Jeanne d'Arc and the Role of Medieval Women

To piece together a picture of the woman

Article from Created by h2g2’s Researchers. 25 February 2003

His scathing criticism of historical analysts appeared in the programme of the French production of The Lark, Jean Anouilh’s play about the trial and execution of Jeanne d’Arc. However, Anouilh was mistaken in this claim: the study of history can be both rewarding and informative.

For example, if trying to explain mysteries is as futile as Anouilh claims, then the story of Jeanne d’Arc would long since have been forgotten. On the contrary, the story of la Pucelle (as she is also known) has been very well remembered in the folk mythology of Western civilisation. The story contains all the elements of a good tale, foremost among them the mystery of Jeanne’s divine inspiration, and her patriotism.

Furthermore, the Maid’s story can be quite useful in offering evidence and explanations of the role of women in European society at the time. The volume of documentation of the life and trial of Jeanne d’Arc is immense, and the literature written about her is equally voluminous. This allows historians to piece together a picture of the woman of the Middle Ages.

Despite his own knowledge of the life of Jeanne d’Arc (he wrote a definitive play), Anouilh overlooked these two very important aspects of historical interpretation. Although perhaps nobody has succeeded in unlocking the mystery of Jeanne d’Arc, the study of her life reveals much important information.

Jeanne d'Arc - a Brief Biography

It seems futile to begin any analysis of the life and times of Jeanne d’Arc without first acknowledging who she was and what she achieved.
To her contemporaries she was known as la Pucelle (the Maid) [1]. Born on 6 January, 1412, to a poor farmer at Domremy in Champagne, she was a deeply religious girl who spent much of her time at church. When aged about 13 she began to hear the voices of what she believed to be several saints – St Michael, St Margaret, St Catherine and others.

These voices told Jeanne that she was to be the saviour of France in the Hundred Years War. ‘You must go! You must go!’ [2] the voices commanded her, prior to her journeys to Vancouleurs to see the dauphin Charles in May 1428 and January 1429. She passed tests set by Charles to establish her validity, and was granted leave to mount a campaign against the English.

Jeanne fought her way successfully to Reims, where Charles VII was finally crowned King of France on Sunday, 17 July, 1429. After a further brief military career, la Pucelle was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her as a prisoner to the English. The English immediately attempted to have her sentenced for witchcraft and heresy.

After a long and drawn out trial at the hands, primarily, of Pierre Cauchin, Bishop of Beauvais, and after being tricked into wearing men’s clothing, Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake on 30 May, 1431. 24 years later, the case was reopened by the French and Jeanne was acquitted.

Jeanne d’Arc’s story runs, essentially, along two strands – nationalism and religion. In winning significant battles for the French army, Jeanne won the hearts of the French people, which has assisted greatly in her remembrance. By claiming to be a prophet [3], and the drawn-out process leading ultimately to her canonisation in 1920, she has drawn on the Catholic Church to keep the tale alive.

In the long run, too, French national mythology benefited; its greatest acquisition was the story and example of Jeanne d’Arc whose astonishing career accompanied the turning of the balance of the long struggle against the English, though few Frenchmen at the time knew she existed.
– JM Roberts, in History of the World, on the Hundred Years War.

Jeanne d’Arc became, posthumously, a French national heroine, symbolising a never-say-die attitude and extreme pride in her country and her King. The result has been an increased historical interest in her story: there have been many women warriors throughout history, but Jeanne d’Arc is remembered for her victories against the English.

In fact, this nationalism will cause Jeanne d’Arc to be remembered indefinitely. In France, the second Sunday in May is a national holiday known as Jeanne d’Arc’s Day [4].

Religious Implications

The religious aspect of the Maid’s life is equally influential in the historic memory of her story. For example, there has been a debate running since she was tested by Charles VII as to whether the voices urging her on were actually saintly. Modern analysts, such as Anatole France, have tried to rationalise the voices, while supernaturalists have tried to claim them as examples of divine inspiration.
The drawn out process of canonisation has also aided the memory of la Pucelle. Although she was burned at the stake on 30 May, 1431, she was only beatified 478 years later, on 11 April, 1909. Eventually she was canonised by Pope Benedict XV on 16 May, 1920. In effect, Jeanne d’Arc’s story remained current for over 500 years, from birth to sainthood.

But while French nationalists and Christians have a specific interest in Jeanne d’Arc, others do not. And yet her story is still read, viewed or told by large groups of the population. The fact that the tale has many important elements is the key to its popularity.

