Was Joan of Arc Genetically Male?

Published in: January-February 2009 issue.


CONTROVERSY about Joan of Arc’s gender first exploded in 1428, and its shock wave has kept rolling for nearly 600 years. Today, historians and commentators still argue fiercely about Joan. The Roman Church claims her as a champion of Catholic nationalism, while Protestants insist she was one of the first Protestants. A few historians aver that her links with the “bloodline of Jesus” need to be examined. She is variously pegged as heterosexual, lesbian, and transgender/intersex. But all these viewpoints converge on one fact: in 1431, Joan’s male clothing, and her insistence that God told her to wear it, became the pretext to burn her at the stake.

The more I study Joan’s life, the more I suspect she was a case of complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS). If so, she and her contemporaries—given the state of 15th-century medical knowledge—had no idea that this was the case. Joan expressed no interest in changing her gender or passing as a man. She saw herself as a woman leading a soldier’s life in order to carry out her divine mission. How, in a society that was still essentially Catholic, did Joan of Arc reach the dizzying status of a maid in armor and reign there for a whole year, only to be dragged to a horrifying death as a heretic for wearing that same armor? Is there more to her controversy than the story we get from standard history?

Indeed there is. As a few historians point out, Joan was launched into leadership by a powerful ruling family, the House of Anjou, which had no problems with women warriors and protected her as long as they were able. Orthodox Christian historians bend over backwards to avoid discussing Joan’s Angevin connection; many characterize that dynasty as a limb of Satan. Not of noble birth herself, Joan wouldn’t have lasted as long as she did without Angevin mentoring and protection.

Queens in Armor / Two Families in Contrast

By 1200, from their seat in west-central France, the Angevins had muscled their way to the peak of European power. With their English branch, the Plantagenets, they ruled hundreds of thousands of square miles from Ireland to the Mediterranean. Their domains included Provence in southern France—which made them patrons of the cult of Mary Magdalene, who was said to have spent the last years of her life in Provence. The Magdalene became a popular French figurehead for female-friendly dissenting mystical traditions, and the Angevins took her as a patron saint. In turn, that heterodox spirit made the family a hotbed of independent-spirited female rulers—women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie of Champagne, and Margaret of Anjou. When Eleanor (1122–1204) and her armored ladies joined the First Crusade, they were flouting the Church’s prohibition on women wearing men’s clothes. Old Testament law had punished cross-dressing with the death penalty. But after the crusades started, the Church had to recognize that many noble and non-noble women were taking up arms, as men were often gone for years or didn’t come home at all, leaving females to defend their towns and domains. By the 13th century, the Church had tempered its position, with Thomas Aquinas stating in his Summa Theologica that men’s clothing could be worn in cases of dire necessity.

Through it all, the Dukes and Duchesses of Anjou stayed linked to the French royals, the Valois, through marriage. After 1300, they fell out with the Plantagenets over competing claims to the English and French thrones, touching off the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). When Joan of Arc burst onto on the scene in 1428, the French Angevins were on the ropes, struggling to keep the English from grabbing not just the French throne but the Angevin heartland itself.

On the war-torn plains of northern France, the small duchy of Bar was struggling to remain loyal to the French royals. Joan’s family lived in Domremy, a small village in the Meuse River valley, on the “marches” (borders) of the neighboring duchy of Lorraine. Jacques d’Arc was a well-off farmer as well as village doyen or sergeant, making him the second most important man in town. On January 6, 1412, his wife Isabelle brought Joan (“Jehanne” in French) into the world—the youngest of five siblings, including three brothers. Isabelle may have been tended by a local midwife, as male doctors didn’t deal with women’s bodies.

Engraving of Joan of Arc in battle in Le Brun de Charmettes’ L’Orleanide poème national, 1819.
Engraving of Joan of Arc in battle in Le Brun de Charmettes’ L’Orleanide poème national, 1819.

