How Joan of Arc Was Burnt for Avoiding Rape
At a time when gender-based and sexual violence against women, in South Africa and elsewhere, is being described as a pandemic, St Joan of Arc may serve as a patron saint.
Betrayed and sold-out to the English after her martial and political heroics, she was subjected to a politically-motivated Church trial which condemned her to death for “heresy”. Her crime against the faith? Wearing long trousers.
Starting at Rouen, the seat of the English occupation, on January 9, 1431, the point of the show trial was to eliminate a popular political enemy, preferably while also causing embarrassment to her supporters. A heresy conviction would meet both objectives.
There was no evidence of any kind on which to charge Joan, but that didn’t stop the English and their Burgundian collaborators.
Joan was not allowed a lawyer, and the bench of judges was stacked in the prosecution’s favour. Even the French vice-inquisitor objected to the obvious miscarriage of justice that had been set in motion; reportedly he changed his tune when he was given the choice between keeping his ethics or his life.
As a Church trial, it broke virtually every legal rule. This was a kangaroo court, and yet the illiterate Joan, armed with the truth and holiness, evaded all the sophisticated theological traps set to catch her in a heresy — any heresy.
When the focus on the apparitions she claimed to have had and various crimes she was accused of didn’t work, the court caught her on a point of garments, based on Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment”).
Protection from rapists
While imprisoned (irregularly in the keep guarded by men, not by nuns, as was her right), Joan wore male soldier’s clothing, including hosen (trousers), specifically to protect herself from soldiers who had attempted to rape her.
She refused to hand over these garments because she feared that the court would confiscate them, thus leaving her vulnerable to rapists among the guards.
Joan was right to be afraid. When she was eventually forced to wear women’s dress, she reported that “a great English lord” had entered her cell and tried to rape her.
When her male clothing were returned to Joan — it is not clear whether this was by her request or by force when other attire was taken from her—she resumed wearing them in her cell.
That gave her accusers an opening: she was “relapsing into heresy” for cross-dressing. And with Joan having committed the “heresy” of wearing men’s clothing repeatedly, the court now could impose the sentence of capital punishment.
But had Joan been given a lawyer, he might have pointed out that the Church also taught, as per St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, that cross-dressing could be allowed in some circumstances — for example to prevent being raped.
That threat had been ever-present for Joan, on her travels and on the battlefield. But when there was no such threat, Joan was happy to wear women’s clothes.
Joan’s short hair was also held against her, though that hairstyle probably owed to practical reasons on the battlefield.
Found guilty and condemned to death for wearing men’s clothes to protect herself from rape, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on Rouen’s marketplace on May 30, 1431.
A posthumous papal retrial in 1455 cleared Joan of heresy. She was canonised in 1920, and given the circumstances of her death, she could be invoked in our prayers relating to gender-based violence.
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