Joan of Arc:
|A statue of Joan of Arc, Rue Tivoli, Paris|
By any standard, the story of Joan of Arc is an unusual one, so surely it is unusual for illustrating how sexual deviance was represented in the fifteenth century. For Joan was put to death for heresy, and was only charged with that because witchcraft was ruled out on a technicality. Joan was a virgin--yes, they checked, twice, in fact—and any good church legalist, and the laity too, knew that witches were never virgins. Joan’s heresy was that she cross-dressed. Twice, for heresy was only a capital crime for the second offense.
The circumstances that brought Joan to ecclesiastical trial for heresy were not about sex. They were about warfare between France and England, with Burgundy, then a country in its own right and allied part time with England. The war in question was the Hundred Years War, a vicious on again, off again set to that just about exhausted both countries just after they had been ravaged by the Black Death in the previous century. The war began in 1337, and in 1428, The French had been just about knocked out. The English had taken most of Northwest France, occupied Paris, and Burgundian territories that had originally owed allegiance to France had seceded and were allied with the British. On top of all that, the English had advanced up the Loire Valley, occupying the breadbasket of France, and invested the last remaining serious fortress in the area at Orleans. The Dauphin was hiding out in the French interior, but his father had died before his son could get coronated in the traditional church in Reims where all previous French monarchs over the last 950 years had been crowned. The English held Reims, and the Dauphin had no real prospects of legitimacy among the French nobility if he wasn’t crowned there. France’s position could hardly have been any gloomier.
|Henry V at Agincourt, 1415|
The English also had their difficulties, however. Many of the recent gains in the war had come from the energetic leadership of Henry V. After destroying 40% of the French nobility in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry V conquered northern France and marched on Paris where he forced the French to terms and married the daughter of the French king, securing the throne of France for his heir. In 1422, however, Henry died from dysentery contracted during the difficult siege of Calais. Henry VI was less than a year old. He had claim to the French throne, but no ability to enforce it. While he came of age, a weak stewardship had struggled to prosecute the war in a desultory manner. They had managed to roll up the Loire valley, but could only throw together a weak investment of Orleans, and couldn’t fully besiege it.
|Jeanne D'Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876) This painting was executed after the French lost the Franco Prussian War (1870-71). Many new cathedrals and religious works were made at this time.|
Joan was born to landed farmers, what passed for a microscopic French middle class in the late Middle Ages. She had no schooling, could neither read nor write, and lived in a part of what is now Lorraine that was remote from the fighting. At 12 years old, 4 years before Orleans was besieged, she first saw visions of several saints telling her to take the Dauphin, who had already been crownless for two years by that time, to Reims for his coronation. In 1427, she prevailed upon the local garrison commander to send her to the Dauphin. Seeing a totally unremarkable, if devout, young girl, he reacted predictably. Miraculous visions were commonly discussed in the Middle Ages, but that did not mean they were common occurrences, and Joan could offer no corroboration. But the next year she petitioned again, and made an unlikely prediction of a military reverse at Orleans. Shortly thereafter the commander got news of the skirmish, and decided the French military situation was so desperate that the Dauphin should make his own determination about Joan’s uncanny claims. So he outfitted Joan with a male disguise and escort across Burgundian territory to Chinon, the Dauphin's residence.
To this day, there is continuing debate about how to interpret Joan’s visions. Analysis of her carefully transcribed statements at her trial strongly suggests she was not psychotic during that period, and showed amazing intelligence and grace under pressure. Suspicions about the political motives for her trial and the hostility of her adversaries make her clarity in the trial transcript particularly credible. Although some of her statements as a military commander sound somewhat high-handed, this was the standard of the day. It is highly probable that Joan really believed her leadership was divinely inspired.
At Chinon, the Dauphin took counsel of Church officials, addressing questions about the authenticity of Joan’s visions and the appropriateness of her wearing male disguise and armor as befitted commanders on the battlefields of the Late Middle Ages. It made no sense to send a commander into the medieval battlefield without armor. Not only were there many edged weapons about, but enemy archers targeted commanders. The proper construction of fitted armor was a lengthy process, so Joan had to wear used armor that had been worn by a man. She was sent to Poitiers, and there her virginity was verified by a Charles VII’s mother in-law. The church officials were sanguine about Joan, noting the authenticity of her faith and simplicity, but they were cagey about her visions. If Joan was going to fight for the Dauphin, it would be on his decision, not theirs. But they did suggest that her performance at Orleans would be the test of the authenticity of her mission. If it was divine, she should prevail. Joan was given arms and armor befitting her station as military commander, and traveled from Poitiers to Orleans with a modest retinue.
