How Cross-Dressing Helped Send Joan of Arc to the Stake

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Joan of Arc is best remembered for leading French troops to victory in the Hundred Years' War. Although many know about the religious visions she began to experience as a young woman, her courageous deeds in battle, and her execution at the stake, fewer know that one of the most damaging charges at her trial had to do with her clothes.

Dressing in a man’s tunic and hose was more than a fashion statement for Joan. When she was born in Domrémy, a village straddling the border between France and the Holy Roman Empire, around 1412, the Hundred Years' War between France and England had already lasted 75 years. The French House of Burgundy, allied with the English monarch Henry V, controlled the northern part of France, while those loyal to the reigning French royalty controlled the south. The French had not achieved a single victory in more than a generation, and their prospects seemed so bleak that in 1420 Henry V and Charles VI signed the Treaty of Troyes, proclaiming Henry as Charles’s successor. The Crown Prince, Charles VII, rejected his father’s decree and declared himself the true ruler of France.

In 1425, a devout 13-year-old Joan first heard the voices of saints (St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch), urging her to lead troops into battle. At 17 years old, she convinced Sir Robert de Baudricourt, commander of a royal garrison, to let her go see Charles VII. While traveling to court, she began to dress like a man.

The prince was skeptical of Joan but desperate for a way to end the war, so he arranged for her to accompany his armed forces. The young woman, clad in white armor atop a white horse, carrying a white banner embroidered with fleurs-de-lis, inspired the downtrodden troops, offering key motivation and helping deliver necessary supplies and reinforcements in the decisive battle of Orléans in 1429. After a series of other victorious battles, Joan helped Charles VII hold his coronation in Reims, standing near him during the ceremonies.

But the war wasn’t won, and the Burgundians captured Joan during a skirmish outside Compiègne. They delivered her to the English for 10,000 Francs, and they then turned her over to an ecclesiastical court at Rouen, which tried her for heresy and witchcraft.

When her captors asked why she wore men’s clothing, Joan replied, “Dress is but a small matter.” But upon repeated questioning, she hinted that wearing female garb imperiled her chastity. (The soldier’s clothing she wore included a complicated series of straps connecting the hose and tunic—much harder to take off than a dress.) When told she could not attend mass unless she wore a dress, she said, “the dress of those who receive the Sacrament can have no importance.”

Her inquisitors disagreed.

After threats of torture and rounds of cross examination, Joan signed a document denying her visions and agreeing not to wear men’s clothes. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, but avoided execution. However, within a few days, possibly after some unwanted male advances from prison guards, but more likely because she didn’t understand what she’d signed and hadn’t been allowed to attend Mass even if she wore female clothes, she returned to the tunic and hose. At the same time, it was discovered that she was still hearing voices. Frustrated by her relapse into heresy—both because she continued to wear men’s clothes and continued to claim hearing voices of saints—the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, decided to excommunicate and then execute her, partly for the heresy of wearing men’s clothes.

The charge was defying the Biblical verse Deuteronomy 22:5, which said that women should not wear “that which pertaineth unto a man.” Cross-dressing was generally frowned upon by medieval church and state, but there’s no record of it being prosecuted or leading directly to a death sentence. Even religious scholars agreed it was sometimes necessary: In Summa Theologica, the priest St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that women wearing men’s clothes were sinful, but said it might be done sometimes “without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive."

Despite the theological wiggle room, Joan’s captors continued to harp on the sinfulness of her chosen wardrobe. During questioning before her second trial, they asked why she resumed wearing men’s dress, and she responded that it was "more lawful and suitable for me to resume it and to wear man's dress, being with men, than to have a woman's dress."

The bishop determined that the devil persuaded her to dress like a man, and declared her a relapsed heretic. Joan was sentenced to death, and at the age of 19, on May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake—reportedly wearing a dress. As a heretic she could not be buried in holy ground, so her ashes were thrown into the river Seine.

Charles VII eventually helped overturn her sentence. In 1449, 18 years after her death, the French recaptured the city of Rouen—and he asked that the heresy ruling be overturned so it wouldn’t tarnish his claim to the throne. In 1456 a Trial of Rehabilitation declared Joan innocent, and in 1920 the Catholic Church canonized her as a saint. She’s now the patron saint of France, soldiers, and prisoners.

Despite the reversal of Joan’s sentence, it would be centuries before women could wear men’s clothes in public without causing a scandal. In fact, a French law forbidding women from wearing pants remained on the books until 2013. The law required Parisian women to ask permission from city authorities before “dressing as men,” and stipulated that they could not wear trousers unless “holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.” Joan of Arc wouldn’t have been pleased; there was no exception for divine missions.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.