Fundamental to any good story is the battle between good and evil. This is certainly present in Jeanne d’Arc’s life, as the Hundred Years War and her trial provide adequate conflict. The English had been at war with France since 1337, when Edward III claimed the French Throne [5]. The portrayal of the English as invaders hence creates an ‘evil’ impression. Further, Pierre Cauchin’s tactics in finding Jeanne guilty (he said, at one point, ‘We shall have her yet) – certainly cast him in a less than favourable light.

Jeanne d’Arc, on the other hand, is an angelic figure. She was known, even as a child, for her piety, and the fact that she claimed to be God’s messenger must also work in her favour. Of the initial list of 70 charges, 58 were dropped [6]. The Maid’s virginity was also proved, so the positive characteristics of this have been associated with her.

Jeanne d’Arc’s virginity introduces a second important element of a good story into her life: sex. At the time, Jeanne was accused of sexual promiscuity, a charge that was dropped after investigations proved otherwise. However, in recent times some scholars have stated that she was a lesbian. There is no evidence of this, and some state that there is in fact evidence to the contrary:

An even more baffling misconception is the notion that she was a lesbian, despite the fact that this accusation was never even included in the 70 articles against her: if you read through these charges, you won’t find the slightest mention of this issue at all, nor will you find mention of it anywhere in the testimony (Cauchon [sic] accused her of a great number of things, but lesbianism was not one of them).
– Myths and Distortions about Jeanne d’Arc.

The final ingredient that has made Jeanne d’Arc’s life so interesting to modern scholars is mystery. The religious elements aside, Jeanne’s story contains many ambiguities, and the effort to explain these has maintained a focus on the Maid (Myths and Distortions).

The Woman's Place in Medieval France

Even though contradictions exist in Jeanne’s story, it can provide a great deal of historical information. One field of study with which Jeanne d’Arc is frequently associated is the role of women in the Middle Ages. Our knowledge of the life of the female population at the time has been greatly expanded by analysis of Jeanne’s life.

However, many misconceptions still exist about the role of the medieval woman. For example, conversations within the family of the author exposed the belief that women were confined to the bedroom and the kitchen. This opinion comes from stories about knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress, and the concentration on male behaviour in film and literature about the time. Another false belief discovered was that women were not warriors, and that this was one reason that Jeanne d’Arc was executed; for stepping outside her role in this way.

On the contrary, it was often expected that women would take part in battle. The fact that Jeanne d’Arc became a mascot for the French army supports this. Had fighting women been frowned upon at the time, then surely the soldiers would not have supported and admired la Pucelle, let alone have accepted her orders in battle.

Other examples in history of fighting women are not few. Noble women such as Countess Jeanne de Penthiè vre, Marcia Ordelaffi, Jeanne de Belleville, Lady de Châ tillon and Countess Jeanne de Montfort were all active in various battles during the Middle Ages. As Philippe Verdier points out, ‘Such females … fought more fiercely against their vascals than did the siege lords [7].’ This certainly seems strange considering that women were only recently admitted into the modern military, despite a rich heritage of successful combat.

In addition, the fact that Jeanne d’Arc wore specially-built female armour shows not only the skills of craftsmen at the time, but also the confidence placed in Jeanne’s ability on the battlefield. Armour was by no means cheap, and Jeanne’s agricultural background means she could not have paid for it herself. Therefore, someone of considerable means must have purchased it for her – revealing strong faith in the ability of women warriors.

However skilled on the battlefield women may have been, they remained few in number, partially because of the cost, but also because they had so-called ‘womanly duties’ to attend to. Jeanne d’Arc, even as a child, was proficient at spinning and weaving, as well as other feminine crafts. This was a fact of which she was certainly proud, and indeed she told Jean de Metz, ‘I would rather stay at home with my poor mother and do the spinning’.

Such abilities were desirable at the time, because when the economy called for increased output, women would take jobs:

… periods of economic expansion when women were encouraged to participate in public occupations and periods of falling prices when unemployment relegated women to the domestic sphere.
– Stuard, S in Women in Medieval Society.

Female duty to the family was not merely economic. Young women were expected to show the utmost deference to their father. This fact is evident in Jeanne’s early struggle with her conscience before departing for Domremy for the first time: she could not justify leaving her family. Indeed, upon her arrival, she was made less than welcome by Charles’ representative Robert Baudricourt, who commanded the cousin who accompanied her, ‘Take her home to her father and give her a good whipping’.
However, such feminine arts as spinning and weaving did not restrict women to a domestic setting. Often such talents would actually offer the opportunity to participate in artisans guilds, which were, on occasion, entirely composed of women. However, as the Middle Ages progressed, places for women in such guilds became fewer.

