Fifteenth Century / History / Women

Oh mon Dieu!: 5 Unbelievable Things About Joan of Arc

I’m not afraid…I was born to do this.

Living in Rouen it’s difficult to avoid mentions of Joan of Arc. This is where she was held during her trial, and where she was eventually burnt at the stake. Nowadays glimpses of her legacy are around every corner. The main street from the station to the river is Rue Jeanne d’Arc, just off this road you can find both the Tour de Jeanne d’Arc and the église Sainte Jeanne d’Arc. Fortunately for me, I find the story of Joan (or Jeanne) fascinating.


There is so much to say about Joan even though she didn’t make it to her twentieth birthday. I don’t want to write a book (or PhD thesis) so instead, il y a cinq choses sur le sujet de Jeanne D’Arc que je trouve incroyable.

How young she was

Joan first begun hearing voices at the tender age of thirteen. These voices weren’t just telling her to be good girl, instead, Joan was told to make contact with the dauphin and help him be crowed King of France. Simple. Three years later she demanded that the local governor help her reach the dauphin at Chinon. A year later he agreed. At the age of seventeen she led French troops into battle. She was only nineteen when she was burnt at the stake.

How she dressed like a man

The first time that Joan cut her hair and donned men’s clothes makes total sense. It was a brave move, but as a young peasant girl travelling with a group of men across a war-torn country, she was much less conspicuous dressed in men’s clothes.

Amazingly, there are sources – such as the account of her trial – which tell us what she looked like. She had short, black, cropped hair, she wore men’s clothes: a shirt, shorts, a doublet, hose, boots, and leggings. On top of this she sometimes wore clothes suitable for military engagements, a short coat of mail with a solid breastplate, and she carried weapons such as a sword and lance. She had her own banner and shield made with her own heraldic symbols.


Many painters took artistic licence with Joan’s image such as Dante Rossetti in this gorgeous, if totally fictitious, depiction of Joan. Joan of Arc (1882)

These clothes were used by the court to accuse her of ‘cross-dressing’ an offense in those times. This was made worse by the fact that Joan wore her men’s clothes in prison – she said it was to protect her from molestation and rape as women’s clothes made her vulnerable.

It seems clear that once she was imprisoned the male clothes were used as a tool by the court in order to convict poor Joan. However, before this they were used to enter into a very male society and not only to gain access, but to be listened to and respected.

How she led an army

People have discussed the extent to which Joan was involved in the military action that took place after she spoke to the dauphin. Was she just a figurehead, was she a real strategist, was she in the mêlée jabbing at the English with her spears?

Some people seem determined to dismiss her impact and influence, saying she was just a tool, used by Charles to rouse a flagging force. However, in the account of her trial and retrial her impact, or perceived impact, is made clear by various witnesses. She improved the behaviour of the French force by getting rid of prostitutes from the camps, banning bad language, and highlighting the importance of confession and mass.

Soldiers and commanders testified that she was in the front rank of every assault that she ordered. She actually took part in the fighting. There are several instances recorded of Joan being injured in battle – to the dismay of her force – and then quickly returning to battle.

Except in matters of war, she was simple and innocent. But in the leading and drawing up of armies and in the conduct of war, in disposing an army for battle and haranguing the soldiers, she behaved like the most experienced captain in all the world, like one with a whole lifetime of experience. (Thibaut d’Armagnac, knight, a witness in Joan’s retrial)

Joan made the French want to fight, and want to win. Her influence extended throughout the army and to all of France under English or Burgundian rule.

How people believed her

As Richey says: ‘Respectfully setting aside voices from God for the moment, how did an illiterate seventeen-year-old peasant girl with no military training lead an army that had known nothing but humiliation and defeat to sudden, repeated, and decisive victories?’

Whatever I learn about Joan I always ask one question, ‘how did she make people believe her?!’

Even though the people of France were much more religious than they are today – there were policies in place for determining if a prophet was genuine or not which suggests it happened fairly often! – Joan was not only a child, she was also a woman.

Military leaders took her advice, she could speak to the King(-to-be) of France, peasants would ask her to bless holy objects and wanted want to kiss her feet. The number of people who believed in her was the reason the English had to convict her of heresy; she was dangerous to them.

How her legacy lives

For a teenager that died literally hundreds of years ago, Joan is the gift that just keeps on giving. Politicians, feminists, revolutionaries, the list goes on, all these people have called on Joan to give voice to their struggle, their goals, and their promises.

Joan Suffragette

Poster for ‘The Suffragette’ newspaper by Hilda Dallas (1912).

Of course, Joan is a well-known proto-feminist figure (though I doubt she saw herself as a champion of women). This suffragette poster displays how deeply Joan is entrenched in our cultural memory. Her name is not mentioned but the poster is clearly meant to evoke her image; she is draped in the suffragette colours. Castleberry writes that ‘this Joan is meant to rally women to break out of stereotypical, passive roles and seek their rights as citizens.’

Below we see how Joan was used by the Germans in occupied France to condemn the destruction of the city by allied forces. They are recalling the English war between the English and the French in the 100-year war. (History isn’t this simple though, France was hardly unified at this point in time. England thought it had a claim in France because its royal family was closely related to French royalty.) By using Joan and her story they imply that the German occupying forces are on the same side as the French people. She was also used by the revolutionaries to represent the glory of France.


Joan still frequently makes appearances in political speeches in France and can be source of controversy due to the adaptability of her image to a variety of causes. Marie le Pen the leader of right-wing political party Le Front Nationale has been called a ‘modern Joan of Arc’ with a mission to free a France under attack.

Joan of Arc looks down on far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen at a rally 2012.

The symbolism is pretty overt here as Marie le Pen gives a speech in 2012 in front of a shining statue of Joan of Arc riding into battle.

Conversely, on the 600th anniversary of her death, Nicholas Sarkozy said,

Joan belongs to no party, no faction, no clan, Joan is what France has singularly, and most universally.

*    *    *

I hope you enjoyed this brief-ish look at Jeanne d’Arc. Look out for a post coming soon about portrayals of Joan in art throughout time and why so many artists insisted on painting her in a dress!


‘Joan of Arc’s Brief Life and Long Afterlife’, Kristi. J. Castleberry, publication of the Robbins Library accessible at

‘Joan of Arc’, Marco Bakker, 2003,

‘Joan of Arc: A Military Appreciation’, Stephen W. Richey, 2000,


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