Who was Joan of Arc?
With Charlie Josephine’s upcoming new play I, Joan reinterpreting Jeanne d’Arc for a modern audience, we look back at the complex legacy of this historical icon
Who exactly was Jeanne d’Arc, the 15th century French warrior-saint who left a life in the countryside to fight in the Hundred Years’ War before meeting their untimely end at only (approximately) nineteen years old? It depends on who you ask. Jeanne (or Joan of Arc for English-speakers) has lived many lives in the cultural imagination following their controversial trial, subsequent execution in 1431, and formal exoneration in 1456. Soldier or martyr, patron saint or witch, hero or heretic – whoever Joan truly was, perhaps the most accurate descriptor for them is simply ‘icon.’
Joan’s story has been translated seemingly innumerable times in the 600 years following their death: they have been the subject of plays, operas, poetry, paintings, sculpture, film, and even a ‘1,200 character spectacle’ put on by the Ringling Brothers Circus. But Joan’s appeal extends far beyond the arts into the realm of both popular and political culture, and their popularity has only increased since their canonisation by the Catholic Church in 1920.
In the past century in particular, Joan has come to be for many a feminist and queer icon, with Vita Sackville-West first putting forth speculation about Joan’s sexuality in her provocative 1936 biography Saint Joan of Arc. Sackville-West’s work was instantly met with critique as not all her speculations are historically grounded; for example, her focus on Joan supposedly sharing a bed with women fails to acknowledge that it was commonplace for multiple people to share a bed well into the early modern period. However, Sackville-West’s Saint Joan represents a landmark moment in queer history, and it is undeniable that Joan’s refusal to conform to medieval conceptions of female propriety and the persecution they suffered due to their preference for traditionally male clothing have contributed to Joan’s legacy as the essence of transgressive androgyny.
‘It is undeniable that Joan’s refusal to conform to medieval conceptions of female propriety and the persecution they suffered due to their preference for traditionally male clothing have contributed to Joan’s legacy as the essence of transgressive androgyny’
In their native France, Joan has served as a symbol across the political spectrum, with the modern far-right National Front party and the French Communist movement during World War II (among many others) claiming Joan as a symbol of French identity and resistance. Joan’s influence extends beyond France as well: one American World War I poster featured a smiling, rosy-cheeked Joan hoisting a sword, emblazoned with the words ‘Joan of Arc Saved France – Women of America – Save your country – Buy War Savings Stamps.’
Some have taken their loyalty to the saint to the extreme – one wealthy socialite and devotee of Joan was so dedicated to them that, upon the 1920 rediscovery of an abandoned 15th century chapel that Joan supposedly prayed in, she had the chapel dismantled, shipped to New York, and reassembled next to her new French-chateau style home. And the unlikely journey of a medieval French chapel to the United States didn’t stop there – the chapel was disassembled and reassembled once more, and now sits on the campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It would seem part of the great appeal of Joan’s legend is its multi-faceted nature, one from which many have drawn inspiration to reflect on their own place and time throughout the centuries. As people throughout history have grappled with finding their place in a complex, ever-changing world, they have turned time and time again to Joan, finding strength and solidarity in their bravery and self-conviction in the face of extreme adversity.
‘People throughout history have turned time and time again to Joan, finding strength and solidarity in their bravery and self-conviction in the face of extreme adversity’
But of course, not everyone’s take on Joan’s story has been entirely positive: Shakespeare himself certainly had some choice words for the so-called ‘Maid of Orléans’ when he told his version of Joan’s story. Throughout Henry VI Part 1, the English rail against Joan, whom they deem a ‘hag of all despite,’ ‘high-minded strumpet,’ and simply ‘that damned sorceress.’ Scholars have long argued over Shakespeare’s portrayal of Joan, who comes across brave and virtuous and wicked and deceitful in equal measure. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, we are not left with many clear answers about Joan – instead, the last image of the fierce warrior is that of a frightened teenager, desperately pleading their life to an audience of men determined to destroy them and the supposed danger Joan represents.
‘Scholars have long argued over Shakespeare’s portrayal of Joan, who comes across brave and virtuous and wicked and deceitful in equal measure’
From Shakespeare to Shaw, the theatre has played an important role in the long legacy of Joan’s hagiography being interpreted and adapted to speak to a diverse array of audiences. Now, with Charlie Josephine’s I, Joan, the shepherd-turned-saint has the chance to ascend Shakespeare’s stage and share their story once more, this time in a play all of their own. From the gates of Orléans, to the court of Charles, to a scaffold in Rouen, Joan’s bravery, fierce determination, and beautiful spirituality stunned those around them and captured the imaginations of generations to come. In I, Joan, Joan asks the audience to expand their minds, open their hearts, and see their story in a brand new light.
The production, I, Joan, explores questions and experiences of gender throughout Joan’s story. To honor the story that I, Joan is telling, I have used they/them pronouns to refer to Joan throughout this post. The use of ‘they’ to refer to a singular person has been traced by the Oxford English Dictionary to as early as 1375, years before Joan was even born. If you have questions about using they/them pronouns or non-binary identities, you can find useful information from various LGBTQ+ organisations.
Dive deeper into I, Joan in our free post-show events. Meet members of the Cast & Creative team in a Post-Show Discussion and Q&A on 24 September and learn more about making Queer Theatre for everyone in Straight to the Point on 8 October.