Virginity and Marriage

Another interesting aspect of Jeanne d’Arc’s life that can shed light on the role of her contemporary women is her virginity. As pointed out above, the Maid’s virginity was tested and proved. Interestingly, this test must have been common knowledge, as an illustration appears in the marginalia of an early Franco-Flemish Book of Hours.

It was believed at the time that one could not be both a witch and a virgin; that is, virginity was associated very closely with purity. This shows that female sexuality was valued very highly, presumably due to its association with childbirth: ‘There is a connection … between female sexuality, magic, and religion [8]’.

Jeanne d’Arc took a vow of celibacy at the age of 13, a decision which reveals not only her religious nature, but also her knowledge of sex. Although it was a taboo subject in the Middle Ages, somebody – presumably her mother – passed on such information. This illustrates a mother-daughter link common at the time, as well as a need for such knowledge at a young age.

Rules and customs with regard to marriage are often studied by scholars interested in the role of women throughout history. Although Jeanne d’Arc never married, circumstances arising from the vow of celibacy she took reveal some information on the matter.

At the age of 16 the Maid of Orleans was courted and proposed to by a boy from her town. Citing her celibacy as a defence, she turned down his offer, but faced the retribution of her father for doing so. As we have seen, Jeanne had a tremendous respect for the opinions of her parents, so the decision not to marry could not have been taken lightly. But what does this reveal about marriage in the Middle Ages?

Firstly, it shows that the marriage of a girl was a family affair. According to Christine de Pizan, a female, medieval author, there is a danger in ‘entering into any new marriage without the approval and advice of family and friends [9].’ Also, the necessity of the bride’s family to pay a dowry to her husband meant that the family were given significant sway in choosing the successful suitor [10].

Secondly, it shows that chastity and religion are among the only reasons a woman could remain single. As Stuard notes in Women in Medieval Society:

Women who did not marry were considered appropriately situated only when they were cloistered, an enormous burden on the spiritual nature of the conventional orders and houses which existed.

Although Jeanne did not join the monastic life, the fact that she carried out a spiritual mission would suffice.

Exploring the Myth

Contrary to Anouilh’s opinion, the attempt by historians to explain mysteries is neither naive nor foolish. It does not, as he claims, ‘yield nothing, in the long run’. As we have seen, analysing and interpreting the events of the past can be revealing and rewarding.

In the case of Jeanne d’Arc, her life offers the chance to catch a glimpse of the role of women at the time. What she did, or, in the case of marriage, what she did not do, can reveal the customs and attitudes of medieval society. Women were not, as is often assumed, restricted to the household sphere. Quite often women joined the military and, like the Maid, fought bravely. Even their domestic duties were used to gain access to public life, be it through employment or artisans’ guilds.

Even if Anouilh is right, and we will never succeed in unraveling the mysteries of history, then perhaps interpretation of Jeanne d’Arc’s story can tell us something about the modern mind. How is it that a woman who died over five hundred years ago can still interest us?

Whether nationalism, religion or entertainment play equal roles in her memory is a question that will probably go unanswered, but one thing is known for certain. Jeanne d’Arc was a remarkable woman whose story will remain etched in the folk mythology of Western civilisation for many years to come.


  1. Thurston, H Joan of Arc, St.
  2. Evans, D Joan of Arc.
  3. Fraioli, D The Literary Image of Joan of Arc: Prior Influences.
  4. Uhler, S ‘Holiday: In Other Countries’, World Book Encyclopedia vol 9.
  5. Hoyt, R ‘Hundred Years’ War’, World Book Encyclopedia vol 9.
  6. Myths and Distortions about Joan of Arc (Jehanne Darc).
  7. Verdier, P ‘Woman in the Marginalia of Gothic Manuscripts’ in Morewedge, R The Role of Women in the Middle Ages.
  8. Dillard, H ‘Women in Reconquest Castle’ in Stuard, S Women in Medieval Society.
  9. Willard, C ‘A Fifteenth Century View of Women’s Role’ in Morewedge, R The Role of Women in the Middle Ages.
  10. Herlihy, D ‘Life Expectancies for Women’ in Morewedge, R The Role of Women in the Middle Ages.

Article from Created by h2g2’s Researchers. 25 February 2003