Called “Jeannette” as a child, Joan was a short, sturdy girl with black hair, brown eyes, and a red birthmark behind her right ear. Capable and hard working, Joan grew up doing housework and farm work, and probably learned to ride the big horses of the region well enough to do the livestock herding that was staple to the region. From her mother she learned a smattering of catechism and enough nursing skills to help other families when sickness or childbirth loomed. But the dominant figure in that close-knit family was her father. Joan was a loner, introspective and prayerful—technically a “devout Catholic” but touched by an esoteric and fringy brand of Christianity that crept across the region.

Unbeknownst to Joan, just sixty kilometers away in the duchy’s capital, Bar-le-Duc, her young feudal lord was preparing to be the Duke of Bar—and doing it the hard way, by defending his domain against the English. Worldly, sophisticated, and liberal-minded, René of Anjou would play a key role in Joan’s emergence as a warrior maid. As a native of Bar, Joan was one of René’s subjects.

Many historians haven’t paid close attention to who was related to whom in Joan’s story and how the Angevin network would move her up through tiers of feudal allegiance to the King. René was the second son of Duke Louis II of Anjou. His mother was Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou. Some time in the mid-1420’s, when René was fifteen or sixteen, the duchy of Bar was turned over to René and his young wife Isabelle, daughter of the Duke of neighboring Lorraine. Since René was still so young, the Duke of Lorraine became his guardian and counselor.

The Hundred Years’ War was engulfing northern France as the English pushed their claim, supported by France’s Duke of Burgundy and some of the French clergy. Domremy was in a remote area and so far had been spared attacks, but most of the region’s population hated the “goddams,” as they called the English. Joan evidently shared this passionate patriotism. It was in the mid-summer of 1424, when Joan was twelve, that she began hearing the “voices.”

According to her later testimony, the voices speaking to Joan were those of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and the Archangel Michael, all telling her that God wanted her to lead an army against the English. She was also to see to it that Charles VII, the French dauphin (heir to the throne), was crowned at Reims, the traditional city for coronations. Centuries later, historians would debate whether Joan had supernatural experiences or psychiatric problems—or whether the voices were really human counsel whose identity she was bound to protect. It’s interesting that St. Margaret was a popular patroness of women in childbirth, making her one of the threads in Joan’s story that relate to gynecology.

Joan’s Genetic Nature

Around this time in life, most girls started their menses—often called “the flowers.” But according to one later testimony, Joan did not menstruate. Some historians disallow this statement as second-hand, but I find it plausible, since it came from her steward, squire, and bodyguard, Jean d’Aulon, who was with her daily for a year and said he learned it from the women around Joan—who would have been privy to her “woman secrets,” as they were called. It’s true that there could be several medical reasons why Joan might not have menstruated. But today, with our growing understanding of gender identity, more than one historian interprets d’Aulon’s observation as evidence that Joan was born with CAIS.

If this was the case, Joan had the XY chromosomes of a male but inherited a variant gene that inhibited the activity of androgens. Consequently, she developed as an apparent female, complete with the breasts, body shape, and external genitalia that one would expect. But within the body, an “XY female” typically lacks ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. The vagina is often small or missing altogether. Hence an XY female does not menstruate.

Joan’s mother surely noticed the failure of Joan’s “flowers” to develop. Many village women had some bare-bones medical skill and herbal knowledge, since family health was their responsibility. If Isabelle lacked the expertise to deal with Joan’s problem, she may have turned to a local midwife for answers. Women’s medicine was actually a trade with its own guild. To learn it, according to medievalist Megan Guenther, “Midwives, who were banned from the university system because of their sex, turned particularly to vernacular printed texts, folk remedies and informal apprentice relationships.” During Joan’s time, the most popular text in circulation was called the Trotula.

