or desire to approach or have intercourse with women. And it seemed to him that this was almost a miracle.”

Since her appearance before the dauphin at Chinon and her brief military career that followed by her vicious death Joan of Arc has remained popular. Throughout the entire early modern period, she stood as a symbol of French military mythology; for the French, this meant victory and religious justification, and for the English this meant defeat and diabolic heresy. But it was in the mid-nineteenth century that two deservedly famous French writers: Jules Michelet and Jules Quicherat brought Joan to prominence in French thought and literature that she had never previously achieved, one might say that it was greater popularity than that which she had during her lifetime. Michelet recounts all of her military successes (and failures) at length in her biography, which began as several chapters of volume 10 of his eminent, and obviously multi-volume Histoire de France (1844) and later was made into a separate publication.


At the same time Quicherat was compiling his five volume edition of Joan’s trial, rehabilitation trial, and sundry other biographical documents (1841-49) for the Société de l’histoire de France. He followed this with his own interpretation of Joan’s military career in his Aperçus nouveaux sur l’histoire de Jeanne d’Arc (1850) and Histoire du siège d’Orléans et des honneurs rendus à la Pucelle (1854). Neither Michelet nor Quicherat disputed Joan’s gender, but neither did they dwell on it.

Michelet and Quicherat’s works were received well critically and financially when they appeared, but they became even more popular when France’s military took a blow to its legacy and mythology with defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. No historian teaching basic western civilization, let alone an expert on nineteenth-century Europe can miss the influence of this defeat on France’s national feeling: to be so soundly and so quickly defeated by a state which France had always thought below them militarily (after all, had Napoleon not easily rolled over the Prussians almost every time the two met). This debacle was then followed a generation later by a scandal in the highest French military echelons, known most commonly as the Dreyfus Affair.

Joan in stone

Joan of Arc was once again called on to rescue France’s military image. New historical works about Joan’s military adventures proliferated. However, what may be more important than the written word were the number of statues of Joan erected in her honor throughout France, but especially at the sites of her victories, between 1870 and 1914.

The most famous of these, and perhaps the most viewed of all of Joan’s statues, is that of Emmanuel Frément erected at the Place des Pyramids in Paris. In 1874, Napoleon III, fresh off his capture at the battle of Nancy in 1870 and surrender to Otto von Bismark and the Prussians a year later, commissioned this bronze equestrian statue. His reason for doing so was obvious, and not questioned. It took 15 years to complete, but shown golden from its polished surface. It continues to shine, while all others which presumably looked like this at their erections quickly weathered to their current gray-green states. Joan’s horse stands motionless with a front hoof raised – at Paris it is the left one – and Joan, again clad in armor with her head bare, her right hand holding her banner aloft in a victory salute. Here her long hair says she is a woman, although such a mane would have been impractical under the helmet she wore during her combat. Frément’s statue has been the one most frequently copied, with two in the United States, in Philadelphia and, most fittingly, in New Orleans.

Statue of Joan of Arc on the Place des Pyramides, Paris. Photo by Kelly DeVries

The same year saw an equestrian statue raised in Reims. It is similar in style and as that in Paris, with Joan’s horse again standing motionless with a front hoof raised – although here it is the right hoof. But at Reims Joan is helmeted and she holds a sword in her raised right hand. Her gender is determined only by the plaque naming her.

Perhaps the most elaborate of Joan’s equestrian statues was erected in 1893 in Chinon. Sculpted by Jules Roulleau, it shows Joan dressed in full plate armor with her helmet visor raised – as was frequently done when not actually fighting to ease breathing in medieval conflicts – sitting astride a horse, although not in a typical equestrian pose. Joan’s horse is not standing still, but is in full gallop, lunging over the ground and fallen Englishmen, or perhaps crushing them. Joan, grasping her banner and sword, the latter pointing forward, is determined to ride to victory.

Joan of Arc statue in Chinon – photo by Kelly DeVries

Other equestrian statues were raised in Nancy in 1889; Paris in 1895; Montebourg in 1899; Rogenas in 1899; Alise-Sainte-Reine in 1901; Mirecourt in 1903; Nantes in 1906; Saint-Maurice-sur-Moselle in 1909; Blois in 1910; Lille in 1912; Castres in 1914; and Saint-Étienne in 1916.

