Cross-dressing, Gender Identity, and Sexuality of Joan of Arc - Historical Context

Historical Context

Life and society in the late Middle Ages was heavily dominated by the teachings of the church. Concerning crossdressing, Deuteronomy 22:5, which states, "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man ..." made crossdressing anathema. On the other hand, there were the guidelines of St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that "... it is in itself sinful for a woman to wear man's clothes, or vice versa; especially since this may be a cause of sensuous pleasure ... Nevertheless this may 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.", thus giving some leeway to whether crossdressing is justifiable under church law in certain circumstances. Schibanoff states that, in modern terms, what church doctrine permitted and what medieval society in general would accept, is not merely cross dressing, as partial or episodic transvestment where the subject's biological sexual identity remains apparent, but passing, where the subject adopts all aspects of the target gender. The condemned were not those who wished to "better" themselves by becoming male, like the female saints, but those who "wear the breeches" or, as Chaucer's Wife of Bath, put on the spurs, but otherwise remain recognizably female.

Vern and Bonnie Bullough note that despite the specific canons against it, one might search the church fathers in vain for overt and unconditional approbations on transvestism. On the contrary, Susan Schibanoff notes that "one version of transvestism appears to have been both admired and encouraged, albeit indirectly, in the legends of female saints who disguised themselves as men to live as monks". As a consequence, Joan's accusers were forced to carefully frame their accusations that Joan retained "nothing about her to display and announce her sex, save Nature's own distinctive marks". That is, unlike the holy transvestites, who totally disguised their sex, Joan had not concealed her anatomy or other "marks" of her biological femininity.

The "holy transvestite" - i.e., transvestite female saint - was a common medieval archetype, and one of the grounds used to defend Joan's dress. St. Margaret, followed the classic story: fearing for her virginity on her wedding night, she cut off her hair, donned male attire, left her husband, joined a monastery, passing herself off as "Brother Pelagius". The devil tested her by framing her for the pregnancy of one of the nuns, and she was driven into exile. She clung to her identity until her deathbed, where she confessed and was absolved of guilt.

In reference to the holy transvestites, Gaunt argues that, "Sexuality is central to the construction of sanctity in the Middle Ages," and that holy men and women are not removed from sexuality, but continue to define themselves through reference to sexuality that has been reshaped and redirected. Gaunt seconds Anson in the description of these stories as "monastic fantasy" that attempts to appease sexual longing by imagining a woman in the monastery who need not inspire guilt; however, the appeasing of the longing is complexly gendered by the apparent masculinity of the subject.

15th century Europe had a significant cultural lore of such saints extending back nearly as far as the history of Christianity. Saint Thecla, sourced from the New Testament Apocrypha The "Acts of Paul and Thecla", was so enraptured with the teachings of Paul that she left her fiance and followed him, dressing as a man part of the time while in his retinue. Thecla's story was very popular and widespread, with depictions of her and dedications ranging from Antioch to Iberia. According to Dekker and van de Pol, "The transformation into a man was a very dominant theme with female saints from the fifth to the seventh century. Saint Margaret, for example, escaped on her wedding night in men's clothes. ... A saint especially popular among the common people in Europe from the eleventh century on ... was Saint Uncumber. She was a Portuguese princess who refused to be married to the heathen King of Sicily, and prayed to God to be saved from this fate. Her salvation was unusual; she suddenly grew a beard. Variations on this theme recur more often ... As always, myth and reality interact, and several medieval women took these saints as their models. The example that first comes to mind here is Joan of Arc." Likewise, numerous legends and tales from Medieval Europe (and, likewise, elsewhere in the world) discuss transvestism and sex change (often miraculous). Folklorist Stith Thompson documents only a few traditional "sex tests" for unmasking men dressed as women, but numerous tests for women, ranging from placing a spinning wheel nearby to scattering peas on the ground to slip women but not men. The latter example is well known from Grimm's Fairy Tales, but can be found in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, and the trick is even attributed to as far back as King Solomon.

Despite these examples, female cross-dressers in Europe were little accepted. The only known case of accepted female gender inversion in Medieval Europe comes from the Balkans, and extends back as far as the 15th century, as noted by a mention in the Kanun. These women could escape the very rigid social rules by declaring themselves sworn virgins, and would dress as men, live as men, and share the same status as them. Families without male heirs could even declare their infant daughters to be men and rear them as boys. Sworn virgins could escape from arranged marriages, and even marry other women. Such a tradition did not exist elsewhere in Europe at the time. Dr. Carleton S. Coon noted the same custom among the mountaineers of Albania, and that under certain circumstances a woman dressing as a man becomes the head of the family and assumes a completely male role.

Bennett and Froide, in "Singlewomen in the European Past", note: "Other singlewomen found emotional comfort and sexual pleasure with women. The history of same-sex relations between women in medieval and early modern Europe is exceedingly difficult to study, but there can be no doubt of its existence. Church leaders worried about lesbian sex; women expressed, practiced, and were sometimes imprisoned or even executed for same-sex love; and some women cross-dressed in order to live with other women as married couples." They go on to note that even the seemingly modern word "lesbian" has been traced back as far as 1732, and discuss lesbian subcultures, but add, "Nevertheless, we certainly should not equate the single state with lesbian practices." While same-sex relationships among men were highly documented and condemned, "Moral theologians did not pay much attention to the question of what we would today call lesbian sex, perhaps because anything that did not involve a phallus did not fall within the bounds of their understanding of the sexual ... Some legislation against lesbian relations can be adduced for the period ... mainly involving the use of "instruments," in other words, dildoes." Crane agrees, commenting on a "penitential doctrine that conceived homoerotic acts but not homosexual identity ... Discourses of sexuality such as fine amor and mystical marriage with God may be less visible now than penitential doctrine, but their effects on subjectivity deserve the greater efforts of recovery."

In the context of the time, Joan was familiar with a long line of female cross-dressers living fully male lives, often at what they saw as God's calling. However, while she may have been aware of the context, she knew that her transvestism, while potentially acceptable to a degree, still carried social risks.

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