Fifteenth-century medicine was still hazy about menstruation’s link with fertility. No one knew that women contributed an ovum to conception; they believed that a man’s semen started a baby all by itself. The healing arts operated on a theory first established by the Roman physician Galen (129–200 CE), which held that there were four elements or “humors” in the body—hot, cold, wet, and dry—that had to be kept in balance. While men were considered predominantly hot and dry, women were cold and wet. According to Megan Guenther, menstruation was seen as a natural purgative that relieved women of excess moisture. Problems with menses meant that a woman’s humors needed to be rebalanced. The Trotula detailed treatments to regularize menses. These beliefs may explain why Joan’s lack of menses was mentioned only in passing.

Medieval medicine was also hazy about gender: no one knew about sex chromosomes, or the fact that both men and women carry an X chromosome, making female the default gender. Instead, as Megan Guenther has noted, the Middle Ages “embraced the Galenic notion that women were simply imperfect versions of men.” Isabelle would not have suspected that Joan’s condition might be untreatable, but she must have worried about her daughter’s health and tried to re-balance it with herbal remedies or diet. Many Trotula treatments recommended that medicines be diluted with wine and water. For treatment of amenorrhea (absence of menstruation), they also suggested avoiding rich foods. Later, during her year in the public eye, Joan was seen to avoid rich foods and to live mainly on bread and wine, a diet that fell into the “hot and dry” category (bread was dry and wine produced heat). So Joan’s diet was possibly a long-term treatment in the hope that her menses would some day commence.

Joan had no idea that her “imbalance” might keep her from having children. Indeed, she never intended to stay chaste for life but said repeatedly that she intended to remain a virgin only “for as long as it pleases God.” However, she may have had a profound sense of herself as different from other women.

A Web of Family Ties

In 1425, the war was heating up locally. Burgundian troops finally raided Domremy and drove off the livestock. Joan’s father organized the villagers’ flight to a safer area for a time. Joan and the other women surely pondered the possibility of being raped. Her voices had been advising her to dress as a man to fulfill her military mission—a step that would also have protected her from sexual assault.

By 1427, history was surging toward her meeting with the Angevin family. Her lord, René of Anjou, was the brother-in-law of the French prince that the voices had told her to support as king. Charles VII was married to René’s sister Marie. René’s mother Yolande was already related to the Valois through previous generations. Years before, Yolande had seen a chance for a huge power grab when King Charles VI was overcome by mental illness and his queen, Isabelle of Bavaria, openly allied with the English. The royal couple neglected their children, which gave Yolande an opportunity to seize guardianship of the young prince Charles. Yolande secured Charles’ legal claim to the throne and got him married to her daughter Marie. These strengthened family ties meant that the House of Anjou brought new vigor to the cause of French independence. As both guardian and mother-in-law, Yolande had a huge influence over Charles VII.

Yolande was one of the remarkable women of medieval times. The Société de l’Oriflamme, a historical society devoted to the study of the Middle Ages, says: “[Her] early and strong support of Jeanne d’Arc, when others had reasonable doubts, suggests the duchess’ possible larger role in the orchestrating the Maid’s appearance on the scene.” Beautiful and strong-willed, Yolande had become ruler of Anjou after her husband died. In 1421, as English forces invaded Anjou, Yolande mounted a warhorse to act as titular commander, and her troops routed the enemy at the battle of Vieil Baugé. Now, if she could run the invaders out of France and get Charles crowned, the House of Anjou would recoup some of its old power.

Meanwhile, back in Domremy, a sixteen-year-old Joan finally got up the courage to obey the voices. Afraid that her father would try to stop her if he found out, Joan confided only in her cousin Jeanne’s husband, Durand Lassois, an older man whom she called “uncle.” Joan told him about the prophecy and assured him that she was “the maid from the marches of Lorraine,” and Uncle Durand believed her. The Lassoises lived in Burey-le-Petit, a tiny village just five miles from Domremy, and Joan’s cousin was expecting a baby. So some time in the winter of 1427-28, Joan had a good excuse to stay with the Lassois couple for nursing purposes, thus evading her father’s watchful eye.