|Joan enters Orleans, May 1429|
As can easily be imagined, her arrival outside Orleans on April 29, 1429 with a put the local commanders in a bind. They had been on the defensive since their own earlier aggressive move had turned out badly. A serious reverse here could lose their town and the entire war. She had not brought the substantial force of new troops they thought was needed for safe offensive action. They counseled caution; she demanded action. Without awaiting local permission, she attacked and took one of the English redoubts investing Orleans on May 4. She would attack repeatedly over the next 4 days, eventually fighting a pitched battle for the final redoubt and dramatically returning to lead the final successful assault after removing an enemy arrow from her neck on May 7. That evening, the English forces withdrew from Orleans. Joan had her victory. Her personal leadership and courage under fire were obvious, and undeniable. Despite the total absence of any established battlefield experience, Joan was seen as having saved Orleans and had validated her visions. From now on, the local French forces acted like they were led by God. Joan would lead her army down the Loire Valley, fight several more brief sieges and ended the English expedition to the Loire by slaughtering their longbows, the heroes of Crecy and Agincourt, while they were disorganized in an open field at the Battle of Patay. After a skillful campaign, with no real fighting, Joan liberated town after town. On July 17, 1429, Joan forced the surrender of Reims, and the French heir apparent was properly crowned King of France, Charles VII, after receiving holy anointment with the same special oil that had christened Clovis I, the first French King of the Merovingian Dynasty way back in 496AD when he converted to Christianity. The Dauphin had become the proper king of France. Later Joan would come within a hair’s breadth of liberating Paris when Charles VII cut a deal with Burgundy, forcing her to withdraw.
|The Coronation of Charles VII in Reims, July 17, 1429|
The reasons for Joan’s success as a battlefield commander have also been hotly debated. Her initial success is almost certainly a reflection of the boldness of her beliefs. She was willing to try things that the local commanders had learned would fail through past experience. As she succeeded, her momentum grew. She clearly was personally courageous, and was wounded three times during her campaigns. It is highly unlikely she was an especially formidable swordswoman, the few months she had to practice prior to beginning the campaign would not have been anything close to the experience most nobles had. They trained from an early age in horsemanship, melee weapons, and fighting in armor, which required strength and coordination. However Joan did make good battlefield decisions, had able commanders beside her, and the fighting men believed in her. The French morale and the momentum of her victories had a huge effect on battlefield performance and in the readiness of English controlled towns to surrender. And Joan effectively made The Hundred Years War into a nationalist struggle against an occupying invader, which greatly assisted in the levying of troops and their willingness to sacrifice for the cause.
Despite this favorable turn, the Hundred Years War was far from over. Next year, campaigning against Burgundy, Joan was captured by Burgundian forces on May 30, 1430. They offered customary ransom, which Charles VII ungallantly declined to pay, and eventually they sold her to the English, who lost no time exploiting their windfall. Despite desperate attempts to escape, including a 70 foot jump from a tower onto soft ground, Joan was put on trial for heresy. It was obvious that Joan could not have undone the English cause without supernatural aid. But was it divine or diabolical? Joan’s career as a military commander had lasted less than 14 months.
|Joan and the Bishop of Winchester. Excuse me, who exactly is cross-dressing here?|
In Rouen, the English administrative capital in France, Bishop Pierre Cauchon, an English partisan, put Joan on trial for heresy. Proceedings were delayed while attempts were made to press charges of witchcraft, but Joan was inspected for virginity a second time and found to be intact. Her crime was cross-dressing. The English forced her to abjure cross-dressing, given that the military necessity for it had lapsed given her incarceration. She was then visited in her cell by an English noble who attempted to molest her, and she returned to cutting her hair short and demanded male clothing as a deterrent to any repeat performance. In the meantime, senior English Church officials interviewed her in an attempt to get her to claim her visions were Divine visitations. She steadfastly refused to do this, saying only God knew their true nature, and that her personal statements to Charles VII were protected matters of state she could not reveal in an ecclesiastical trial. The clerics attempted to trap her into admitting that she thought she was in God’s grace, which Catholic theology claimed she was not qualified to know, and was thus an heretical assertion. Joan dodged this with the brilliant response: 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.’ Left with no better alternative, the English found her guilty of recidivism on the cross dressing, and burned her at the stake. Any doubts about the political motivation of this trial were dispelled when, on May 30, 1431 they burned her ashes three times, then threw them in the Seine to avoid the later collection of relics lest the French side try to have her sainted and brandish her bones as religious relics to lead further rebellion against them.
|The soaring modern Church of St Joan in Rouen. The windows were rescued from the Church of St Vincent, wholly destroyed in World War II. The French often removed the windows, thus were these saved.|
Twenty-one years later, the Pope Callixtus III convened a ‘nullification trial’ and the conviction on heresy was overturned on technical grounds. It seems Bishop Cauchon had never had proper jurisdiction. In 1456, Joan was found innocent of heresey. And in 1909 Joan was beatified, and in 1920, canonized. After World War I, and France’s titanic sacrifices in that conflict, The Third Republic and the Roman Catholic Church were looking for new sources of belief. Since then, she has been a patron saint of France, and extremely popular. The Hundred Years War petered out in 1453, with Charles VII having recovered all their territory except Calais. The English refused to sign a peace, but internal dissatisfaction over their collapse in France soon resulted in civil war known as the the War of the Roses.
