By Helen Castor (Guest Contributor)
It’s an image rooted in history as well as iconography. Sword, banner and armour can all be traced in the historical record; her sword was found, we’re told, in the church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, and her banner and armour made specially for her before she was sent to fight at Orléans in 1429.
But what did Joan wear when she was not riding with her troops? And how did contemporaries react to what we would call her cross-dressing?
At first, Joan’s decision to wear male clothes seems to have been a practical one. She faced a 250-mile journey through enemy territory from her home in Lorraine to the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, with six men-at-arms for company. The people of the town where her journey began gave her a tunic, doublet, breeches and hose, all in black and grey, to replace her rough red dress – a disguise that offered advantages of speed, because she would be able to ride astride, and some measure of protection against sexual assault, in the form of the cords that tied hose and breeches to doublet.
By the time she reached Chinon, however, Joan’s distinctive appearance seems to have been absorbed into her sense of her mission. We don’t know for certain if she ever put on a dress at court before her victory at Orléans, but afterwards, when the duke of Orléans made her a gift of a fine outfit, it was male garments that the tailor was ordered to prepare – so our image of the historical Joan should include the Maid dressed in silks and satins like the debonair gentlemen of the royal household.
But the sight of a girl dressed as a boy was challenging as well as distinctive. After all, the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy described a woman in men’s clothing as ‘an abomination unto the Lord’. For Joan’s supporters, this transgression could be excused because of her heaven-sent mission, but for her enemies it was proof that she communed not with God but the Devil. The prosecutors at her trial in 1431 saw her clothes as the visible manifestation of her heresy – and they were equally symbolic for Joan herself. Throughout her interrogation she refused to give up her male attire until at last, terrified by the imminent prospect of the flames, she capitulated and acknowledged her guilt. Three days later, unable to live with what she had done, she signaled her renewed defiance by dressing once again as a man.
Which leaves us with one last question about Joan’s clothes. Once she had agreed, as a repentant heretic, to put on a dress, who left her male outfit in her cell? If Joan was determined to die for her mission, it seems that some of her captors, at least, were happy to help her on her way.
Helen Castor is a historian of medieval England, and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her first book, Blood and Roses, was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005 and won the English Association’s Beatrice White Prize in 2006. Her last book, She-Wolves, was selected as one of the books of the year for 2010 in the Guardian, Times, Sunday Times, Independent, Financial Times and BBC History Magazine. She lives in London with her husband and son.
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