In May 1428, her uncle chaperoned Joan on a stealthy trip two miles further, the two of them walking or hitching a ride on somebody’s wagon, to the fortified town of Vaucouleurs. The voices had told her to seek help from the captain of the royal garrison there, Robert de Baudricourt, who would help her to reach Charles VII. He was the first rung of the ladder of feudal protocol that Joan would have to climb.

By then, France was in crisis. The English—with help from the Duke of Burgundy—had overrun almost all of northern France, including the royal capital of Paris. Charles’ ragtag court was on the run, camped at Chinon in the Loire Valley southwest of Paris. Joan could reach him only by traveling 350 miles across terrain occupied by hostile troops. The city of Orléans, a key position in the Loire Valley, was currently besieged by the goddams. If Orléans fell, it would expose Anjou and central France to English invasion. So Orléans had to be liberated at all costs.

Uncle Lassois got Joan an audience with Baudricourt. She boldly told the captain: “The Dauphin will be made King, and it is I who will conduct him to the coronation.” According to the conventional story, Baudricourt told Lassois to take Joan home and box her ears. Evidently, Joan did go home to Domremy for a while—only to flee with her family and other villagers in July, when Domremy was raided again. When they returned, their home was still standing, but the church and half the village had been burned. One winter day around January 1429, Joan slipped away from Domremy alone, walking the rutted road to Burey. She would never see her village again. From Burey she went on to Vaucouleurs, where she stayed with Catherine and Henri Leroyers, cartwrights and the newest converts to her cause.

Meanwhile, as French historian Regine Pernoud points out, Joan had been on Baudricourt’s mind. He evidently reported to the Duke of Bar about the crazy farm girl who wanted to lead an army. Baudricourt was not only René’s vassal but a close friend as well. Duke René may have heard more from a squire in Baudricourt’s service, Bertrand de Poulegny, who had been present during Joan’s interview with his boss. Bertrand was deeply struck by Joan’s passion and sincerity. Indeed, Joan’s stormy meeting with Baudricourt had sent a fierce buzz through the region.

Right away, René’s mind may have jumped to the prophecy. As an educated Angevin, René was steeped in Christianity’s hermetic and gnostic traditions, which the Church condemned as heretical. Merlin himself was said to have predicted, “Ascendet virgo dorsum sagitarii,” freely translated in a later version as “A maid (pucelle) with a banner would descend onto the backs of an army of archers.” “Archers” were interpreted to be the English, famed for their longbows. By Joan’s time, Marie d’Avignon, a minor-league Nostradamus, had added the part about the maid being from the marches of Lorraine. To the battered French, the prophecy offered a straw to grasp at. And it had a special meaning for a young Angevin whose female ancestors had ridden to war.

As one of Charles’ captains, René might also have had a bonus reason for adopting Joan as a figurehead. Warfare was in transition, with less reliance on armored horses and more on infantry and artillery. Infantry meant peasants, of which Joan was one. Perhaps she could re-ignite a fighting spirit in the masses of French foot soldiers, whose morale was in the mud at this time.

At some point in the ensuing months, René may have made sub-rosa arrangements for Joan to get squire training so she could handle a lance and a “courser” (warhorse). Otherwise, her ignorance would make her a liability on the battlefield. Who better than Duke René to make this training happen for her? He was already seen by others as a young paragon of knightly skills. Orthodox historians dismiss the idea that Joan was formally trained, preferring to believe that she miraculously knew how to do everything by “divine inspiration.” To be sure, her stint as a pupil was probably short and intensive. It had to happen some time during that 1428–29 year when she was living with the Lassois and Leroyers families.

Meanwhile, René had alerted his father-in-law, the Duke of Lorraine. In February 1429, presumably at René’s instigation, the elderly Duke summoned Joan to a historic meeting at his capital, Nancy-le-Duc. According to some sources, René was actually there when Joan arrived. He would have observed a stocky, tanned girl wearing the tunic, hose, boots, and man’s hat that were already her trademark. By now, as a bow to the prophecy, Joan was calling herself Jehanne la Pucelle, “Joan the Maid.” Despite her rough appearance, she was supremely self-confident as she talked with the Duke. She scolded him about his adultery, and advised him to go back to his wife.

