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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.