The tragically short life of Joan of Arc, fifteenth century peasant-girl-turned-visionary-and-military-leader, has inspired countless literary and artistic representations taking wildly varying perspectives on just about every aspect of her character and story. Not least in the catalogue of controversies lies Joan’s adoption of male clothing (think tunics and fab gold armour), and her role as a young woman occupying a position of status independent of her relationships with men – God and the Archangel Michael being, of course, the exceptions.
T.S.Eliot remarked upon watching George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that “[Shaw’s] Joan of Arc is perhaps the greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer, and her place is a little higher than Mrs Pankhurst.” Eliot’s objection to seeking a middle road between saint and strumpet on the grounds of the supposedly pedestrian result of such a route is telling in its reluctance to abandon the conventional but seductive polarisation of women – especially women in power – as the embodiment either of absolute purity or absolute depravity.
Writers in the first couple of hundred years after Joan, when her reputation and story was being codified, negatively and positively, for future generations, can be seen to move with ease between praising powerful women they favoured as pure, and decrying those they disliked as promiscuous, regardless of the facts of their sexual behaviour. Writing in 1558, Protestant John Knox derides Catholic Mary I as a ‘monstrous Jesabel,’ and then only thirty years later Cardinal William Allen claims his ideological enemy Elizabeth I had spawned numerous bastard children, despite her repeated emphasis on her status as a virgin queen. At the same time as Joan’s story was beginning to be experienced by those who had not lived through its events, there was a notable emphasis on women in power as either chaste or depraved, and the influence on her legacy can be observed to have long-lasting effects. Though The Maid of Orleans, a tragedy by Friedrich Schiller, later adapted as an opera by Tchaikovsky, has Joan fall in love with an English soldier, there is no sexual component to the relationship, and those representations of her story in which she is anything other than virginal are exclusively those in which she is the enemy.
Throughout her time as part-mascot, part-military advisor to the French army, Joan wore men’s clothes and her hair short, but artistic representations of her will often give her long, flowing locks, and occasionally put her in a dress, even though her refusal to don feminine clothing was so vehement as to contribute to the charges of witchcraft brought against her by the English. This is indicative of her dedication to male dress and the transgressive nature of her attire, for her accusers but also for later sympathisers. Though Joan herself is notable for her occupation of a space outside of traditional gender roles, fictional accounts of her life stray inexorably towards pinning her to archetypal images of womanhood, irrespective of the more complex, and more interesting, place she forged for herself in a male-dominated society.