There are also several statues made during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century which depict Joan as standing: at Vaucouleurs (the older undated statue standing in the garden of what might once have been a town building, not the one erected in 1924 currently in the square before the town hall); Compiègne (1880); Paris (1891); Bonsecours (1892); Jargeau (1895); Blois-sur-Seille (1895); Lyon (1898); Albi (1899); Saint-Pierre-le Moutier (1902); Mont-Saint-Michel (1908); Angers (1909); Bouvines (1913); and Patay (1913). All have Joan clad in armor with her head bare. All also have her right arm aloft holding her banner which flaps in the wind. Some have her holding a sword with her left hand, but most have it sheathed and belted to her side.

Joan of Arc statue in Vaucoleurs. Photo by Kelly DeVries

It is clear that all of these statues wish to emphasize Joan’s historical military abilities at a time when the French did not appear to have any current ones. But World War I would change all that. Despite suffering enormous losses, easily witnessed when one looks over the sea of 30,000 French crosses lined up at the war cemetery in Verdun only to realize that another 160,000 bodies lie interred in the mausoleum behind them, the French survived what, up to then, were the greatest military attacks that the world had ever seen. In many places in France Joan was given some credit for the victory. Her memory and mythology had breathed life into the defeatist military which seemed to lie corrupt and ineffective during the previous half-century. And they had won.

The feminine saint

Joan of Arc’s military symbolism was no longer needed. Again, let us turn to the statues, in particular to the one in Domrémy, Joan of Arc’s birthplace, which was erected following World War I. This statue, with a list of the men from Domrémy who had died fighting in the conflict, is of two women, distinctly female. The smallest one of these is clearly Joan, as she is carrying a sword in her right hand. But she does not wear armor or a helmet. Instead, she is clothed in a dress, with long hair flowing down her back. A second woman stands behind her, steadying Joan’s sword hand with her own right hand and holding onto Joan’s torso with her left hand. This woman, too, is clothed in a flowing dress, one of obviously higher quality than Joan’s, and she wears a crown. Who is she?  Perhaps she is Saint Catherine, whom Joan regarded as a personal favorite, or Saint Margaret, whom Joan said also visited her. Or perhaps she is the symbol of Mother France, newly saved by her military, as Joan’s military had done before. The emphasis is on femininity not seen in most statues of Joan of Arc made since 1870.

Joan of Arc statue in Domremy – photo by Kelly DeVries

Joan as a woman continued to be stressed with her sanctification in 1920. There is little doubt that the Catholic Church had received some intense pressure to canonize Joan for quite some time, but it had never been more intense than after the First World War. Of course, she could not be canonized on the basis of her martyrdom, especially as it was the Church who martyred her. So, she was made a saint on the basis of her virginity, a specifically female characteristic of spirituality. (I know of no male saints made such based on their virginity.)  Among her other miracles noted by the Catholic Church was her horsemanship, but no credit was given for her military successes – this despite Christine de Pisan’s suggestion in c.1430 that these were the foremost evidence for Joan’s religious endorsement (as also determined by both her trial and rehabilitation trial).

Joan had become a woman now more than a military leader. Since her canonization, this has been reflected in her statues, now mostly placed inside churches and cathedrals. She is rarely clad in armor, almost always wearing a dress and long hair. Sometimes she is depicted holding a sword, but in most cases, such as in her chapel in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Beauvais, she is using her sword not in as a weapon against an opponent but as an indicator of benediction. More often, Joan has no military bearing, but is depicted as a sad, mournful woman repenting of her sins or facing the flames, as inside the Rouen Cathedral. Even the historical plaques placed at all sites relating to Joan of Arc throughout France in 1929 have removed the military from her image. Even though the writing on these plaques often attests to great military feats by this fifteenth-century general, her medallion which accompanies all of the plaques shows only a young woman.

Joan of Arc statue inside Rouen Cathedral – photo by Kelly DeVries

The story and depiction of Joan of Arc continues to be told and reshaped into the 21st century.

Kelly DeVries is Professor of History at Loyola University in Maryland and Honorary Historical Consultant, Royal Armouries, UK.  He is the author of many works on medieval history, including the recently published 1066: A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (co-authored by Michael Livingston).

Click here to read more from Kelly

Top Image: Statue of Joan of Arc on the Place des Pyramides, Paris. Photo by Chabe01 / Wikimedia Commons