As he watched the scene, René must have been impressed. This village girl wasn’t easily intimidated—not even by a peer of the realm! At some point, studying her, quasi-heretic that he was, René may have felt confirmation of his own powerful intuition about Joan. According to Tarot scholar Christine Payne-Towler, “The theme of the androgyne or double-sexed magical entity is a subset of Gnostic speculation which harks back to the old Greek idea that before the soul’s ‘fall from heaven’ into a physical body, it had to split into halves, one male and one female, to accommodate the duality of the material plane.” Joan asked the Duke point blank if she could have René and some men-at-arms as an escort to France and Charles VII. The duke didn’t publicly commit to this, but he did give her four francs and another horse.

Back in Vaucouleurs, Joan finally got Baudricourt’s full attention when she prophesied that the French would get clobbered at a major battle developing at nearby Rouvray. When the awful casualty reports reached him, Baudricourt was shaken and finally became a convert to Joan’s cause. As Joan got ready to leave for Chinon, he even gave her a sword. Her retinue now included two devoted squires, Poulegny and Metz, and four other men-at-arms. In the excitement, all the Church’s commands on gender roles were forgotten.

However, the Angevin intrigue developing around Joan had to be kept out of sight. It was important for the public, and for the Church, to believe that Joan’s arrival on the scene was “God’s doing.” So René continued to keep a low profile. But he must have sent a galloping messenger with a long letter to Duchess Yolande, who was at home in Anjou. It was time for his mother to know.

In March 1429, after stealing their way through enemy territory, Joan and her party arrived at Chinon. “Most noble Lord Dauphin,” she told Charles, “ I am come and am sent to you from God to give succor to the kingdom and to you.” In spite of his in-laws’ lobbying, the Dauphin was skeptical. But one afternoon, Joan got on her horse and “coursed” for Charles, demonstrating her jousting skills and amazing Charles’ field commander, Jean Duke of Alençon, who also happened to be cousin to both René and the King.

Now Yolande herself made a grand arrival at Chinon and found controversy exploding around Joan. The court couldn’t endorse the Maid’s mission without some lip service to the Church’s teachings. As British historian Deborah A. Fraioli describes it, liberals already believed fiercely in Joan—as a prophetess, even a female redeemer or messiah, comparing her to Old Testament battle heroines like Judith. But conservatives insisted that Joan was a false prophet, a witch and heretic, deluded by the Devil. Furthermore, since Joan was breaking the Church’s law on dress, she couldn’t be sent from God. So a panel of France’s highest-ranking theologians, including a representative of the Inquisition, gathered in Poitiers to investigate.

While the arguments raged, Yolande made her move on a different front. She and two respected court ladies took Joan to their private suite and performed a medical exam. Virginity wasn’t the only issue. According to Joan’s confessor, Jean Pasquerel, the ladies also wanted to know “how it was with her, whether she was a man or a woman.” If Joan were a case of CAIS, nothing about her external genitalia would have given her away. Yolande reported to the King that Joan was a “true and entire maid.” It was important to establish Joan’s virginity because her enemies were openly calling her a whore, even daring to gossip that she was the lover of René and Baudricourt. After six weeks, the Poitiers panel, having taken a close look at canon law on women’s dress, agreed on a verdict. Joan was a “simple maid sent by God.” What’s more, in cases of need it was permissible for a woman to wear men’s clothes. On Yolande’s recommendation, the Dauphin decided to make Joan the Maid his titular commander.

France was now on a roll. Since the crown was broke, Yolande bankrolled the campaign to liberate Orléans. She armed 7,000 knights and foot soldiers. The suit of armor that Charles gave Joan was crafted by a leading armorer, designed to fit her female body. To fulfill the prophecy, Joan carried her own banner, painted by a Scot who lived in Tours. She had her own staff, household, chaplain, and stable of fine horses. Two of her brothers joined her household. Soon the new army took the field with high spirits. On May 8, 1429, as Joan had predicted, they raised the English siege at Orléans and liberated the city.