Popular understandings about witches were a formidable deterrent to variant gender expression in the 15th century, but Joan’s case is unique in that her exploits were so remarkable and politically decisive, that her life as a commoner was uniquely documented. While the logic of cross-dressing as proof of heathenism was pretty thin, local superstitions about magic were far more likely to prove fatal than transvestism. The lives of commoners mattered too little to provoke most sanctions. But if your neighbors already didn’t like you, and you then behaved strangely, witch burnings did happen.
|A Procession of Flagellants by Francisco de Goya, (1812-19)|
The Flagellants were a succession of religious cults that broke out in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Their inspiration was Roman Catholic doctrine regarding penance, which was commonly practiced through Church-sanctioned whipping. When Henry II did penance following the murder of Thomas Becket, it meant he was publicly whipped by church officials. As such, it was an attempt to expiate guilt through suffering.
But with the advent of famines and especially, the Black Death, spontaneous cults arose where self-flagellation was practiced without church sanction. The process was much like copycat suicides. In the face of some little understood stressor, one cult, then many more would spring up and march around for a month at a time, whipping themselves. At first, the Church tolerated the practice, but it soon became clear that dissatisfaction with the Church underlay these cults. In the fourteenth century, the Holy Inquisition descended on several Flagellant groups and burned them at the stake for the heresy of attempting to petition God directly without the proper intercession of Church officials. So unauthorized self-flagellation was first and foremost an issue of social control, not sexuality. By the Fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had mostly suppressed flagellants. The importance of religious dissatisfaction in their ecology probably explains why they did not reappear during the Protestant Reformation, when direct supplication to God became pandemic, and there were plenty of other outlets for hostility to Roman Catholicism.
Nonetheless, the feasibility of whipping oneself into altered states of consciousness was repeatedly demonstrated by many similar rites in other religions, including Greek and Roman Dionysian rites, Native American sun dances, and certain Shiite festivals. Even today, there are some Latin countries including Italy, Spain and the Philippines where extreme believers subject themselves to crucifixion on Good Friday. Some practices are about suffering, and others are to provoke altered states. I am not aware of any widespread modern formal religious observances that combine sex and suffering, but there are specific minority faiths associated with the BDSM community.
|Fakir Mustafa (aka Bob Flanagan) doing a sun dance. Flanagan claimed he used pain to manage his cystic fibrosis to which he succumbed in 1996.|
This phenomenon is not easily explained by a good single mono-causal explanation. The Flagellants arose out of a combination of guilt, acute anxiety, unavoidable suffering due to natural phenomena which were primarily understood in moral terms, and a certain transgressive rejection of formal social conventions, such as Roman Catholic ritual, that ordinarily eased such feelings for most believers. But endorphins clearly played a role in coping with the suffering, and adrenaline and endorphins can easily be imagined to form a kind of palliative to uncontrollable natural events. Perhaps the Flagellants exploited our natural human tendencies to turn passive into active.
Modern and medieval flagellants, like modern BDSM, were subcultures which developed in relation to a larger set of conventional social understandings, and selectively borrowed and re-purposed meanings from them. As such, modern kink has practitioners who enjoy religious play. If it’s in the parent culture, then chances are good that someone is finding a way to turn intense non-kinky stimulation to lustful purposes.
|Ivan the Terrible's hair shirt. I guess that explains his epithet!|
|A modern Chord of St Joseph|
|A metal chain flogger for religious self-mortification.|
|A metal cilice, worn on the thigh. The wearer has considerable control of the discomfort in deciding how tightly to tie the device. Typically the points don't break the skin.|
General Background on Western Civilization:
Diamond, Jared Guns Germs and Steel
Morris, Ian Why the West Rules, for Now Great for understanding systemic causes of Rome's decline.
Barzun, Jacques From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life The early chapters summarize this period. Barzun may be more conservative than suits many readers here, but he is thoughtful and a great writer.
Tuchman, Barbara A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Stops before it gets to Joan, but very well written.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Much of the Joan of Arc segment was taken from various Wikipedia articles. For more on what medieval personal combat really looks like, try: Robin and Marion (1976) Another screenplay by James Goldman, incidentally.
For more on Fakir Mustafa, aka Bob Flanagan, self-styled sites on him are still maintained. He is the subject of a documentary that is not for squeamish viewers: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
For modern tools of religious penance, including the photos ending this piece www.cilice.co.uk
© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, June 2013. All rights reserved.