French history myths: Joan of Arc disguised herself as a man to lead an army against the English

FRENCH HISTORY

If you’re looking for French icons, they don’t get bigger than Joan or Arc, but not all the stories are true . . . Here’s the latest in our series on French history myths.

Published: 17 August 2022 09:30 CEST

Did the real Joan or Arc look anything like this statue in Orleans? Who knows. Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

Myth: In the 1400s a French peasant girl named Joan, inspired by religious visions, disguised herself as a man in order to lead an army against the English.

Joan had quite the journey during her lifetime, but an equally dizzying ride after her death – from heretic to Catholic saint, patron saint of France, feminist icon and far-right symbol.

But as is often the case when historical figures get adopted by certain causes, some actual details of their lives can get lost or confused.

There’s quite a few documents missing about the life of the woman who is known in French as Jeanne d’Arc and in English as Joan of Arc, but historians mostly agree that she was born in about 1412 in Domrémy in Vosges, north east France, and in 1428 – at the age of around 16 –  travelled to a royal encampent in Vaucouleurs (Meuse) and requested an audience with the French king Charles, saying that she had received instructions through religious visions that she should lead his army.

At the time France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years War which, as the name suggests, was a long-running dispute over which king was the rightful ruler of France.

To cut a long and exciting story short (it’s really a great story and the subject of numerous plays, films, books and podcasts), Joan did end up leading the French king’s army and inflicted several significant defeats on the English before she was finally captured during yet another battle at Compiègne.

It’s undoubtedly true that she wore men’s clothes and armour during her time heading up the army, but at no stage did she try to pass as a man and during her life was known as La Pucelle (the maid).

In some of the remaining documents that she dictated (she was almost certainly illiterate) she referred to herself as Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the maid).

The issue of men’s clothing became important later on, when her English captors elected to put her on trial for heresy, both for her supposed religious visions and for cross-dressing (which was regarded as heresy by the Catholic church) – although one cannot help but think that the English would have been less bothered about the trousers had they not been humiliatingly defeated in battle by this teenage girl.

After a few twists and turns Joan was eventually found guilty (amazing how often that happens with politically motivated trials) and was executed by the hideous method of burning alive. She was probably around 19 when she died.

It’s an astonishing story but the very gaps in the records from that time have made Joan ripe for co-opting by special interest groups – having been convicted of heresy in a church court, she was then beatified by the Catholic church in 1909 and made a saint in 1920.

She’s also frequently seen as a secular symbol of the spirit of France – during World War II both the Vichy government and Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile appealed to her legacy, while these days she is frequently used as a symbol of ‘the real France’ by far-right politicians.

In more modern times she’s also been claimed as a feminist icon and become the centre or a row over gender, while the town of Orléans – scene of her first major victory – has leaned heavily into the Joan story in its tourist board marketing.

What the real Joan would have made of any of the events since her death is, of course, anyone’s guess.

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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