Joan went on to lead her troops to several more smashing victories. By now her foot soldiers adored her and fought with all their hearts. The rest of Charles’ captains were also won over by Joan’s courage and charisma. Of her ability to hover between male and female, Perceval de Boulainvilliers, counselor and chamberlain to Charles VII, observed in a letter: “She has an elegant and virile bearing, speaks little, shows an admirable prudence in all her words. She has a pretty woman’s voice, eats little, drinks very little wine. She enjoys riding a horse and takes pleasure in fine arms, greatly likes the company of noble fighting men, detests numerous assemblies and meetings, readily sheds copious tears, has a cheerful face. She bears the weight and burden of armor incredibly well to such a point that she has remained fully armed during six days and nights.” These chameleon qualities appear to have been well tolerated by the fluidly Catholic upper-class society in which she moved.

Now a celebrity, Joan found herself surrounded by admiring female friends and supporters. One notable was famed scholar Christine de Pizan. In her Book of the City of Ladies, the elderly Christine had already championed the idea of women’s right to bear arms; now she had written a fiery paean called “Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc.” This poem, and other Joan-friendly writings, were circulated as royalist propaganda—the blogs of their day.

To quiet the gossip about her relations with men, Joan stayed tight with other women. “She had always at night a woman in her room,” said one eyewitness. Group sleeping was a common practice for both genders. Even in castles, there was no central heating, and human body-warmth offered some comfort at night. Some GLBT historians have seized on this detail as proof that Joan was a lesbian. I find nothing in any account to suggest that Joan had intimate relations with other women.

When Reims was back in French hands, Charles was crowned there on July 17, 1429. Joan’s family, including Uncle Lassois, was in the cathedral that day, dazzled to see their relative at the King’s side with her banner. Her parents had forgiven her. René of Anjou was there as well, and may have smiled to himself at the success of the strategy.

The Fate of a Figurehead

After the coronation, however, things started to unravel for Joan. She still heard the voices, which now revealed that she “would last a year and but a little longer.” Swayed by court cronies who were unfriendly to the House of Anjou, the inconstant King Charles wavered on driving out the “goddams.” Instead, he decided to negotiate with them. Frustrated, Joan slogged onward into the spring of 1430 with loyal support from captains Étienne de Vignolles “La Hire,” John Dunois, and René. They tried to liberate Paris, but failed.

Meanwhile, the English were putting out their own propaganda about Joan’s flagrant violations of gender norms. According to contemporary chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet, the Duke of Bedford circulated a letter that the French king “associates himself with superstitious and damnable persons, such as a woman Joan the Maid of disorderly and infamous life, and dissolute manners, dressed in the clothes of a man.” On May 23, as another battle shaped up outside Compiègne, Joan and a few of her soldiers were cut off during a French retreat. Burgundian soldiers surrounded Joan and dragged her from her horse.

Joan’s capture precipitated a crisis for the French. Letters surviving from the time state that England’s adversaries aimed to save Joan “by extraordinary means.” Some historians insist that King Charles, still under the influence of unfriendly counselors, showed little interest in Joan’s fate, but Yolande and René must have been beside themselves. When word came that the Duke of Burgundy planned to sell Joan to the English for 10,000 pounds of silver, it had to be Yolande who was ready to pay such a huge ransom.

The transaction went through; but first, Joan’s English captors put Joan through yet another ladies’ medical exam. If her menses were noted as missing, no one mentioned it. And once again her virginity was proven—a setback for propagandists who had ranted about Joan’s “dissolute life.” But it didn’t help Joan, who was handed over to pro-English French clerics and inquisitors anyway. Their plan was to discredit Charles VII’s ascent to the throne by convicting the warrior maid of heresy.

