‘It was necessary’: taking Joan of Arc on their own terms
We take a look a fresh look at Jeanne d’Arc’s story, and what they tell us about the history of gender
‘It was necessary,’ Joan of Arc told a French court in the spring of 1431, ‘that I changed my clothes.’
From the vantage point of 2022, looking back at the far more rigidly patriarchal norms of fifteenth-century Catholic France, it’s easy to read this as a statement about practicality and gender roles. If Joan was to lead an army – taking on a role associated with men, and with masculinity – then a change of clothes would indeed be necessary: both because men’s clothes were what people expected of a military leader, and because it would be much more difficult to fight in a dress. This is how Joan’s story is often told: as a tale of pragmatic gender nonconformity, men’s dress as a strategy to navigate a patriarchal world. The subtext of this interpretation – increasingly made explicit as our society continues to deny the historical existence of trans experience – is that Joan shouldn’t be seen as part of trans history: that their story is about gender-nonconforming behaviour, not identity.
In my new book Before We Were Trans, I take a fresh look at histories like Joan’s, and consider what they tell us about the history of gender. The book tackles histories of gender nonconformity which overlap with other kinds of history, including histories of queer sexuality, intersex embodiment, and defiance of gender roles: the kind of stories that prompt the reaction, ‘That’s not trans history, it’s just…’ One way of rebutting this argument with reference to Joan’s story is to point out that it’s a history which shows us that gender has never been strictly tied to the body, and has always been open to challenge and contestation – both incredibly powerful counterpoints to the argument that trans people are newly redefining gender today.
‘Joan’s story shows us that gender has never been strictly tied to the body, and has always been open to challenge and contestation’
But another, just as importantly, is to point out that saying Joan’s gender nonconformity was motivated by practicality doesn’t prevent us from also saying that it had other, deeper motivations – or that it had other, deeper, unexpected consequences for how Joan felt. Feelings and identity are messy; few of us can honestly say we have only a single motivation for any decision we take, let alone so momentous a decision as Joan took when they asked to meet Charles VII in 1428.
The pragmatic explanations typically offered up for Joan’s gender nonconformity – military practicality, gender stereotypes, protection from sexual assault – make sense from the vantage point of a society where what we wear and how we act aren’t understood to have any automatic connection to our identity. But in fact, ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’ have never been easy to separate or tease apart.
The ninth-century English ruler Æthelflæd, who governed Mercia after the death of their husband, was later described as ‘conducting…Armies, as if she had changed her sex’: to take on a male-coded military role was, in some sense, for Æthelflæd to become male. Elizabeth I, similarly, described themself regularly in speeches as ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘prince’, choosing strategically to emphasise their female identity or their male monarchical role at different points. Clothing has, likewise, not always been seen as simply a costume we put on over our essential, unchanging self. This was one of the reasons that onstage gender nonconformity drew such ire when the Globe first opened, with antitheatrical writer Philip Stubbes exclaiming that wearing clothes associated with a different gender could ‘adulterate the verity of [one’s] own kind’: change the truth of one’s very nature.
Like Æthelflæd, Elizabeth, and the actors of the Globe, Joan lived in a society where military leaders were overwhelmingly male, and where clothing was strictly gendered. Inhabiting that social role and dressing in the clothes associated with it, while living and working among men, may not just have felt like gendered defiance: it may have had a profound impact on their sense of self.
What’s more, for Joan, gender nonconformity was clearly never just a practical matter. Joan is also part of a long and cross-cultural history of people who have experienced their gender nonconformity as spiritually motivated. Throughout their period in the military, and throughout their trial, Joan remained consistently clear that their gender nonconformity was at the command of God: ‘It pleases God,’ they said; their gender nonconformity was not just ‘by the permission of God’ but ‘on the command of our Lord and in his service’, and they would not stop ‘until it pleases our Lord’. As a devout Catholic – shown by their repeated requests while imprisoned to be able to receive the sacraments and to hear Mass – Joan clearly took these commands very seriously.
Some medieval Christians found that their faith, and particularly the tradition of gender-segregated religious houses, provided an opportunity for them to live as a different gender. In the fifth century, for example, Smaragdus of Alexandria wanted to devote themself to Christian asceticism rather than taking a husband and having children – so they entered a monastery, and lived as a man until their death. But in their insistence that God commanded them to live and dress in a gender-nonconforming way, Joan perhaps has more in common with people like the Public Universal Friend, a devout Quaker in eighteenth-century Rhode Island who was reborn as a genderless spirit in a ‘tabernacle of flesh’, and who subsequently dressed in a way that indicated to their many supporters that they were ‘not…of either sex’.
‘For Joan as a person of faith, their selfhood and their spirituality would have been entangled – and in this, they belong to a historical and contemporary community of people who experience their gender as not simply human, but spiritual too’
This is entangled experience of faith and gender has a cross-cultural history: less than fifty years after the Public Universal Friend’s gendered transformation, another North American person, Kaúxuma núpika, revealed that they had been transformed into a man by a spiritual vision, and lived as a man and a prophet for the rest of their life. Kaúxuma núpika has much in common with people who would today describe themselves using the inter-tribal term Two-Spirit – a term which recognises the inherently spiritual nature of many of these gendered experiences. For Joan as a person of faith, their selfhood and their spirituality would have been entangled – and in this, they belong to a historical and contemporary community of people who experience their gender as not simply human, but spiritual too.
What makes I, Joan so important is that it reminds us to think about gender nonconforming people in the past as people, and to take them as people deserve to be taken, on their own terms. It reminds us to think not just ‘how were they perceived?’ or ‘what were they doing?’, but ‘how did they feel?’ So when we read that Joan said, ‘It was necessary that I changed my clothes’, what if we were to take that at face value? Joan is telling us that for them, gender nonconformity felt necessary: like something they had to do. It seems clear that part of that necessity had to do with their faith: their God had told them to dress this way, and they felt wholeheartedly bound to follow that command. It was probably also bound up with what it meant to change their social role: it made social and practical sense for a military leader to dress in a masculine way. But this is also a feeling that so many of us, whether we have a faith or not, can relate to: a sense that this next step in our lives is the right one, even if we can’t tell exactly why.
When I hear Joan say, from 1431, ‘It was necessary’, I hear echoes of myself years ago, asking to be called they rather than she, telling people, ‘I don’t know why, but it’s what makes me happy.’ This doesn’t mean I can describe the real Joan as a trans person in the same way I am: it wouldn’t be fair to them, wouldn’t show them the respect they deserve, if I were to impose upon them my own way of seeing the world. But their story is nonetheless important to me, as it is to many other people of all genders, as a source of historical community; as a story which reminds us that our selves can be messy and our decisions multifaceted; and as a story of someone who insisted on disrupting and challenging gender, and remained so committed to this challenge that they were prepared to die for it. This history is powerfully liberating for all of us. It reminds us that we don’t need to find reasons or excuses to live the way we want to live: instead, like Joan, it should be sufficient to look power in the face and say simply, ‘It was necessary’.
All quotations from Joan’s trial records are taken from Susan Crane, ‘Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26.2 (1996), 298–320.
Read more about Dr Kit Heyam’s research in Before We Were Trans, a history and celebration of gender in all its fluidity, ambiguity and complexity, available to purchase now.
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.