Joan was moved to a prison in Rouen, Normandy. She was now very far from the atmosphere of the populist Catholicism that had supported her mission. The next effort to rescue her came during Joan’s trial from late 1430 to the following spring. Several desperate attacks, probably funded by Yolande, were launched at Rouen by La Hire and Dunois. La Hire was the perfect man for the job—a long-time Angevin mercenary who had helped Yolande win at Baugé. But the rescue failed, and La Hire was taken prisoner. Joan was unreachable—deep in a tower cell, shackled to her bed under 24-hour guard and hauled out for daily questioning.

Joan’s prosecutors were so eager to convict her that they ignored many points of due process. At first, the interrogation ranged over many matters, with Joan offering spirited answers. But eventually the prosecutors narrowed to that Achilles heel of hers, the men’s clothing that she was still wearing, and her assertion that God had so instructed her. In the Church’s view, people who communicated directly with God (rather than through priests) were heretics. When asked about this matter, she replied: “I did not take this dress or do anything but by the command of Our Lord and of the Angels.”

Joan knew she was being railroaded. Repeatedly she referred her prosecutors to the 1429 Poitiers panel, which had authorized her mode of dress. But these inquisitors weren’t about to recognize a decision made by people who supported the French king. At one point, she did buckle under the pressure and agreed to put on a dress. But it was a trap—the inquisitors now allowed her to be sexually molested in her cell. Later historians would debate whether she was raped or not. With Joan chained to her bed, it would have been easy to overpower her. But she might have had no vagina to penetrate, and her assailants may have given up. But meanwhile, to protect herself, Joan put the men’s clothes back on.

Her prosecutors now had the perfect excuse to declare her a relapsed heretic. On May 31, 1431, in the marketplace of Rouen, with people watching from roofs and church officials seated in the grandstands, English soldiers hustled Joan to the stake without even a formal sentencing. They had made sure she was wearing a dress. Later that day, Joan’s ashes were thrown into the Seine River.

Soon after that, René was captured by a relative claiming rights to Bar, and he spent the next six years in prison. True to family tradition, his wife Isabelle led an army to try and free him. In 1437, René’s mother finally got him ransomed. Sixteen years later, in 1453, with the English finally driven from France, the Hundred Years’ War ground to an end.

By 1455, as Joan was being acclaimed as a saint by many people across Europe, the Church found itself under attack for the rigged trial, so the Pope authorized a re-opening of the Rouen proceedings. On June 7, 1456, a different set of judges voided Joan’s conviction. It was one of the few times in history that the Roman Catholic Church ate crow.

For centuries, Joan continued to be profiled as a case of divinely inspired cross-dressing. After the French Revolution, with church power overthrown, revisionist writers like Anatole France took a more secular tack on her story. Not until 20th-century breakthroughs in genetics did some historians hypothesize that there may have been more to Joan’s phenotype than met the eye.

Today, putting their own wrinkle on transgender panic, many Christian historians fiercely reject the idea that Joan might have been born with XY chromosomes. As Catholic researcher Virginia Frolick puts it, to posit this is “to explain her life away.” I disagree: whether or not we believe she was divinely inspired, the possibility that Joan of Arc was born as a gender variant only adds to our appreciation of her achievement and her life, which continues to fascinate and mystify almost 600 years later.


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Fraioli, Deborah A. Joan of Arc: The Early Debate. Boydell Press (Sussex, England), 2000.
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Green, Monica H., editor and translator. The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Jones, David E. Women Warriors: A History. Potomac Books, 2005.
Monstrelet, Enguerrand de. Chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet: Containing an account of the cruel civil wars between the houses of Orléans and Burgundy, Vol. 1 (Translated by Thomas Johnes). William Smith (London), 1910.
Pernoud, Régine and Marie-Véronique Clin. Joan of Arc: Her Story. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
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Staley, Edgcumbe. King René d’Anjou and His Seven Queens. John Long, Ltd. (London), 1922.


Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner and several other novels, has written a number of pieces about Joan of Arc, including a chapter about her jousting skills in The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different (2006).